Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)
1. The Riddle of Jimmy Carter | Nicholas Dawidoff | Rolling Stone | Feb. 3, 2011 | 63 minutes (15,821 words)
How does it feel, more than 30 years after leaving office, for your name to still be synonymous with presidential disappointment? Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalynn, and his former aides submit to a thorough exploration of Carter's influence on the world and the presidency. It's complicated:
"When you talk with people like [former speechwriter Hendrik] Hertzberg about Carter, it's clear that they think of him as a flawed leader, but such an intelligent, determined, decent and compelling person that they want him to have been a great president. Only 44 men have been president. What was Carter missing that Lincoln and FDR possessed? At the Winter Weekend, I decide to ask Carter what he thinks are the qualities necessary to be a successful president. In the hours I spend with him over the course of five formal interviews and other casual interactions, his answer is the most revealing thing he tells me."
"At first, citing Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Carter says, 'successful service in a time of crisis.' But this isn't answering the question. 'I don't draw a distinction between personal attributes and political attributes,' he says. 'Personal attributes can be described as tenets of major religious faith. I worship the Prince of Peace. All the great religions stand for peace, justice, the alleviation of suffering, telling the truth. Those are all measures of an academic teacher, in business, the medical world.'
"He pauses. 'I'm fumbling around,' he concedes. 'I don't really know how to define it. I look from a subjective basis. Another measure of success is to get re-elected, no doubt about it.'"
2. 'Nobody Gets Married Any More, Mister' | Gerry Garibaldi | City Journal | Feb. 1, 2011 | 19 minutes (4,701 words)
Provocative, beautifully written teacher's account of the teen pregnancy problem at a Connecticut high school—and why no politician will go near it. The essay follows other recent longreads (see below) criticizing school reforms that focus too singularly on data-centric measurements like teacher performance and student testing, and ignore larger social problems.
"Here's my prediction: the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children—all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch."
3. Why Reality Shows Failed on Russian TV | Peter Pomerantsev | London Review of Books | Feb. 3, 2011 | 13 minutes (3,204 words)
Programs like "The Apprentice," "Big Brother" and "Next Top Model" have been hits all around the globe—but not in Russia. Pomerantsev, who joined a production team that imported the shows for Russian audiences, quickly found out why:
"For the Russian version of 'The Apprentice,' Vladimir Potanin, a metals oligarch worth more than $10 billion, was recruited to be the boss choosing between the candidates competing for the dream job. Potanin goaded, teased and tortured the candidates as they went through increasingly difficult challenges. The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as bat—'connections.'"
4. Shaken-Baby Syndrome Faces New Questions in Court | Emily Bazelon | New York Times Magazine | Feb. 2, 2011 | 33 minutes (8,175 words)
Parent's worst nightmare, further complicated by new medical questions about the symptoms—and timing—of shaken-baby syndrome. When prosecuting caregivers and parents, it's no longer as simple as determining who was with the baby at the time:
"The child may be lethargic or fussy or may not eat or sleep normally for hours or days, while the subdural hemorrhage and other injuries become more serious, ending in acute crisis. This has made some doctors wary of pinpointing the timing of a child’s injury — even when they are sure that abuse occurred—lest the wrong adult take the blame. 'The police want us to time it within one to three hours,' says John Leventhal, a Yale pediatrics professor and medical director of the child-abuse programs at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. 'But sometimes we can only time it to within days.'"
5. Show the Monster| Daniel Zalewski | The New Yorker | Feb. 7, 2011 | 49 minutes (12,168 words)
Hollywood can be the "Land of the Slow No," even for established directors like Guillermo del Toro. Zalewski follows del Toro's progress (and setbacks) with high-profile, creature-filled projects like "The Hobbit," "Frankenstein" and H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."
"The meeting at Universal, he said, was at ten-thirty: 'I've never been this nervous going to a meeting. This invested.' He added, 'There are certain rules to dating a movie. You try to fall in love when it’s a reality, and try not to be completely head over heels on the first date. But I’m hopelessly in love with the creatures.'
"Del Toro indicated that he would not be willing to make radical adjustments to his vision. 'I don't want to make a movie called "At the Mountains of Madness." I want to make this movie. And if I cannot make this movie I'll do something else.” He paused. 'It'll be horrible.'"