The Longreads Blog

Why We Resist: Seven Stories About Protest

Photo: Leslie Peterson

I’ve found it hard to think of little else other than our country’s future, by which I mean the futures of my friends of color, my queer friends, my disabled friends—the list goes on. I am grateful for Twitter, where writers and activists I admire remind me that what is happening is not normal, that we must resist as long as it takes. There are stories here about the Native-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, folks standing up to Donald Trump and his white supremacist cronies, and prisoners striking against their miserable living conditions in a racist system. As journalist Masha Gessen writes, “The citizens have posted guard.”

1. “Why We Must Protest.” (Masha Gessen, LitHub, November 2016)

Masha Gessen is one of the writers I’m thankful for. Yesterday I read her essay in the New York Review of Books, “Trump: The Choice We Face.” Gessen writes about her great-grandfather, a member of a Nazi-appointed Jewish council in his home ghetto, relating his position to the complicity we Americans may come to understand sooner than we think. I cried as I read. The NYRB essay led me to the one I’ve highlighted here, where Gessen examines and defends protest for the sake of protest. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo: DarkoStojanovic

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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Hidebound: The Grisly Invention of Parchment

Fresco of the Last Judgment, with animal skin. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Fresco of the Last Judgment, with animal skin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Keith Houston | The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time | W. W. Norton & Company | August 2016 | 18 minutes (4,720 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Book, by Keith Houston. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

To an ancient Egyptian of the third century BCE, the rolls of papyrus on which the country recorded its history, art, and daily business would have been of all-consuming importance. Scrolls made from papyrus were the medium for hundreds of thousands of books lodged at Alexandria’s wondrous library, and blank papyrus sheets were one of the chief exports to Egypt’s friends, allies, and trading partners across the Mediterranean. But papyrus’s 3,000-year monopoly was about to come under threat. Invented by Egypt’s upstart Hellenic neighbors and made from animal hides at great cost in sweat and blood, parchment was smooth, springy, and resilient where papyrus was rough, brittle, and prone to fraying. Its rise at papyrus’s expense, however, had little to do with the ergonomics of its use or the economics of its manufacture and everything to do with ambitious pharaohs who ignored the cardinal rule of military leadership: never get involved in a land war in Asia. Read more…

Geek Love: On Nerditry as Salvation in ’70s Small-Town Canada

Photo by Benjamin Esham CC-BY SA 2.0
Photo by Benjamin Esham CC-BY SA 2.0

When Tom became sick in the winter of 2003, we revisited the subject of quantum entanglement. It was early winter, and we sat in his small, comically messy apartment in Toronto, surrounded by jagged lightning-bolt towers of piled books. Dead insects and tendrils of cobweb and cat dander were heaped up in giant fuzzy swaths along the baseboards; the carpet erupted with geysers of dust at the slightest touch. The windows admitted only a diffused glow even at midday.

He wanted me to understand the concept of entanglement — how, once two subatomic particles have been part of the same nucleus, even if they’re subsequently separated by an enormous distance, they remain in a kind of sympathy with each another. A change in one produces an instantaneous change in the other. The notion captures the attention of quantum-physics enthusiasts because it suggests a kind of indivisibility of matter. It also seems to contradict Einstein’s insistence that nothing, not even information, can travel faster than the speed of light.

At The Walrus, Kevin Patterson writes on how his fraternal twin brother embraced nerditry to navigate the homophobia of small-town Canada in the ’70s.

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Truther Love

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad
Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | November 2016 | 18 minutes (4,602 words)

 

She named her avatar DancingDark after a Lars von Trier movie and Björk, a beloved singer. DancingDark isn’t much of a showoff. “Super skinny. Nice, straight teeth,” she tells me. “My mom’s called me a radical, my dad’s called me a conspiracy theorist, none of my friends even know what I’m talking about.” DancingDark and I talk via Skype, but I can’t see her because she has taped-off the camera on her computer. She is pretty damn certain that the American government is spying on her. Whenever she mentions a certain country (which, for obvious reasons, she asked me not to name) her computer crashes. DancingDark is proud of her intellect. “I’m an intelligent being and I want to learn and be intellectual. That’s more of my foreplay than just being dirty online.”

Witty and personable, DancingDark’s frequent giggles easily turn into tears. As a Truther, the 37-year-old is committed to doubting “mainstream narratives.” When 9/11 happened, things just didn’t add up. There were suspicious delays in the media coverage and some dude down at the World Trade Center mumbled, “Bin Laden, Bin Laden…” Is it possible that the American government had staged the attack to legitimize its invasion of Iraq and take all their oil?

DancingDark is wise to other cons, too. When she thinks climate change, she thinks chemtrails. While the “mainstream media” claims that the crisscrossing lines left behind by planes in the sky are nothing more than contrails—streaks of frozen vapor produced during flight—DancingDark knows better. Global warming is fabricated by the government—“geoengineering above our heads.” Why? “Possibly to push carbon taxes.”

The only attractions in the village where DancingDark runs a one-woman aromatherapy cleaning business are the weekend rodeo and the local Tim Hortons. The small Canadian farming town also houses a mental institution. “Half of the people here can’t even read,” DancingDark says. The Fentanyl problem in town has recently been replaced by a meth problem, and when she passes someone in her village she says she can never be sure whether the person is a drug addict, a religious nut, a mental patient or a combination.

DancingDark has been lonely for what seems like an eternity. In pharmacology school, they were trying to teach her how cancer is cured with medication and surgery. “You just spend money on patients and you make them worse, which means more money,” she says. The system is set up for big corporations. “I couldn’t stomach it and just walked out.” It was the year 2000, and she was 20 then. One year later 9/11 happened, and DancingDark knew right away that “something fishy” was going on.

Until last year, DancingDark had at least one person whom she could talk to. “My friend could tell Illuminati symbolism right away and we could joke about it,” she says, referring to the purported secret global elite believed to control the thoughts of the credulous masses. When her friend hanged herself, there was nobody left whom she could trust fully. “I lost a lot of friends,” she tells me amidst tears.

After a period of depression and grief, she put herself out there again. An acquaintance told her about Awake Dating, a new, free dating website for Truthers and other conspiracy theorists, and DancingDark didn’t waste any time joining.

In many ways Awake Dating, which launched last April, is similar to other dating sites. It allows DancingDark to put up her photo, chat with others, and list her interests: 9/11 Truth, Not watching TV, Ancient Alien Theory, Social Conditioning, Megaliths, the New World Order and False Flags; the latter describes covert operations by the government  designed to mislead the masses and hide ulterior motives. (Truthers believe that 9/11, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting and the terrorist attack at an airport in Brussels were staged—false flags.) In her personal statement DancingDark confesses that her “mainstream weakness” is Game of Thrones. “I’ve seen several UFOs😮 I love to smoke weed but really don’t care for alcohol at all.” Her statement ends, “Oh and this is important!! I don’t want a golden shower!” Read more…

Whose Body Is It, Anyway?

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We tend to think of our body as an integrated whole that belongs to one person: the “I” that speaks whenever we open our mouth. But throughout history, people have been losing pieces of themselves — to war, disease, or accidents — and the fate of those missing parts is often decided on without the input of the original owner. In Aeon, Alice Dreger explores the strange afterlife of bodily leftovers, and the tension between our emotional connection to our body and the demands of science, ethics, and religion:

Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist ex-Catholic that I find it difficult to relate to people who are highly ritualistic and dogmatic about how remains are treated. I find it baffling that humans will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to recover the remains of people we know are dead at the bottom of the sea. I find it maddening that Theresa Stack was for 15 years denied a Catholic funeral mass for her late husband because there were no known remains of him. Fire Battalion Chief Lawrence T Stack had died at Ground Zero on 11 September 2001. Only this year, when his family realised there was still a blood sample from him — taken back when he had offered himself to a stranger as a possible bone-marrow donor — was the family able to provide just enough of him to a priest to have their mass.

Yet.

Yet when I think of the being that once lived inside me, and now lives outside — when I look in on him after school and find him in some small variation of his daily ritual, headphones on, eating chips, reading his favourite web comic, listening to Beethoven — it is suddenly impossible to imagine every cell of his body not mattering to me, even into death. When he is away at summer camp, I sometimes visit the curls of his blond baby hair, stored in a folded piece of paper in a small cabinet of my desk.

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A Reading List for Thanksgiving

Photo: Stacy Spensley/Flickr
Photo: Stacy Spensley/Flickr

Thanksgiving feels especially fraught this year. The stakes of the perfect holiday are high; better to abandon them altogether. Why does the intimacy of family breed conflict? I wish I had suggestions for battling the anxiety many of us are feeling around the table this year. As for me, I will try my hardest to speak truth if ignorance comes to a head, even if I am afraid. I will stay safe—my support systems at the ready, my journal and Klonipin in my bag, and my phone fully charged.

None of the following stories were written in 2016, but the themes of our contemporary American Thanksgiving traditions—family, identity, history—remain relevant. Read more…

Thank You, Jon Gnagy: An Appreciation of a Predecessor to Bob Ross

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Ned Stuckey-French | Longreads | November 2016 | 9 minutes (2,204 words)

 

Growing up in the early 1960s I watched a Saturday morning television show called Learn to Draw hosted by a man named Jon Gnagy. He sported a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and exuded a comforting mix of calm and enthusiasm. The goatee was offset by a plaid flannel shirt. There was no beret or affected accent. He was artistic but not too artsy. Each show he taught us how to draw something new: a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock. His hands flew as shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures. He lay the chalk on its side and shaded in order to achieve “effects” and talked continuously, identifying the light source and explaining the vanishing point.

I tried to keep up, but never could. At the end of each show, Gnagy would slap a frame on his drawing and declare it done, but I had to keep going, working on my version of “Mountain Lake” or “Boy Sledding” into the afternoon, sighing, starting over, and trying again and again to get it right. Hoping it would help, I convinced my mom to order me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.

I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year old daughter Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Johann Strauss’s bouncy “Künstlerleben,” or “Artist’s Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee and ready smile. Today’s scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn’t. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything. Read more…