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. Too Much Information | John Jeremiah Sullivan | GQ | March 31, 2011 | 29 minutes (7,190 words)
A review of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, “The Pale King.” Sullivan adds some personal footnotes, including the backstory on Wallace’s now-classic New York Times piece on Roger Federer:
“I was supposed to write that Federer essay, for Play, the sports magazine published for too few years by The New York Times. Like Wallace, I played tennis in school and had continued to follow the game. It was an easy answer when Play called saying they had access to Federer at Wimbledon. GQ wouldn’t let me do it, though. Turns out I’d signed something my agent described as a ‘contract’ that forbade me from writing for other mags. Also, in fairness to GQ, I’d been slacking for a couple of months, maybe blew an assignment or two, couldn’t really argue. At the end of the last conversation with the guy who would have been my editor, after telling him it was a no-go, I suggested he contact Wallace, which to me was like saying, ‘Why don’t you call the White House?’ The editor was forced into an awkwardness. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘actually, we called him first. He couldn’t do it.’ Wallace must have had a change of heart, however. Several months later, there was his essay on my kitchen table.”
More from Sullivan: “Upon This Rock” (GQ, Feb. 2004)
2. The Kill Team | Mark Boal | Rolling Stone | March 28, 2011 | 34 minutes (8,449 words)
Horrific story of the American infantrymen who murdered innocent civilians in Afghanistan and posed for photos with their bodies. Jeremy Morlock, pictured in some of the photos, was the first of five soldiers to be court-martialed for the war crimes and pleaded guilty to the murder of three unarmed Afghan civilians. Questions remain about how many others knew about the “kill team’s” actions:
“So far, though, no officers or senior officials have been charged in either the murders or the cover-up. … Even if the commanding officers were not co-conspirators or accomplices in the crimes, they repeatedly ignored clear warning signs and allowed a lethally racist attitude to pervade their unit. Indeed, the resentment of Afghans was so commonplace among soldiers in the platoon that when Morlock found himself being questioned by Army investigators, he expressed no pity or remorse about the murders.
“Toward the end of Morlock’s interview, the conversation turned to the mindset that had allowed the killings to occur. ‘None of us in the platoon – the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant – no one gives a fuck about these people,’ Morlock said.”
More Rolling Stone: “The Runaway General” (Michael Hastings, June 2010)
3. I’ve Seen Every Woody Allen Movie. Here’s What I’ve Learned | Juliet Lapidos | Slate | March 31, 2011 | 9 minutes (2,267 words)
A Woody expert’s exploration of the recurring themes and characters in all 40 of his feature-length films. Lapidos finds that Allen “returns compulsively to the same creative ground”:
“When an Allen character is in a particularly morose state of mind, he may feel moved to announce that life is meaningless. I call these ‘void moments,’ because the declarations often contain the word void. Despite the bleak moniker, the void moment doesn’t always have the same function. ‘Play It Again, Sam’ (1972), for instance, has a particularly lighthearted one.
“…He approaches a woman looking at a Jackson Pollock drip-painting, and asks what it means to her. She answers: ‘It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous, lonely, emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.’ She’s just the kind of woman Felix has been looking for, and he asks her what’s she’s doing Saturday night. ‘Committing suicide,’ she responds. Unfazed, he counters: ‘What about Friday night?'”
See also: “Letter from ‘Manhattan'” (Joan Didion, New York Review of Books, 1979)
4. Why You Should Care About Cricket | Wright Thompson | ESPN | March 29, 2011 | 43 minutes (10,736 words)
As the 2011 World Cup continues, Thompson goes on the road with the Indian national team in an attempt to understand the sport and what it (and its biggest star, Sachin Tendulkar) means to India:
“Sachin carried the team alone in the ’90s, but in the past decade a generation of hyperaggressive Indian stars came of age. Former captain Sourav Ganguly ripped off his shirt and twirled it above his head on the balcony of the uptight Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. They are celebrities now. They frighten opposing bowlers. They themselves are not afraid. Two years ago, the team changed its jerseys from powder blue to a deeper color. It seemed less meek.
“‘The aggression, the brashness,’ says Rahul Bhattacharya, the cricket writer turned novelist. ‘It’s now something which Indians see that this is what we have to do to assert our place in the world. We’ve been f—ed over for thousands of years. Everyone has conquered us. Now we’re finding our voice.'”
More from Thompson: “Shadow Boxing” (ESPN, Dec. 2009)
5. Johnson & Johnson’s Quality Catastrophe | David Voreacos, Alex Nussbaum, Greg Farrell | Businessweek | March 31, 2011 | 24 minutes (5,881 words)
How did one of America’s most respected companies end up with 50-plus product recalls in just 15 months? Critics blame decentralization, extreme cost-cutting and management failures that go all the way up to J&J CEO William Weldon (who, for his part, insists the problems are confined only to its McNeil Consumer Healthcare group):
“It frustrated FDA regulators who were urging the company to strengthen quality control at the factories that produced many of the recalled over-the-counter products. J&J has steadfastly denied these claims, but its own annual report for 2010 contains eight pages detailing government criminal and civil investigations and thousands of private lawsuits covering a wide range of drugs, devices, and business practices.
“‘This is a real American tragedy,’ says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor who studies the biomedical industry. ‘They really have blown one of the great brands.'”
More Businessweek: “Forever 21’s Fast (and Loose) Fashion Empire” (Susan Berfield, Jan. 2011)
Featured Longreader: Amanda Heckert @AmandaBHeckert
Amanda is senior editor of Atlanta magazine
“You’ll need to get comfortable before digging into David Grann’s ‘A Murder Foretold’ in the latest New Yorker. My editor passed this crime story along to me saying he couldn’t put it down, and it had the same effect on me. I admit I was woefully ignorant of Guatemala and its history. But as Grann unravels the conspiracy-laden death of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg—and Rosenberg’s attempt to bring justice beyond the grave—he skillfully weaves in the backstory: the bloody, corrupt state of politics in Guatemala (in 2007, named the third most murderous country) and the head-slapping chain of events that allowed it to reach this point.” A Murder Foretold David Grann | The New Yorker | March 28, 2011 | 57 minutes (14,318 words)