‘Write What You Want — But Be Prepared for the Consequences’


I’m reasonably certain that John Ashcroft didn’t recognize himself disguised as the evil high school guidance counselor in one of my novels. But like so much else, this thorny matter requires consideration on a case-by-case basis. In Mary McCarthy’s story “The Cicerone,” Peggy Guggenheim, the important collector of modern art, appears as Polly Grabbe, an aging, spoiled expatriate slut who collects garden statuary. Guggenheim did recognize herself and was definitely not flattered; it took years before the two women were friends again. Write what you want — but be prepared for the consequences.

-Francine Prose, with Leslie Jamison in The New York Times, on the questions a writer asks when using real people and real experiences in fiction and nonfiction. Read more on writing from the Longreads Archive.


Photos: Wikimedia Commons and Flickr

Why Owning an NBA Team is Like Having a House on the Best Beach in the World


Last week the Milwaukee Bucks were purchased by two hedge-fund billionaires for $550 million. In a recent piece for Grantland, Bill Simmons tried to nail down what exactly drives the super rich to acquire NBA teams, a purchase that—at least by the numbers—is often a pretty lousy investment.

Simmons concluded that for many owners, exclusivity and prestige outweigh straight number crunching: “You can’t rationally assess the “value” of anything when ego is involved. What’s the value of sitting courtside as everyone watches YOUR team?” Apparently over a half a billion dollars, even for a losing, small-market team. After all, according to Simmons, “plenty of rich people can buy a plane or an island, but only 30 of them can say they own an NBA franchise.” It’s about supply and demand. As long as the supply in question remains incredibly limited, the super rich will remain drawn to what Simmons billed as “the world’s most exclusive club.” Here’s how he broke it down:

If you pretend the NBA is an exclusive beach on Turks and Caicos, it makes more sense. Let’s say it’s the single best beach in the world, and it can only hold 30 houses. Let’s say some of the houses are bigger and prettier than others, only all of them have the same gorgeous ocean view. And let’s say all 30 owners feel strongly that their investments will keep improving, barring a collapsed stock market or an unforeseen weather catastrophe, of course. Does it really matter if you bought one of the ugliest houses on that beach? Don’t you just want to crack the 30? You can always knock the house down and build a better one … right?

That’s the National Basketball Association in 2014. Who wants to be on the hottest beach? What will you pay? How bad do you want it? Get one of those 30 houses and you can invite your friends down for the weekend, show them around, make them drinks and eventually head out to your deck. And you can look out and watch the sun slowly setting, and you can hear the water splash, and you can hear your friends tell you, “I love the view, it’s spectacular.” Because right now, it is.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Read the article.

What Undergrads Talk About When They Talk About Money: Our College Pick


When administrators, parents, and professors discuss money in the context of higher ed, they mean student loans and tuition. But when students talk money, it’s much more about who’s got it and who doesn’t. For students of modest means at America’s elite colleges, money acts as a barrier to extracurricular or social activities, or even friendships. What’s even more aggravating is that the students who have money can be blissfully ignorant about their peers’ financial reality. College kids are closer to being in high school than they are to being adults, and those social challenges like peer pressure can feel big in the dormitory. Sam Brodey’s article in 34th Street starts an important conversation among students about how to talk about, and how to understand, money as social currency.

Not Enough

Sam Brodey | 34th Street | April 3, 2014 | 8 minutes (2,085 words)

‘The Most Stoned Kids on the Most Stoned Campus on Earth’


Above photo: Not Moppy and Molly


What exactly did 4/20 look like on a college campus a decade ago? In 2004′s “The Fully Baked Adventures of Moppy and Molly,” published in Rolling Stone (pdf), Vanessa Grigoriadis profiled a young couple celebrating at UC Santa Cruz:

The first 4:20 for Molly and Moppy came at 4:20 A.M.—they set the alarm next to Molly’s bed for 4:12, which was enough time to pack celebratory bong loads and snuggle back under the covers. Later that day, after classes are over, Moppy and Molly pass a couple in the middle of a fight, something about who should be taking care of the dog. “It’s 4/20!” Molly shrieks. “It’s a good day, man!” They link up with a couple of friends who are having a long, involved conversation about the etymology of 4/20: Ideas range from a police code fro possession; the number of chemicals in THC; the number of molecules in marijuana; the address of the Grateful Dead’s home in Haight-Ashbury; the date Haile Selassie first visited Jamaica. It’s also Hitler’s birthday and the anniversary of Columbine. “I think it’s a marketing tool for the big pot growers, who harvest on 4/20,” says one guy.

“Crazy, dude,” says Moppy.

Students are swarming into the meadow from every direction. From the top of the hill, there’s a cloud of marijuana smoke hanging just under the tree line, and you can hear the drum circles going and everyone hollering and hugging one another. The guy who had shaved a marijuana leaf and the number 420 into his hair last year is nowhere to be seen, but there’s a freshman dressed up like Cheech and a much-discussed twelve-inch joint. Molly, who’s wearing a fuzzy white Kangol hat that looks like a snowball, dropped a few of her cupcake on the way, which is a nice ground-score for someone, but she passes around the rest to Sasha and some bongo players. “I just got here,” says Sasha. “We were at home doing solar rips [lighting a bong with a magnifying glass and sunlight], trying to tell from the angle of the sun what time it was. We thought it was 2:30, and it was almost four, dude.”

Four-twenty itself is like New Year’s at a party without a TV. People start spontaneously hugging. “My fuzz is attracting weird frequencies,” says a guy with a white fuzzy hat identical to Molly’s, and they rub heads together. At 4:25, a cop car pulls into the meadow at about a mile an hour. The cop gets out and stands next to the car. There’s only one of him. But half the people in the meadow start streaming out nonetheless, like a videotape run in reverse. “Run for the woods!” Molly screams.

(Full story available as a PDF from vanessagrigoriadis.com)


Photo: Flickr, US National Archives

‘We Are Made of Star Stuff’


From New York magazine and The Cut, an essay from Sasha Sagan about the lessons that her father, astronomer and author Carl Sagan, taught her. Here, Sasha recalls what her parents told her when she went through what she describes as a “mini existential crisis”:

“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.

Read the essay.


Photo: Scott Cresswell

Drug Life: A Reading List


1. “Finding Molly: Drugs, Dancing and Death.” (Shane Morris, Bro Jackson, September 2013)

Every batch of Molly is different. And that’s what makes the pills or powder you’re buying at your local music festival so dangerous. Shane Morris offers a first-person account of his time in both the EDM and Molly industries.

2. “Is Marijuana Withdrawal a Real Thing?” (Malcolm Harris, Aeon, January 2014)

When the author takes a smoke break after five years, his dreams are disturbing enough to send him looking for answers in medical journals and user forums.

3. “The New Face of Heroin.” (David Amsden, Rolling Stone, April 2013)

In case you’ve missed the swathe of NPR reports, Vermont is a plaid-clad heroin hotspot, “conjuring up images more commonly associated with blighted inner cities than a state with the nation’s fifth-lowest unemployment rate and a populace that is 95 percent white.”


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When Instruments Are Replaced by Computer Software


At Oxford American, writer and musician Ginger Dellenbaugh looks at how the steel guitar established itself as an American instrument, and why there may be so few people mastering it today:

Recently, I met a friend at his studio in East Nashville to listen to some of his new demos. The second track featured a beautiful pedal steel solo.

“Who played that?” I asked.

“No one,” he answered, pulling up a window on his computer. “It’s Wavelore.”

Wavelore is an online company that offers software for the replication of what, until now, were instruments that were difficult to convincingly reproduce digitally: dobro, pedal steel, theremin, zither. The Wavelore Pedal Steel Guitar is a software library that uses single note samples, instead of pre-recorded licks or patterns, to let you design custom pedal steel guitar sounds without ever getting near an actual instrument. If you play around with the pitch bender and add some reverb, it is difficult to distinguish the software from a real player when it’s set into a track. There is even a function that distinguishes between blocking (muting) a string with a pick or with the side of your palm. The sounds I had thought were played by a session player were, in fact, oblong black boxes on my friend’s monitor where the pedal steel line was represented by constantly morphing, nebulous green wisps. Technology has finally caught up with the complexities that had protected the pedal steel from digital replacement: one can now get an authentic pedal steel sound without using a real player.

Read the story.

Photo: Graham Hellewell

Darfur and a ‘Web of Lies’

The web of lies that various parts of the United Nations has woven about Darfur is vast. Orwellian doublespeak deliberately disguises reality and distorts words. U.N. reports on the region, for instance, typically and euphemistically use “air strikes” for indiscriminate bombing of civilians, “sporadic clashes” for continuous war, and “sexual and gender-based violence” for systematic rape. As for their references to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s “regular forces,” I often wondered how there could be anything “regular” about the hordes of fighters who operate lawlessly and jointly with the Janjaweed death squads. They make no distinction between civilians and combatants, bomb children and terrorize adults, rape women, and loot and burn everything they find to the ground.

-Former UN spokesperson Aicha Elbasri, in Foreign Policy, on the failure and corruption of the UN/African Union mission in Darfur. Read more on Darfur.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week


Photo by Jessica Rinaldi / Boston Globe staff


Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle and Readmill users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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This Book Is Now a Pulitzer Prize Winner: An Excerpt from ‘Toms River’ by Dan Fagin

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Dan Fagin | Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation | 2013 |  9 minutes (2,153 words)

This year’s Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction was awarded yesterday to Dan Fagin, an NYU science journalism professor, for Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. According to the Pulitzer committee, Fagin’s book, which chronicles the effects of chemical waste dumping on a small New Jersey community, “deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town’s cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution.” Thank you to Fagin and Bantam Books for allowing us to reprint the excerpt below.


It is no small challenge to spend long days and longer nights in a place where children die, but Lisa Boornazian had the knack. She began working at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1991, during the summer of her senior year of nursing school at Villanova University. The following year she found a home in the cancer ward at CHOP. Back then she was Lisa Davenport, and not much older than some of her patients. “I loved working in oncology. I saw plenty of nurses who came to work at the unit and it wasn’t what they expected. They just couldn’t stay. But I loved it,” she remembered. The ward was a surprisingly lively place, where little kids dashed down the wide hallways with their wheeled intravenous stands clattering beside them. The older children, though, were much more difficult to deal with. “The teenagers had a grasp of death, and what the diagnosis meant,” Boornazian said. “The younger kids mostly had no idea.” Those with brain or bone cancers faced long odds. Survival rates were better for children with blood cancers, principally leukemia and lymphoma, but their treatments took many months and were brutal: chemotherapy, often followed by radiation and bone marrow transplants.

The work shifts on the oncology ward were organized in a way that made it impossible for the nurses to keep an emotional distance from their assigned patients, since the same three or four nurses would take care of a child for months on end. Their relationships with parents were equally intense. Many parents practically lived in the ward and went home only to shower and change clothes before rushing back. The nurses worked under the unforgiving gaze of mothers and fathers driven half-mad by lack of sleep and the sight of their children enduring a pitiless cycle of excruciating needle sticks, nausea attacks, and dressing changes. Parents would frequently take out their anger on the nurses, and the nurses who lasted on the ward learned to respond without rancor or condescension. The long shifts, especially the sleepless overnights, created an intimacy among nurse, parent, and child that no one else could share—certainly not the doctors and social workers, who were mere transients by comparison. The nurses were family. And when it was time for a funeral, the nurses did what family members do: They showed up, and they mourned.