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. ‘There Are Some People Who Don’t Wait’ | Robert Krulwich | Discover | May 12, 2011 | 23 minutes (5,825 words)
The host of WNYC Radiolab’s stirring commencement speech to graduates of UC Berkeley’s journalism school:
“What you do next? Well, the obvious option is to go to Conde Nast, Sports Illustrated, MTV. They’re there. You can go in and pour coffee for the person who sharpens the pencil for the person who writes the copy and work your way all the way to the top. That’s what Charles Kuralt did. And in his day, with his talent, he did it very fast.
“But here’s another way.
“It’s not easy. It’s not for everybody. Just something to think about.
“Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do.”
See also: Steve Jobs’s commencement speech to Stanford graduates, 2005
2. Here Be Monsters | Michael Finkel | GQ | May 9, 2011 | 35 minutes (8,545 words)
Tale of survival at sea: Three teenage boys from a tiny island village dare each other to steal a boat and go on an adventure. They end up lost in the Pacific, floating some 750 miles over seven weeks:
“Samu says he’d reached a point beyond fear. He gave up hoping they’d be found. And that, strangely, made him not as scared. He wasn’t afraid to die anymore. He no longer cried. He just sat there in stunned silence with nothing to say. He once demonstrated his sea stare for me, relaxing his face, letting his eyes go soft. It was haunting and fascinating, the human version of a computer in sleep mode, and I could picture him in the little boat in that state, hour upon hour, waiting for nothing.”
More GQ: “Garry Shandling: The Comedian’s Comedian’s Comedian” (Amy Wallace, Aug. 2010)
3. Taco Bell and the Golden Age of Drive-Thru | Karl Taro Greenfeld | Businessweek | May 9, 2011 | 13 minutes (3,403 words)
How Taco Bell has perfected its drive-thru operations and food preparation—even going so far as to argue that its taco assembly lines offer “a strong counterargument to any notion that the US has lost its manufacturing edge”:
“It’s as if the great advances of human civilization, in everything from animal husbandry to mathematics to architecture to manufacturing to information technology, have all crescendoed with the Crunchwrap Supreme, delivered via the pick-up window.”
“‘The most advanced operational thinking in the world is going on in the back of a QSR (Quick Serve Restaurant),’ says Mike Watson, a former senior vice-president for operations at Wendy’s and currently executive director of operations engineering at WD Partners, a consulting firm that works with QSR brands. ‘If you have it laid out where it doesn’t flow right, that means less order flow, less product, lower sales.'”
More Businessweek: “Don Draper’s Revenge” (Felix Gillette, Nov. 2010)
4. The Double Game | Lawrence Wright | The New Yorker | May 9, 2011 | 12 minutes (3,160 words)
A brief history of our difficult relationship with Pakistan, dating back to the end of World War II. In 1954, the US began pouring billions of dollars into the country’s economy:
“Not only has American military aid been wasted, misused, and turned against us; it may well have undermined the Pakistani military, which has feasted on huge donations but is far weaker than its nemesis, the Indian military. If the measure of our aid is the gratitude of the Pakistani people and the loyalty of their government, then it has clearly been a failure. Last year, a Pew Research Center survey found that half of Pakistanis believe that the US gives little or no assistance at all.”
More from Lawrence Wright: “Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology” (February 2011)
5. Cookies for Saddam | Garrett M. Graff | Washingtonian | April 2011 | 18 minutes (4,672 words)
FBI agent George Piro, who was assigned to interrogate Saddam Hussein following his capture in 2003, recounts their relationship:
“At the first meeting, Piro introduced himself as ‘George.’ Although the men would spend hundreds of hours together over the next seven months, the Iraqi dictator would never know Piro’s full name or what his position was. Piro existed only as a shadowy US government representative. ‘I told him that I was taking charge of his situation. We were going to be spending a lot of time together,’ Piro recalls. ‘He said he knew what I was there for. Every part of him said he shouldn’t talk to me, but he couldn’t help it.’
“As soon as Piro began to speak, Saddam knew the agent was Lebanese and Christian—a good background for the interrogation: Lebanese in the Middle East are generally neutral, and being a Christian meant that Piro didn’t have a bone in Iraq’s intense Sunni/Shiite Muslim rivalry. Saddam tried to be helpful by speaking Arabic with a Lebanese accent, even as, month after month, Piro’s Arabic acquired an Iraqi inflection.”
See also: “The Toppling” (Peter Maass, The New Yorker, Jan. 2011)
Featured Longreader: Tom McGeveran @tmcgev
Tom is the co-founder and co-editor of the website Capital New York
“I was never as interested in the whole birther controversy as I seem to have become in the family history of the president since his birth certificate was released. The motives or subconscious of people who persist in believing that he was born on foreign soil and is ineligible to be president are boring. Barack Obama’s life is interesting. Partly I came to understand this from Andrew Rice’s piece for Capital about the president’s father, and the question that arises from immigration documents whether he was essentially drubbed out of the United States in a conspiracy between Harvard University and the feds.
“Appiah’s review of Peter Firstbrook’s ‘The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family’ is clear-eyed and perceptive beyond its brief, asking not only whether Firstbrook has done his job, but what the job is, really. He’s appreciative of the native interest in a family dynasty in an unfamiliar place. ‘Don’t turn to The Obamas for enlightenment about the hidden motives of presidential policy making,’ he writes. ‘The appeal of this book is, rather, like that of those centuries-spanning sagas that James Michener used to publish.'”
The Apple Fell Far from the Tree | Kwame Anthony Appiah | New York Review of Books | May 12, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,381 words)