Five things I thought about when reading that gigantic New Yorker piece on Covid-19

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Beyond “this thing is long.”

Even though things have been shit, we got really, really lucky.
The story doesn’t just detail the many things that went wrong as the virus emerged and various countries struggled to deal with it—including China’s reticence to admit anything was wrong, the WHO’s complete miss, the CDC’s testing debacle, failed leadership from the White House and so on. What came through to me was how there have also been a set of scientific bets going in our favor that could have landed a completely different way. The speedy development of vaccines has been because this virus just happened to fit a set of circumstances we were sort of prepared for. That’s a little bit of judgment, but a lot of luck.

Lawrence Wright has some great lines.
Wright is a master of stories that pitch the reader up against powerful, dark forces that need to be viewed up close to be understood: His famous piece on Scientology wasn’t just great reporting, but really got at the friction and bullying in the cult. I remember how eye-opening I found his profile of Ayman al-Zawahari, which is nearly 20 years old now, for fuck’s sake. This story has a few moments that stuck out to me: describing the covid protein spike as an erection that has to be suppressed, which my mind cannot unsee; his images of Deborah Birx driving cross-country; a metaphor of the pandemic as an unwanted dinner guest.

Telling a story like this is hard.
In journalism, “tick tocks” are stories that recount an event. The giveaway is that they focus on chronology, and lots and lots of New Yorker stories use the form, or tip their hat to it even if they aren’t always true tick tocks. The cliched opening: “On Wednesday 25 July, 2018, Brenda Hubbard, an astrophysicist in Brooklyn, was walking her dog down the street when an accident changed her life.” The New Yorker generally mixes the traditional tick tock style with the explanatory feature formats, and this story does the same—plus mixing in some personal stuff from Lawrence Wright’s own experiences of the pandemic. Working out how to tell this story must have been impossible: Wright says he filed more than twice the final length, and to be honest it feels like it’s been edited down. There are so many individual scenes and characters, and the chronology bounces backwards and forwards, and the personal moments sit a little oddly. It’s just too big a story for even the whole of the NYer feature well.

So perhaps some ideas are just too big for a single article, even a really long one.
Most of the memorable stories from and about the pandemic have done one of two things for me as a reader: they answered a burning question, or they helped me grasp what was coming next (Sometimes they do both.) I think that’s what Ed Yong did so well over at The Atlantic: he started asking questions that people were having and produced . (You can hear Ed talk a little about that in this episode of the Longform podcast.) Wright’s story was comprehensive, but to me it didn’t really do either of those things. If its motivating question was “what went wrong?” then it felt too big for a magazine article, even one that was more than 30,000 words. I could have devoured the whole book, each section expanded into a whole chapter, each character a fully-realized study. I’m not sure that’s anyone’s error, though: the pandemic itself is just a story too big to hold in your hand this way. (Even more so, I think than legendary previous single-issues like Hiroshima.)

It’s easy to get things wrong. This didn’t.
After reading Wright’s piece and feeling only partially satisfied, I then saw Nicholson Baker’s piece in New York on whether SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab—which, by comparison, was wild-eyed and reckless. I was disappointed in that story and its presentation in ways I have yet to fully express. We’ve had such a lot of great journalism in this pandemic, truly, that Baker’s story—a piece of “Big, If True” memealism that cherry-picked its way to a vapid conclusion and pretended its shit didn’t stink along the way—reminded me that it’s hard to make it look easy.

I’ll never complain about somebody filing long again

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“At roughly 31,000 words, the article is as long as a novella, roughly five times the length of a typical major magazine article.”

“Mr. Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker for nearly three decades, initially turned in 76,000 words. “I have an appetite to go into depth,” he said in an interview. (He added, with a laugh: “I get paid by the word.”)”

From the New York Times’ short note about the Lawrence Wright New Yorker piece on the pandemic.

Books I read in 2020

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A lot of things were hard this year. We had it better than many, better than most. No serious illnesses here, mainly just sadness and loneliness and tedium stitched together with moments of dread and panic. But those are all things that you can cope with. In my head, they were circumstances you could adapt to, even if you didn’t like them. People are capable of a lot.

But the change that probably surprised me the most was reading. At the beginning of the year, I’d promised myself to try reading an average of one book a week. This was a little bit up on the last year, but seemed doable. Then, when the pandemic hit, I just got blocked. I barely even picked up a book for three months, and certainly didn’t finish one. I was overwhelmed, busy as hell, and all my reading energy was going into Right Now. It wasn’t so much a loss as it was a symbol of how little space I had to think or act normally. I laughed at my earlier self, the fool.

When I realized how much this affected me—how much it reflected back my weaknesses—I picked up again and tried quite hard to catch up. Helped by some judicious choices, some demanding work reads, and inspired by John Lanchester’s review to start working through the entire Maigret series, I started making steady progress, and then as my sanity returned that turned into remarkable progress.

As of today, so far, I close read 53 books. It really was stupid to keep trying, and I’ll be kinder to myself in future, but I can say it kept me going.

Here’s my top five.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is riveting and tight. It’s a novel about a boys’ reform school in Jim Crow that took what I thought I knew about boys, about reform schools, about race and cruelty, and turned them into something different.

In a year of loss and grief, there was something almost mystical about The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. In writing about how her life fractures and collapses after the death of her husband, she captures the personal and the universal. But in the context of the pandemic, it took on another voice, too. We all break sometimes.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of a series of books I read this year that took similar forms: uneasy collections of short stories or novellas that verged on horror. It was the one that stuck with me the most, a tale of people who are wrestling with dark things they struggle to understand and control.

I had to read a lot of books about the food system as I researched this recent essay, but the most useful guide was the seven-year-old Feeding Frenzy by Paul McMahon. It walks through everything that works well about food and everything that doesn’t and connects them together.

And finally, I read a few books this year that dealt with modern life, but somewhat clumsily. In a year of reckoning, though, even the most heavy-handed felt appropriate. Suddenly their flaws became obvious when I read Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections. The stories in this collection were so sharp and carefully-built that they just left me breathless. I only finished it a few days ago, so maybe it’s recency bias, but I don’t think so.

Hunger

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A few months ago, in a session to generate ideas for our upcoming Food issue of Technology Review, I asked a question that was troubling me: Why do people still starve?

Starvation, hunger and food insecurity seem to me the most troubling symptom of our inability to actually make societal progress. For 100 years or more we have seen widespread revolutions in almost every part of the food system, and we’re generations into trying to prevent hunger—yet even when levels reduce (and they are not always reducing) it’s desperately far from eliminated.

The World Food Program won a Nobel Peace Prize this year: meanwhile hundreds of millions of people are hungry or starving, and there are kids in even the most developed countries who don’t get enough to eat. (This recent New York Times Magazine photo series by Brenda Ann Keneally was physically painful to read.)

As often happens when you pose a question in an editorial meeting but don’t necessarily have a good answer on the spot, I ended up trying to tackle it myself. Fortunately, there are many very smart people out there and, in the last year or two, there have been a few really, really good books that tackle some of the questions about the past, present, and future of the food system.

The result was this essay on why people starve.

The answer, really, is because the system lets them. It needs some people to be on top of the pyramid, and others lower down.

Just as healthy calories are hard to come by for those who are poor, the industrialization of farming is unevenly distributed. First Western farmers were catapulted into hyper-productivity, then the nations touched by the Green Revolution. But progress stopped there.

Today, a hectare of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa produces just 1.2 metric tons of grain each year; in the US and Europe the equivalent land yields up to eight metric tons. This is not because farmers in poorer regions lack the natural resources, necessarily (West Africa has long been a producer of cotton), but because they are locked into a cycle of subsistence. They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.

Jokers de luxe

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Chelsea: Olivier Giroud must start against Newcastle and often afterwards

I learned about them this week: They’re called the the joker de luxe in France, the expensive players brought into a football match as a late substitute to try and change the game. There doesn’t quite seem to be an English language equivalent: they’re a super-sub but they’re costly; your aging star who gets paid a packet but can’t hack the whole game.

We probably have them in workplaces outside football too. Great phrase.

Handmade and hygge

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Things my friends have made

Loved this John Willshire talk about a way of conceptualizing and mapping projects that he uses. The content is interesting to me (planning projects is really something I could get 1000% better) but I enjoyed it most for its presentation. It struck me as a great example of what making an effort can feel like in this era of Zoom presentations and conferences.

So many events really haven’t changed their approach—just ported it online—and those who do alter their style to adapt end up creating something that feels YouTube shiny and over-polished. But John’s presentation really drew me in, without being flashy. A perfect combination of well-told, informative, personal, and cosy.

Period pieces

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We’re all spending too much time at home watching TV at precisely the moment that the billions spent on original content in the streaming wars kicks in, and so every week there’s a new must-watch binge show that’s being hailed all around and dissected from all angles (The Crown), or a not-very-secret secret that appears out of nowhere (Ted Lasso). I’m not sure how many of them we’ll remember in a few weeks, let alone a few years.

I didn’t think much of The Queen’s Gambit, which seemed like the must-watch for five minutes there. It seemed empty and fetishized America’s post-war boom in the same way that, say, Mad Men did. The only points of interest were really the appearance of Dudley from Harry Potter and the unspoken fact that the lead, Anya Taylor-Joy, and one of her love interests in the show (played by the little demon kid from Love Actually) appear to be exactly the same person.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Period dramas tell you a lot about the obsessions of the culture that makes them. These are the moments when a society dreams it was at its best: Britain’s endless parade of Victoriana; America’s detailed recreations of the 1950s and 1960s; war-time dramas from nearly everywhere. Whenever the productions are ghosts or the stories devoid of real depth, it’s partly because the makers seem to believe that the period is itself a character, which seems to me a stretch.

Anyway, the saddest thing about The Queen’s Gambit—and the reason I’m writing about it—isn’t that it’s a failed period piece, or even that it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book (which I haven’t read.) It’s that the life of its author, Walter Tevis, is ultimately much more interesting than the story on the screen.

From a great summary in The Ringer:

Tevis was born in San Francisco in 1928, and learned to play chess at the age of 7. When he was 9 he was diagnosed with rheumatic heart and Sydenham’s choreaand was placed in a convalescent home for a year. While he was committed there, his parents abandoned him and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where they were originally from.

Eventually, Tevis’s family sent him a train ticket to Kentucky, paid for by a family friend. His parents were strict. “I was brought up by a very castrating mother,” Tevis said. “My father was an alcoholic, too, but he wouldn’t admit it, and my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the problem.” Tevis told The San Francisco Examiner that life in Kentucky made him feel like he had “come from outer space.” He was beaten up by boys at school; he found little in Lexington to relate to. Harmon, too, lives in Lexington, and she also has trouble relating to the other kids in her school. While Beth sinks deep into an obsession with chess, Tevis found comfort in a different game—pool. “The Lexington poolrooms rescued me,” he said. He would hang around the Phoenix Hotel downtown and watch the gamblers play for big money. There, he befriended a boy who had a pool table at home, and Tevis would play him every single day until they “dropped.” Then they would play chess into the night to relax.

Tevis went on to write three novels that got turned into movies, two of them about pool: The Hustler, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Color of Money. In between he spent his time drifting around America, drinking himself stupid, playing pool and chess, and pretending to teach.

You’re interviewing somebody, not dating them

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Interviewing people is hard. It’s not easy to talk to someone to try and understand who they are and what they’re about. In journalism, you’re trying to get interviewees to say interesting things too—things that hold up on the page, sound good to the reader, that get the subject to provide a kind of forensic self-examination. The result is that the best interviews are elevated to an art form.

But interviewing is also a skill that can be learned, and it’s not limited to speaking to somebody on the record as a journalist. You probably do interviewing a lot, whether it’s on either side of a recruitment process, when you’re dating, when you’re talking to prospective clients, having coffee conversations with friends-of-friends, or hanging out awkwardly with strangers at parties (although nobody goes to parties any more, of course, whether they are populated by strangers or not.)

Since I enjoyed and linked to the NYT magazine’s recent interview with children’s author Mo Willems, I figured I’d read up more on how David Marchese sees the task of interviewing.

Turns out his main tenets are pretty straightforward. Be prepared, but not too prepared. Be open. Do lots of interviews.

But here he is giving a particularly salient piece of advice that shows what makes journalistic interviews different from all those other kinds.

One clarifying event was a long interview I did with Lou Reed, who was known for being combative in interviews. I sat down with him and he was insulting and aggressive, and not only did he not really answer my questions but he took issue with the premise of a lot of the questions. I finished it thinking, “That really went badly.” But afterward, when I was putting it together, I could see that while I was bearing the brunt of a lot of his aggression in the interview, the piece actually hadn’t suffered journalistically. It turned out very well. I think it’s a natural human desire to want to feel that a person liked you after you’ve had a conversation with them, but in terms of what an interviewer is supposed to be doing, that’s not always the goal. It’s important to keep that in mind.

You aren’t trying to get the subject to like you: you’re inquiring about their essential character. That’s easy to forget in the moment.

Mo Willems on pandemic parenting

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Marchese: When I was first putting together my questions for you, I realized that a lot of them had to do with things like how we can help kids with the ambient stress of parents’ worrying about the pandemic or politics. But maybe it’s wrong for me to assume that a successful children’s-book author has unique ideas about kids’ emotions. So let me ask you: Do you think you have special insights about kids?
Willems: Probably the most fundamental insight is that even a good childhood is difficult: You’re powerless; the furniture is not made to your size. But when parents come up to me and ask, ‘‘How do you talk to the kid about the pandemic?’’ they’re asking me to be disloyal. They’re actually asking about a form of control. ‘‘Hey, you have this relationship with kids. Help me control them.’’ [Expletive] you! I’m not on your side. I wish there was a better way to say it. The real answer is: Show that you don’t know. Show them that you’re fumbling. Why wouldn’t you? How do you expect your child to fall and then stand up and say ‘‘That’s OK’’ when you won’t even say, ‘‘I don’t know how to discuss the pandemic with you’’? Are children not allowed to be upset? Does that inconvenience you? You want to protect and prepare them. But I’m not saying it’s easy.

Weeks 41-43

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weeknotes

They make no sense, deserts. They are an affront to comprehension. I’ve never been anywhere so empty than these alien landscapes, scarred and parched, impossible for me to comprehend. And then you have the preposterous oasis, the cities carved out of rubble, the green valleys hidden between folds in the mountains. They are inventions. Deserts make no sense, unless you are a snake or tumbleweed or a cactus.

We escaped for a change of scenery, played scrabble, and dunked ourselves in the pool. The heat was oppressive, the break perfect. Ten days and we were back home.

The last seven months have been a ride. I’ve thrown myself into work because I am stupid, but also frankly what else do you do when you can barely leave the house? But the last few weeks have been a different kind of effort, more enjoyable, just as daunting.

Three new faces on my team: Eileen Guo joined to start reporting on ethics and social issues, and Lindsay Muscato and Cat Ferguson helping spin up our project to look at pandemic technologies in even more depth.

We popped up a daily election newsletter, The Outcome, from Patrick Howell O’Neill and Abby Ohlheiser. We held a conference!

Oh, and then there was the magazine. That explains my silence in September.

Somewhere along the way I managed to read a lot. Some for pleasure: Angela Chen’s Ace blew my mind and made me think about society’s attitude towards sex in ways I didn’t expect.

And then, for an essay I’m writing, I read a lot about food and hunger. A couple of older classics like Enough by Roger Thurow and Feeding Frenzy by Paul MacMahon. Some fresher morsels like Food or War (Julian Cribb) Bite Back (edited by Sayu Jayaraman+Kathryn De Master), Uncertain Harvest (Ian Mosby et al), Perilous Bounty (Tom Philpott) Food Town, USA (Mark Winne) and not one but two paeans to the potato from Rebecca Earle. This binge puts me a tiny bit ahead in my one-book-a-week challenge for the year, finally.