There are all sorts of wonderful outlets that will help you find new, long writing as it’s being released into the world today: I’m a particularly avid user of This and Longreads. But one of the interesting tests of a great feature is whether it stands the test of time: whether the writing still feels fresh in five, or 10, or 20 years, and whether the subject matter is still intriguing even when the news peg has passed us by. Since I’m in the late stages of the Television Critics Association press tour, and thus increasingly frazzled, I thought I’d give you five of my favorite such pieces (published since I became a magazine reader) to bookmark for these long August weekends. If there are pieces that have stuck with you for years or decades, leave links or headlines in comments!
1. “Children of Circumstance,” by Blake Nelson, the New Yorker, Feb. 14, 1994: I read this astonishingly disturbing piece of reportage about the murder of 2-year-old James Bulger by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both 10 at the time of the killing, when it was first published. I was nine, and that’s certainly part of the reason the piece made such a deep impression on me: It’s quite something to have your recognition that murder and sexual abuse exist connected to the realization that someone around your own age is capable of committing those outrages.
But the piece is also interesting to read in the context of the many, many attempts to get inside the minds of killers that have followed in the years since: “Jahar’s World,” about one of the two Boston Marathon bombers; Andrew Solomon’s attempt to fathom Adam Lanza; Dave Cullen’s book-length exploration of the Columbine attack.
At the time, Nelson seems to have been more disturbed by Thompson than by Venables (though he acknowledges that Venables’s talent for fantasy was unnerving). “Thompson treated his interview as a battle of wits,” Nelson wrote. “Venables on his tapes sounds five years younger than Thompson.” As the trial opened, Nelson noted that “Jon seemed to be much supported and also loved, and as the trial wore on, he cried less often … Robert Thompson, impassive and expressionless, was something else … As witnesses gave evidence, Venables often darted anxious looks at Thompson, as if to gauge his reaction. He looked like a boy needing to win approval and to be reassured of his friend’s continuing regard. Thompson denied him such reassurance.”
Whatever it seemed at the time, though, Venables’s and Thompson’s trajectories turned out to be rather less predictable. Both were released from prison in 2001, but Venables has been returned to jail for offenses related to child pornography and released again. Their stints in jail for Bulger’s murder may well have influenced what happened to them upon their release. But “Children of Circumstance” is both a powerful piece of reporting about the context of a heinous crime and an illustration of how limited we are when we try to understand people who commit acts we find unfathomable.
2. “Unspeakable Conversations,” by Harriet McBryde Johnson, New York Times Magazine, Feb. 16, 2003: I return to this piece, by the lawyer and disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson, at least once a year. And as conversations on the left have become increasingly fractious, feisty, and — thanks to social media — more visible, I’ve found it increasingly valuable and relevant even as time passes.
The piece is Johnson’s account of her trip to Princeton to debate the philosopher Peter Singer. Singer holds views on abortion, infanticide and disability that, as Johnson describes them, mean “He insists he doesn’t want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was.” As that passage suggests, the piece is a lively, thoughtful account of the specifics of their debate and the environment at Princeton, where Singer’s appointment had been protested by Johnson’s fellow activists.
But it’s rather more than that. In “Unspeakable Conversations,” Johnson looked at what it means to educate someone else on your own humanity. She debated what it meant to give Singer legitimacy by engaging with him directly, and whether she’d erred in humanizing him by letting him help her during a dinner. And in recounting the experience to her fellow activists, Johnson acknowledged the limits of narratives that grow out of ideology rather than facts: She doesn’t see her victory in Princeton as a grand victory on enemy territory or an unacceptable ideological compromise.
These are issues that come up in every political movement, whether we’re grappling with Black Lives Matters protesters’ interruptions of Bernie Sanders events or clashes between different generations of feminists. Johnson couldn’t have predicted our present moment — she died in 2008. But “Unspeakable Conversations” is an incredibly valuable document for navigating our politics, more so than any lament about the new political correctness can possibly be.
3. “The Misfit,” by Judith Thurman, the New Yorker, July 4, 2005: There are many, many things the New Yorker does well. But one of my favorite, and for which the magazine rarely gets much attention, is its fantastic coverage of fashion. When New Yorker writers profile designers, the standard form of the New Yorker profile shifts a bit, creating space for the piece to include criticism as well as biography. And the pieces do a wonderful job of explaining how the work of very different designers functions.
Thurman does a particularly good job of that in this profile of Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garçons, which introduced me to the designer and her label. Even if you hate fashion writing, I challenge you to read this and not come away intrigued.
“Early Comme, as devotees winsomely call it, gave comfort to the wearer and discomfort to the beholder, particularly if he was an Average Joe with a fondness for spandex stirrup pants,” Thurman wrote. “Kawakubo’s silhouette had nothing to do with packaging a woman’s body for seduction. Nearly any biped with sufficient aplomb, one thought, might have modelled the clothes, though especially, perhaps, a self-possessed kangaroo, whose narrow shoulders and well-planted, large feet are a Comme des Garçons signature. The palette was monochrome, with a little ash mixed into the soot, and one hears it said that Kawakubo ‘invented’ black—it is one of the ‘objective achievements’ cited by the Harvard school of design when it gave her an Excellence in Design Award, in 2000. What she objectively achieved was the revival of black’s cachet as the color of refusal.”
4. “Rachel Uchitel Is Not a Madam,” by Lisa Taddeo, New York Magazine, April 4, 2010: This piece is on decidedly different subject matter from many of the other items in this list. But it does many of the same things. It places a hot story in the news, in this case — the revelation of Tiger Woods’ infidelities — in a social context; here, the rise of bottle service in high-end clubs, and the very specific job descriptions for the hostesses who assign tables and the waitresses who deliver the drinks. It has a distinct, intriguing central character: Uchitel, one of Woods’s mistresses. And like the other stories here, it has become more interesting over time: This piece captures the nascent odd democracy of contemporary fame.
“Before nightlife, Uchitel was a segment producer at Bloomberg News and engaged to a man who died in the 9/11 attacks. In 2005, she drove across the country to Las Vegas, not knowing what she was going to do,” Taddeo writes in a paragraph that describes the alchemy that transformed Uchitel and the venomous reaction that greeted her. “Before she’d even arrived, a friend got her a hosting gig at Tao. ‘When you lose your whole future,’ she says, ‘it’s something that changes you.’ On one of the online memorial guest books for her deceased fiancé, several people have lately written in, consoling his parents that the woman their son loved is not the same Rachel Uchitel in the media—she doesn’t even look like the same person. They’re talking about an AP shot from Bellevue Hospital in the days following 9/11. In the picture, she is crying and blonde and holding his image. Comparing it with recent pictures, one can’t help but notice a Jessica Rabbit effect.”
5. “Among the Settlers,” by Jeffrey Goldberg, the New Yorker, May 31, 2004: And then sometimes there’s journalism that’s just terrifyingly predictive. I printed out this piece about the movement by Israeli Jews to settle in Palestinian-held territories when it was published and read it over and over again in print the few years that followed. In the wake of an arson attack on a Palestinian family (as well as a mass stabbing at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem), I was moved to pull it up again.
Goldberg does a remarkable job of capturing what it’s like to live in an environment of constant, high-level hostility.
“A group of yeshiva students appeared,” he writes in an early scene in the piece. “Two Arab girls, their heads covered by scarves, books clutched to their chests, left the Córdoba School, and were walking toward the yeshiva boys. ‘C—-!’ one of the boys yelled, in Arabic. ‘Do you let your brothers f— you?’ another one yelled. I stopped one of the students and asked why he was cursing the girls. He was red-faced, and his black hair was covered with a blue knit skullcap. ‘What are you, a goy?’ he asked. The girls fled down the street, and the boys disappeared. I asked the soldier guarding Hadassah House why he hadn’t intervened. ‘They didn’t hurt them,’ he said.”
“Among the Settlers” isn’t just an environmental sketch, though. It’s a clear-eyed explanation of theology, something that mainstream publications also do well, and a predictive look at a dangerous future.