The Longreads Blog

The Miseducation of John Muir

Muir, pictured later in life, seated on a rock. Photo: Library of Congress
Muir, pictured later in life, seated on a rock. Photo: Library of Congress

Justin Nobel | Atlas Obscura | July 2016 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Justin Nobel, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

It’s quite possible that America’s future was changed on the evening of March 6, 1867, in a factory that manufactured carriage parts in the booming railroad city of Indianapolis.

The large workroom, typically smoky and bustling with workers, was near empty. Factory manager John Muir’s task was simple: The machine’s drive belts, which looped around the vast room like the unspooled guts of a primordial beast, needed to be retightened so the following morning they’d run more efficiently. Muir had already made a name for himself as an impressive backwoods inventor. His “early rising machine” was an intricate alarm clock that tipped the sleeper onto the floor. His “wood kindling starting machine” used an alarm clock to trigger the release of a drop sulfuric acid onto a spoonful of chemicals, generating a flame, igniting the kindling. For the carriage factory, this unique mind was a boon. Muir had already improved wheel design and cut fuel costs.

In the darkening workroom he grasped a file and grinded it between the tightly-woven threads of the leather belt. The file slipped, sprang up pointy end first, and sank deep into the white of Muir’s right eye. Out dripped about a third of a teaspoon of ocular fluid. “My right eye is gone!” he howled back at his boarding house, “closed forever on God’s beauty.” In fact, thanks to a mysterious immune response known as sympathetic blindness, his left eye was gone too. The promising young machinist was blind. Read more…

The Case for More Female Cops

Betty in uniform for the Wichita Police Reserve, 1977. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)
Betty in uniform for the Wichita Police Reserve, 1977. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

Sarah Smarsh | Longreads | July 2016 | 20 minutes (4,886 words)


Betty was in the bathroom dyeing her platinum hair black while the kids played with her teenage sister down the hall. Betty had recently left Bob. He’d beaten her, which was officially a crime, but there wasn’t any use in calling the cops. A hometown boy and typesetter for the Limon Leader, Bob knew everybody in their small Colorado burg on the plains, from the police station to the butcher. Betty, my future grandma, was a 23-year-old outsider from Wichita—a social challenge likely not helped by her unapologetic wearing of miniskirts in 1968.

Two years prior, Betty had blown into Limon, 90 miles west of the Kansas border, with her four-year-old daughter, Jeannie, and a pair of go-go boots. Her mom, Dorothy, and little sisters, Polly and Pud (as in “puddin’”) were along, too. Betty and Dorothy both had just washed their hands of Kansas men. Back in Wichita, Dorothy’s third husband, Joe, had strangled her. Betty’s jealous first husband, my biological grandfather, routinely beat her up and, Betty suspected, had paid someone to throw gasoline on her male friend’s face and set it on fire. So Betty and Dorothy piled the kids in a jalopy and headed west, destination unknown, to start over.

“Why Limon?” I asked her once.

“It was where our car broke down,” Betty said with a shrug.

Betty and her daughter Jeannie at City Park in Denver in the mid-1960s, when she worked as a highway-diner waitress in Limon, Colorado. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

Betty and her daughter Jeannie at City Park in Denver in the mid-1960s, when she worked as a highway-diner waitress in Limon, Colorado. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

Betty and Dorothy took jobs working in diners along the highway that cut through town. Betty waited tables, her mom cooked specials. Before too long, Betty hooked up with a customer named Bob. Then she got pregnant. She drove past the chapel the first time and left him at the aisle, but on the second try they got married. She gave birth to a son, Bo. Then Bob hit her and snapped his belt at Jeannie one too many times. After just a couple years of marriage, she moved out and filed for divorce.

Now Betty had a 6-year-old daughter with a dangerous Kansas man, a 2-year-old son with a dangerous Colorado man, and a divorce decree pending at the courthouse. Custody of their child, Bob had assured her, would go to him. He’d make sure the judge knew what kind of woman she was.

She had the dye worked into her hair when the phone rang. A voice warned that Bob was on his way over, and he was mad. There wasn’t time for Betty to rinse her hair. She wrapped a towel around her head. Dark dye dripped down her neck as she and Pud put the kids in the car. They rolled through town until the road turned into a highway.

Then, sirens and flashing red lights. Read more…

Riding the Rails: Celebrating Trains and Subway Commuter Life


My other half Rebekah and I recently returned from Japan, and we’re in that rapture phase where you wish the things you loved overseas were also available in America. I already miss the 24-hour action of Japanese cities, their automated restaurants, the street-side vending machines — and public transportation.

In Japan, trains run on time. When the Shinkansen says it departs at 2:43, it departs at 2:43. It travels at 200 miles an hour, so good luck catching it. If a train is late, it’s likely because the world has ended. If the world hasn’t ended and it’s still late, the train company will print a note for passengers to give their employers, confirming the train was in fact behind schedule, because no one’s going to believe that’s why you were late for work.

Read more…

Baby’s First Beneficial Microbes: On Breastfeeding and Immunity

Image by William Herbert Galande, 1877 via Wikimedia Commons
Image by William Herbert Galande, 1877 via Wikimedia Commons

If they held a contest, I’m fairly confident I’d win a prize for the World’s Weakest Immune System. A celiac sufferer (the real deal, diagnosed in 1967 at the age of two), I’ve always been quick to catch whatever bug is going around, and in fact I’m just over my sixth illness since January.

I’ve often wondered whether there’s a connection between my weak gut and my frequent infections, and whether it all has to do with not having been breastfed. (When I was born, in 1965, second-wave feminism frowned on breastfeeding, equating it with giving in to oppression, and suburbanites in my mom’s set considered it “barbaric.”)

The New Yorker has a fascinating book excerpt which supports that theory. It’s from I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by London-based science writer Ed Yong, to be published in August. The piece points to many of breast milk’s nutritional superior qualities, most importantly its apparent ability to fortify the body’s microbiome by feeding it with a variety of protective human milk oligosaccharides, or H.M.O.s, thus strengthening the immune system:

In a group setting, pathogens can easily bounce from one host to another, so animals need better ways of pro­tecting themselves. H.M.O.s provide one such defense. When a pathogen infects our guts, it almost always begins by latching onto glycans—sugar molecules—on the surfaces of our intestinal cells. But H.M.O.s bear a striking resemblance to these glycans, so pathogens sometimes stick to them instead. They act as decoys, drawing fire away from a baby’s own cells. They can block a roll call of gut villains, including Salmonella; Listeria; Vibrio cholerae, the culprit behind cholera; Campylobacter jejuni, the most common cause of bacterial diarrhea; Entamoeba histolytica, a vora­cious amoeba that causes dysentery and kills a hundred thousand people every year; and many virulent strains of E. coli. H.M.O.s may even be able to obstruct H.I.V., which might explain why more than half of infants who suckle from infected mothers don’t get infected, despite drinking virus-loaded milk for months. Every time scientists have pitted a pathogen against cultured cells in the presence of H.M.O.s, the cells have come out smil­ing.

Read the story

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Illustration By Javier Jaén for the New Yorker
Illustration By Javier Jaén for the New Yorker

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

The Mystery of Carl Miller

roland miller, 1945_ (1)

Sarah Miller | Longreads | July 2016 | 10 minutes (2,438 words)

There’s an ad in my Twitter feed: “What Does Your Last Name Say About You?” It follows me everywhere, as if it can sense my annoyance.

I find the current obsession with genealogy, specifically as practiced by Boomers and members of “The Greatest Generation,” to be extremely tiresome. If you’re a person who bought your house for 2.5 times your salary which then increased exponentially in value, what more about yourself could you possibly want to know? And that’s not even taking into account all the Americans who have had their last names thrust upon them, in many cases violently. The advertisement’s tone of innocent curiosity strikes me as embarrassingly naive.

I am sure there are defensible reasons for studying one’s genealogy, but I don’t want to think about them because my contempt is important to me, and personal, and possibly even genetic, because of all the people in the world who don’t care about genealogy, I’m pretty sure no one cares less than my father. Read more…

What Makes for a Perfectly Seasoned Dish?


In Wired, David Chang, a chef and restauranteur best known for founding the Momofuku restaurant group, explains his “Unified Theory of Deliciousness,” or what he believes makes a dish so good people will wait in long lines for it:

My first breakthrough on this idea was with salt. It’s the most basic ingredient, but it can also be hellishly complex. A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.

Try it for yourself. Set out a few glasses of water with varying amounts of salt in them. As you taste them, think hard about whether there is too much or too little salt. If you keep experimenting, you’ll eventually hit this sweet spot. You’ll think that it’s too bland, but as soon as you form that thought, you’ll suddenly find it tastes too salty. It teeters. And once you experience that sensation, I guarantee it will be in your head any time you taste anything for the rest of your life.

Read the story

Sending the Elevator Back Down: Sara Benincasa on Artists Acknowledging Those Who’ve Helped Them Come Up

Screenshot 2016-07-21 10.45.27

At The Rumpus, Catherine Cusick has a wide-ranging interview with writer and comedic actor Sara Benincasa, author of Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You in School). They cover everything from definitions of success to definitions of good sex—with a detour toward Benincasa’s suicidal tendencies in her twenties, along the way. They also touch on the importance of artists helping and influencing one another, and of acknowledging that help once you succeed.

Benincasa: I have a friend who’s an artist with whom I’ve never worked, who does not, I’ve noticed, credit the individuals who help along the way. It’s always presented as though this person did it solo.

Rumpus: What are the consequences of pretending to have gotten there without help?

Benincasa: It’s a lie.

It’s not just about ego-scratching. It’s about acknowledging. If you say that you did it all yourself, you’re absolutely lying. Most people don’t want to work with liars. They’ll work with a liar if the liar makes them money and gives them credit, but not if a person’s lying extends to not making them money and not giving them credit.

Shonda Rhimes, Whitney Cummings, Patton Oswalt, Diablo Cody, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Beyoncé, Cecily Strong, Adam McKay, Laverne Cox—all of these individuals are people I’ve seen talk not just about their own strength and self-reliance and hard work, but also about collaboration. That strengthens my belief that they are incredibly talented and hardworking on their own. It strengthens my respect for them.

If someone like Laverne Cox, who as a queer person of color, much less a trans person of color, much less a trans person of color working in the arts from the South? If someone who has the odds stacked against her on paper can acknowledge that her success has come as a result of collaboration, work, and self-reliance, why would I ever try to pretend that I wasn’t influenced, or that everything I do just comes from within my soul?

Read the story