Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)
1. My Ex-Gay Friend | Benoit Denizet-Lewis | New York Times Magazine | June 16, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,585 words)
The writer visits his old friend, a onetime leader in the gay community who renounced his former life and now lives as a straight Christian man in Wyoming:
“He looked the same as I remembered — tall, lean, blond, boyish and handsome in a Nordic ski instructor kind of way. I was nervous, but as he approached I decided to lean in for a hug. Michael, though, pre-emptively stuck out his right hand. ‘Hello, Benoit,’ he said, standing stiff and upright, clutching what I could now see was a Bible.
“Though Michael had agreed to let me visit and write about him, he was skeptical about my motivations. ‘Why are you here?’ he asked minutes after we sat down in the cafe, which was decorated with Christmas lights and staffed by a young waiter attending the Bible school.
“It was a good question. Had part of me come to ‘save’ my old friend from the clutches of the Christian right? Though I don’t doubt that sexual attraction can evolve, I was skeptical of Michael’s claim of heterosexuality — and I rejected his argument that ‘homosexuality prevents us from finding our true self within.'”
2. The Brain on Trial | David Eagleman | The Atlantic | June 15, 2011 | 27 minutes (6,992 words)
The more we understand how the brain works—and how changes to its chemistry can cause people to commit horrible acts—the murkier things might get when trying and convicting criminals:
“The crux of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?,’ because we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person’s biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.
“While our current style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.
“Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise.”
3. Life After Zionist Summer Camp | Allison Benedikt | The Awl | June 14, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,624 words)
A journey tracing the writer’s changing beliefs (and the people who influenced them)—from youth summer camp with other Jewish kids in Wisconsin, to adulthood with a husband who’s not Jewish and combative with her family:
“I do well on my LSATs but have not actually applied to law school, so clearly I am not becoming a lawyer. Through sheer force of will and also nepotism, I get a magazine job. I start flirting with John, one of the few staffers who isn’t Jewish (after flirting with another of the few). He flirts back! My sister visits New York and I blow off a Shabbat dinner in her honor and instead get drinks with John. This time it lasts.
“John fills my head with allllllllllllll kinds of bullshit. Stuff about the Israelis being occupiers, about Israel not being a real democracy, about the dangers of ethnic nationalism—a term I really hadn’t heard applied to Israel before. (Okay, fine, I hadn’t heard it at all.) My parents worry that I’m being brainwashed. We get in huge fights on the same topic over and over again and have terribly awkward dinners where John insists on bringing up Israel and pissing off my Mom. I act as moderator and it is the worst. John buys every book about Israel that’s ever been published, and then reads them all so he can win any argument with my family. What he doesn’t realize is that my parents don’t do facts on this issue. They do feelings. Israel is who they are. Gradually, and then also all of a sudden, it’s no longer who I am—and I am angry.”
4. Maltreated and Hazed, a Soldier Is Driven to Take His Own Life | Megan McCloskey | Stars and Stripes | June 7, 2011 | 16 minutes (4,232 words)
An Army investigation into the hazing of Army Spc. Brushaun Anderson concluded that he was subjected to “cruel, abusive and oppressive treatment” before he committed suicide New Year’s Day 2010. But his commanding officers remain in leadership positions:
“The colonel recommended that they all get General Officer Memorandums of Reprimand, a form of administrative action that would likely keep them from being promoted to the next rank. He also recommended Bruckner and Devos be relieved of duty for cause, and they were reassigned to different positions within the battalion while the unit was still deployed to Iraq.
“But the memos of reprimand didn’t stick for Fisher and Amaral. Although the reprimand was ordered by Maj. Gen. Terry Wolff, the battalion commander worked to get the men off the hook. Lt. Col. Heyward Hutson said he went to bat for Fisher and Amaral because he ‘didn’t think they were culpable enough to end their careers over it.’
“The memos of reprimand were downgraded to more minor letters of concern and weren’t filed in their permanent records. Since they have each moved on to new assignments, their records are unblemished, and both can move up the chain of command without anyone knowing about their misconduct.”
See also: “The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War” (Jennifer Senior, New York Magazine, Feb. 2011)
5. The Kingdom and the Power of David Carr | Tom McGeveran | Capital New York | June 17, 2011 | 27 minutes (6,882 words)
An examination of Carr’s work, his personality and his true role at The New York Times, coinciding with the release of the new documentary Page One:
“In his memoir, Night of the Gun, in which Carr reports out through secondary sources the period in his life when he was under the influence of drugs, he talks about his current status in the universe: “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”
“This is one version of David Carr, which he endorses: a veteran of the alternative newsweekly scene, and the media-focused Web 1.0 craze; a former crack addict and single father on welfare who has written a memoir all about it without sparing himself, who tweets with abandon, moves comfortably among the paper’s enemies at dinners, parties and media events; a journeyman reporter who is content to have the ear of the executive editor and the cub reporters alike on an informal basis, grateful as he is to have the job he has.
“It’s not wrong, but it’s not complete. It doesn’t begin to hint at his influence, and the way in which he projects the power of his institution. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that to the industry, David Carr is the battle-hardened face of The New York Times, that kind of zealous convert every clerical magisterium (and the top of the Times masthead is a sort of Vatican) wishes for but could never intentionally create. He is its most important champion.”
Featured Longreader: Jim Kelly
Jim is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair
“As cranks go, Joseph Epstein is unsparing and amusing, and both traits are on display in his review of the latest book by Stanley Fish, no mean crank himself. The review is a takedown of the first order, though I believe the book is better than Epstein says it is. The real subject of the piece is what makes a good writer, and on that front Epstein’s advice is pithy, subtle and delicious.”
Heavy Sentences Joseph Epstein | The New Criterion | June 2011 | 14 minutes (3,424 words)