Longreads Best of 2014: Our 10 Most Popular Exclusives of the Year

Exclusives

This year, Longreads worked with a group of outstanding writers and publishers to produce original stories and exclusives that hadn’t been previously published online. It was all funded with support from our Longreads Members. You can read them all here.

Here’s a list of the 10 most popular stories we published this year. Join us to help fund more stories in 2015. Read more…

California’s Water Crisis: A Reading List

Photo: Owens Lake, Greg Balzer/Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

When it finally rains, it pours. With all the focus this week on the “storm of the decade,” it’s easy to forget that California has experienced its most severe drought in the last 1,200 years. In fact, growing up in California, everyone always told me to conserve water — from my parents to my teachers to my camp counselors. We’re in a drought, they would say. As a child, I could never quite grasp what that meant, as I lived in a suburb on the San Francisco Peninsula, seemingly far from the regions that relied on water to live and work, to produce the crops we ate — that I ate.

Here are five perspectives on California’s water war, from one journalist’s report from the farms of the Central Valley to an ever-resonant essay on water by Joan Didion, written 35 years ago.

1. “Zero Percent Water.” (Alan Heathcock, Matter, September 2014)

Alan Heathcock travels to the Central Valley: one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world — and ground zero of the water crisis. In his “tour of destruction,” he meets owners and workers on century-old family farms and orchards, documenting the stories and hardships of a community struggling in one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. As one couple, living on farmland for 38 years, says: “This is our broken dream.” Read more…

Necessary Roughness: Our College Pick

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Journey Bailey played football for years and, after one concussion too many, came to in a hospital bed with a subdural hematoma. In his searing essay, Bailey writes about a football culture that kept him from revealing his symptoms to coaches who downplayed the seriousness of concussions. The power of Bailey’s writing comes from his voice. He’s a football player talking to other football players. He’s not a doctor or a concerned parent or an aging former athlete. He’s a a guy who speaks the language of locker rooms and long school-bus rides to away games. “[T]he next time you’re out on that field pushing for that first down or tackling that running back and you start to see stars, feel dizzy, or develop a headache that won’t go away, don’t ignore the signs in order to stay in the game,” he urges his fellow players. “Think about having tubes shoved down your penis. Think about having dents in your head. Think about crying yourself to sleep while trying to decide whether or not to buy a shotgun off of Craigslist and blow your brains out.”

Knock to the Head

Journey Bailey | The Huffington Post | December 8, 2014 | 10 minutes (2,408 words)

The Gothic Life and Times of Horace Walpole

Horace

Carrie Frye | Longreads | December 2014 | 16 minutes (4,064 words)

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As a child, Horace Walpole frequently heard it said of himself that surely he would die soon. Born in England in 1717, the last of his mother’s six children, he was fragile and prone to illness from birth. Two siblings before him had died in infancy, and so in the family order it went: three older children, loud, healthy and opinionated; two grave markers; and then young Horace toddling up behind—half child, half potential grave marker.

Naturally, his mother, Catherine, spoiled him. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was the King’s prime minister. This often kept him away from home, as did a long-time mistress who acted, more than his wife did, as his hostess and companion. For her part Catherine had her own dalliances. It was that sort of marriage. The Walpoles of old had been middling country gentry—ancient name, quiet prosperity—before Robert had come along and, through a blend of shrewdness and charisma, wolf-halled his family into riches and the nobility. When Robert was young, the hope for him was that he might one day make a fine sheep-farmer; he died the first Earl of Orford, after a 20-year run as prime minister, a colossus of English history.

His son Horace worked himself into history another way. In his early 30s, he bought a box-shaped house—just an ordinary sort of house, sitting on a bit of hill in a fashionable country suburb—and decided to transform it into a Gothic castle. Room by room he went. Stained-glass window of a saint here, ancient suit of armor stowed in a wall recess there.

Then one summer, sitting in his castle’s library, he wrote a novel called The Castle of Otranto. Its setting was a medieval castle, not unlike his own mock-castle in many of its details, but grown, in the way of novels and dreams, into something grand and imposing. There the villainous Manfred schemes to block the return of the castle’s rightful heir, a young man named Theodore. Commonly pegged as the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto turns 250 this year. It’s a strange, great, terrible, campy novel, slim but with some paragraphs so long and dense that you have to slash your way through. If Gothic literature had a family tree, its twisted gnarled branches chock-full of imperiled, swooning heroines and mysterious monks, with ghosts who sit light on the branches, and Frankenstein’s monster who sits heavy, with troops of dwarves, and winking nuns, and stunted, mostly nonflammable babies, at its base would sit Horace Walpole’s Castle. (Presumably with some lightning flickering dangerously nearby.) Read more…

A History of Stealing Music From Record Club Memberships

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There was nothing like the elation of getting that first shipment of records for essentially nothing — but that ecstasy was quickly offset by the anxiety of finding out that you owed $34.74 for those Sir Mix-A-Lot and Crash Test Dummies discs you never asked for. Now you were on the hook: either you could fulfill your obligation, or start ducking collection agencies.

Unless, of course, you could find a way to cheat the system. For a large contingent of the record-club membership, scheming a way to get more free records — usually through fake accounts and multiple addresses — was the ultimate caper. Everyone had a friend of a friend who had supposedly done it: signing up using a false name, or having the records sent to a conspirator’s address. After all, in the pre-supercomputer age, it wasn’t hard to stay one step ahead of Columbia House’s detectives.

The patron saint of the records-club schemers would probably be Joseph Parvin. In 2000, the 60-year-old was prosecuted for having received, between 1993 and 1998, nearly 27,000 CDs, using over 2000 fake accounts and 16 P.O. boxes. All told, he bilked Columbia House (and rival BMG) out of $425,000 of product, selling them at flea markets. For anyone who was paying attention when his arrest made headlines at the time, it was kind of like finding out that Paul Bunyan is real — someone actually was able to cheat the system the way everyone dreams of.

- Stealing music didn’t originate with the internet. In the era of subscription vinyl, Columbia House records club ruled—until the recording artists revolted and the medium evolved. Read Daniel Brockman & Jason W. Smith’s take at The Phoenix.

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‘Good Girls From Good Families Don’t Write About Sex’

Photo: Peter Rivera

In the Pakistan I returned to, control was focused on preventing the unmarried from gaining sexual knowledge or having pre-marital sex. Because sex outside wedlock is illegal in Islam, Pakistanis—Muslims everywhere—form entire morality enforcement industries to make sure the genders are kept separate in order to avoid temptation. Thus the “concerned citizens” telling me to wear long-sleeved apparel only and cover my chest with a dupatta. Everything is everyone’s business, and those of us girls who were curious about sex were suspect because good girls from good Muslim or Pakistani families do not even think about sex. And they certainly do not write about sex.

One day in the late 1990s after I’d married and moved to the U.S., I was reading a short story in a literary journal when I came upon the word “vagina.” I slammed the journal down. My stomach churned, my cheeks flushed, I was dizzy. My reaction perplexed me. After all, a vagina is simply a female body part, so why was I mortified? Iqbal’s genie, who I’d thought long excised, seemed to have only been buried and now leapt to life. I decided I was going to write through my discomfort and shame and battle both the genie’s censorship as well as my self-censorship by writing a story with “vagina” in the very first sentence. And so was birthed Papa’s Girl, a story set in the brothels of Bangkok, where a young boy is witness to his father’s dallying with a child prostitute and is consequently traumatized for life. It eventually appeared in the anthology A Letter from India.

- Soniah Kamal dared to read—and then write—literature considered explicit by conservative Muslim society. The backlash was intense. Read more from “Girls From Good Families” at The Butter.

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Pack Your Bags! Five Stories About Why and Where We Move

Photo: TheMuuj
Photo: TheMuuj

Last week, I became Someone Who Lives in Sin with Her Boyfriend in a Downtown Apartment, whereas before I was Someone Who Chose to Do a Service Year in Baltimore and Therefore Lives with Her Parents Long After. Luckily, my parents live 20 minutes away; circumstance leads me to move in spurts, a box here, a shelf there. My new place is lovely—third floor, historic, quirky—and frustrating, but it is mine (ours), and no one else’s, and there is power in something coming true that I thought, in my darkest moments, might never happen. Moving is on my mind, so here are five essays about relocating, repacking, and rearranging.

1. “Moving For Love: The Modern Relationship Milestone.” (Ann Friedman, The Cut, April 2014)

From Mars to Madison, Wisconsin, “following” your partner across town or across the country can foster resentment or strengthen your relationship. Ann Friedman, one of my favorite journalists, explains how shifting societal norms and evolving technology encourage folks to take the plunge or remain long-distance.

Read more…