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. A Woman’s Place | Ken Auletta | The New Yorker | June 30, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,580 words)
Can Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg help change the male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley? The company’s COO is serving as a mentor to women engineers and executives, and she gave a TED talk encouraging women to get aggressive about opportunities in the workplace while pushing for more support at home:
“She proposed doing three things. First, she said, women need to ‘sit at the table.’ She said that fifty-seven per cent of men entering the workforce negotiate their salaries, but that only seven per cent of women do likewise. Second, at home, ‘make sure your partner is a real partner.’ On average, she said, women do two-thirds of the housework and three-fourths of the child care. And, finally, ‘don’t leave before you leave.’ When a woman starts thinking of having children, ‘she doesn’t raise her hand anymore. . . . She starts leaning back.’ In other words, if women don’t get the job they want before they take a break to have children, they often don’t come back.
“Some critics, however, note that Sandberg is not exactly a typical working mother. She has a nanny at home and a staff at work. Google made her very rich; Facebook may make her a billionaire. If she and her husband are travelling or are stuck at their desks, there is someone else to feed their kids and read to them. A more sweeping critique is that it’s not enough for women to look inside. Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, which promotes women for leadership positions, attended Sandberg’s TED speech and knows and admires her. But, Wilson says, ‘underneath Sheryl’s assessment is the belief that this is a meritocracy. It’s not.'”
2. Where Have All the Girls Gone? | Mara Hvistendahl | Foreign Policy | June 27, 2011 | 10 minutes (2,651 words)
“How did more than 160 million women go missing from Asia?” Concerns about population growth in the 1960s led organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development to support programs that would allow for sex selection. At the time, research found that couples in India, China, Vietnam and other countries would continue to have kids until they had a boy:
“That raised the question: What if couples could be guaranteed a son from the start? Elsewhere, scientists were working to perfect fetal sex determination tests for women carrying sex-linked disorders like hemophilia, which only manifests itself in males. (The first sex-selective abortions, performed in 1955 by Danish doctors in Copenhagen, were actually done on women carrying male fetuses.) But the technology was still incipient and required a late-term abortion. Proponents of population control began talking about nudging sex selection along. In 1967, for example, when Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Alan Guttmacher received a proposal from an Indian scientist interested in finding a way to ‘control SEX in human reproduction,’ he scrawled a note across the top in hasty red pencil, asking the organization’s medical director to consider whether the research was in fact ‘worth encouraging.'”
3. My Summer at an Indian Call Center | Andrew Marantz | Mother Jones | July 5, 2011 | 19 minutes (4,819 words)
Meet the people in Delhi who take your customer-service calls—they make $2 an hour, they live in hostels and they’ve navigated a competitive interview process and hours of cultural training to better understand and speak like Americans, Australians and the British:
“Today, almost half of BPO (business process outsourcing) employees are women, many of whom outearn both of their parents. Free-market cheerleaders, conflating rising wages with rising spirits, are quick to applaud India’s “maturing” markets. But the truth is more complicated: Studies show that once people move out of poverty, increasing wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness.
“Call-center employees gain their financial independence at the risk of an identity crisis. A BPO salary is contingent on the worker’s ability to de-Indianize: to adopt a Western name and accent and, to some extent, attitude. Aping Western culture has long been fashionable; in the call-center classroom, it’s company policy. Agents know that their jobs only exist because of the low value the world market ascribes to Indian labor. The more they embrace the logic of global capitalism, the more they must confront the notion that they are worth less.”
4. The Lonesome Independence Day Of Kobayashi, Eater In Exile | Luke O’Brien | Deadspin | July 3, 2011 | 9 minutes (2,448 words)
Inside the apartment of a champion eater. Kobayashi no longer participates in the Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest because of a feud with the owners, and he’s now working to establish himself as an independent business:
“In person, Kobayashi is sweet, like a curious kid — unfailingly polite, charming and humble, with no brashness or other signs of rampaging ego. But he is hard on himself. He locks himself away performing dangerous feats because it is all he knows to do. He was the milk-drinking champ in school, the stew-eating champ in college, the winner of the biggest eating contest in Japan, then the Nathan’s champ. Until he wasn’t.
‘Are you the Che Guevara of gurgitation or the Kenny Powers of power eating?’ I asked him.
“He paused, then laughed: ‘I am both!'”
5. The Boy Who Lived Forever | Lev Grossman | Time | July 7, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,557 words)
A brief history of fan fiction (FanFiction.net hosts over 2 million entries—526,085 of them for Harry Potter), and the conflicted feelings that authors have when fans create new stories for the characters they invented:
“Nobody makes money from fan fiction, but whether anybody loses money on fan fiction is a separate question. The people who create the works that fan fiction borrows from are sharply divided on it. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have given Harry Potter and Twilight fan fiction their blessing; if anything, fan fiction has acted as a viral marketing agent for their work. Other writers consider it a violation of their copyrights, and more, of their emotional claim to their own creations. They feel as if their characters had been kidnapped by strangers.
“You can see both sides of the issue. Do characters belong to the person who created them? Or to the fans who love them so passionately that they spend their nights and weekends laboring to extend those characters’ lives, for free? There’s a division here, a geological fault line, that looks small on the surface but runs deep into our culture, and the tectonic plates are only moving farther apart. Is art about making up new things or about transforming the raw material that’s out there? Cutting, pasting, sampling, remixing and mashing up have become mainstream modes of cultural expression, and fan fiction is part of that. It challenges just about everything we thought we knew about art and creativity.”
Featured Longreader: Sheelah Kolhatkar @sheelahk
Sheelah is features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek
“My favorite longread in recent memory is ‘Liquid Gold,’ about the market for human breast milk by Judy Dutton in Wired. You can’t beat it, just for pure weirdness: ‘Most body fluids, tissues, and organs—semen, blood, livers, kidneys—are highly regulated by government authorities. But not breast milk. It’s considered a food, so it’s legal to swap, buy, or sell it nearly everywhere in the US.’ The story touches on several powerful strains in our culture–overambitious mothering; the way technology has facilitated all sorts of previously-unimaginable niche markets; the lengths people will go to to make money. ‘I’m not embarrassed by what I do,’ one of the milk sellers tells Dutton, a tad defensively. ‘This is my thing. I have an opportunity to help people, so why not?'”
Liquid Gold | Judy Dutton | Wired | May 17, 2011 | 13 minutes (3,247 words)