What we’re reading, in the world of narrative journalism, essays and academia:
Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice, by Scott Helman and Jenna Russell. Helman and Russell, Boston Globe reporters, tell the narrative of the Boston Marathon bombing and the week that followed, through the experiences of a police officer, a lost daughter, a determined survivor, a trauma surgeon and the marathon’s director. Excerpt:
Shana Cottone reached for her gun when the first bomb exploded. Something had gone wrong and she didn’t know what it was. Twelve seconds passed, the second bomb went off, and then, like so many others, Shana understood. They were being attacked and she was going to die. Fighting off the overwhelming urge to run away, she started ripping down the barricades along the sidewalk, moving into the drifting smoke in front of the Forum. She picked up strollers, the babies still strapped inside, and carried them into the middle of the street, where it seemed like they might be safer, as stunned parents followed her blindly. She put one stroller down on the open pavement and saw a woman lying nearby, on the pavement in the middle of the street. She was covered with abrasions, her blonde hair singed to black around her face. Shana knelt and looked into her eyes. The woman was awake. Shana took her hand and started talking.
“Talk to me,” she told the woman in the street. “Who did you come to watch? Where do you live?”
“I can’t feel my leg,” the woman said. She was bleeding heavily, one of her legs nearly severed. Shana looked down the street. Where were the ambulances? Why weren’t they coming?
“Your leg is there,” Shana said.
“I can’t feel it,” the woman insisted.
Shana wanted to call her by name, to reach her through the fog of shock and pain and hold her there. She searched for one of the woman’s ID cards and found it: “I swear on my life, Roseann, your leg is there.”
Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions & Other Essays on American Belief, an anthology edited by Jeff Sharlet. Sharlet is the bestselling author of The Family and C Street, a contributor to Rolling Stone and Harper’s, and a professor at Dartmouth. You can find him elsewhere on Storyboard in livechat conversation with essayist Leslie Jamison, about literary nonfiction, and annotating, with Elon Green, “Inside the Iron Closet,” his recent GQ story about what it’s like to be gay in Putin’s Russia. Radiant Truths collects pieces on religion and faith, and finds a thread from Walt Whitman to Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Francine Prose, Anne Fadiman, Zora Neale Hurston and more. From W.T. Stead’s “Maggie Darling,” an 1894 piece in which Stead, a “Bible-thumper” who was accused of practicing “New Journalism” long, long before the likes of Tom Wolfe, tells the story of a Chicago prostitute:
He came again, and yet again, always treating her in the same brotherly fashion, giving her five dollars every time, and never asking anything in return. After she had saved up sufficient store to pay off that debt to the landlady, which hangs like a millstone round the neck of the unfortunate, her young friend told her that he had talked to his mother and his sister, and that as soon as she was ready they would be delighted to take her into their home until such time as they could find her a situation. Full of delight at the unexpected deliverance, Maggie made haste to leave. The young man’s mother was as good as her word. In that home she found a warm welcome, and a safe retreat. Maggie made great efforts to break off the habit of swearing, and although she every now and then would make a bad break, she made such progress that at length it was deemed safe and prudent to let her take a place as a general servant. The short stay in that Christian home had been to her as a glimpse into an opening paradise. Hope sprang up once more in the girl’s breast. She would be an honest woman once again. Thus, as we have seen her reproduce the Fall, so we see the blessed work of the Redeemer. Now we have to see the way in which his people, “the other ones,” as she called them, shuddering, fulfilled their trust.
Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness, by Neil Swidey. Published in February, Trapped tells the story of a deadly accident in the summer of 1999, during the building of the 10-mile-long Deer Island sewer tunnel. Swidey is a longtime writer for the Boston Globe magazine and the author of acclaimed books that include The Assist and Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Teddy Kennedy. Excerpt:
To disentangle their hoses, DJ walked back into the five-foot-diameter section, heading toward the very end of the tunnel. At the same time, Riggs walked several paces behind him, coiling up the hose trailing behind DJ like some sort of oversize kite string. After several minutes of this, Riggs found himself feeling weird. This is a simple task, he told himself, and I’m confused. He looked to the tunnel wall, checking for spots. If he saw them, he’d know he was about to black out. But he didn’t see any spots. So he kept walking, kept coiling. Then, without any warning, DJ just stopped walking. Riggs caught up to him so quickly that he nearly bumped into him, like they were in a Keystone Cops skit. Suddenly Riggs could sense his hearing start to change, as if somebody had placed cones over his ears. His vision grew blurry. He wondered: Is this what people mean when they talk about tunnel vision?
He looked over to see DJ helplessly slide down onto the tunnel floor. As he heard Hoss yell, Riggs felt powerless to stop from falling down himself. He landed on one knee, settling on the tunnel floor across from DJ. “Hoss,” Riggs called out, not quite sure where he was or if anyone was hearing him. “What’s going on with the gas?”
The Empathy Exams, a book of essays by Leslie Jamison. Jamison’s essays have been published in magazines that include The Believer, Harper’s and Tin House. A Ph.D. candidate at Yale, Jamison lives in Brooklyn. Don’t miss her Storyboard livechat with bestselling author Jeff Sharlet, on literary journalism, and her annotation, with Elon Green, of “Fog Count,” a reported essay that originally ran in The Oxford American and now appears in The Empathy Exams. This excerpt is from “Pain Tours (II):”
Many nights that autumn I went to a bar where the floor was covered with peanut shells, and I drank, and I read James Agee. Liquor carried his vision of trauma all through me, twisted me pliable to the loss, and I wasn’t afraid to think like this—pliable to the loss—because I was drunk, and drunk meant sentiment was not only permissible but imperative. It was boundless.
Turns out Let Us Now Praise Famous Men wasn’t about famous men. It was about bedbugs and mildewed bridal caps and farmhouses like cracked nipples on the land. It was about how Agee wanted to fuck one of the women he was writing about. Also, it was about guilt. Mainly it was about guilt.
Originally, it was a magazine article gone rogue. In 1936, Fortune magazine told Agee to write a journalistic piece about sharecroppers in the Deep South, and he gave them a spiritual dark night of the soul instead. They rejected it. He wrote another four hundred pages.
It’s a hard book to classify: it’s got sections that don’t seem to belong together: discussions of cotton prices and denim overalls and the soul as an angel nailed to a cross: it uses colons somewhat like this sentence does: rabidly. It’s so long-winded and beautiful you want to shake it by the bones of its gorgeous shoulders and make it stop. But the difficulty of closure is one of its obsessions: the endlessness of labor and hunger. It’s trying to tell a story that won’t end.
In her lovely NewYorker.com essay “A Thousand Words: Writing from Photographs,” Casey N. Cep describes how smartphones are changing her writing. She has forfeited the notebook for the viewfinder. “Now, if I want to research the painter whose portraits I admired at the museum, I don’t have to read through page after page of my chicken scratch trying to find her name,” she writes. “When I need the title of a novel someone recommended, I just scroll back to the day we were at the bookstore together.” What she is talking about, really, is a form of reporting. Some journalists routinely supplement written notes with photos; the documentary evidence becomes a tool in their process. Cep writes:
Even when I’m writing longhand, it’s rare that I do not have my photo gallery open, or have a few photographs in front of me. If I am trying to describe a place, I find pictures that I took of that place; if I am sketching a human subject, I look for images of her. When my own albums fail me, I go down the rabbit hole of Google image search.
For another meditation on photography, have a look at Maria Popova’s Brainpickings piece on Susan Sontag’s book On Photography. Popova writes:
In the opening essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag contextualizes the question of how and why photographs came to grip us so powerfully:
Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our hands — as an anthology of images.
Anna Hiatt, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at Columbia University, released her report this week on the future of digital longform. This follows the conference that she hosted, on the same topic, our three-part recap of which you can begin reading here. From Hiatt’s report, a passage on the critical interplay between storytelling and design:
Media outlets are beginning to embrace design and beginning to understand that not only can every story have a different look and feel, but some really need it. Though designs vary across the board—some organizations have more money; others have more time; others just have a different aesthetic—a couple tenets are emerging:
1. Design responsively—Pages must adjust to the devices on which they’re being viewed. A single page can be coded to understand the device on which (it’s) being read, and adjust the layout appropriately. On a smartphone you’ll likely want the text column to fill the screen. On a desktop or tablet, that might be overwhelming, and you’d want either sidebars, or white space. This means you don’t have to design and program an app, and then wait for Apple to approve it.
2. User test—Stories must be easy to navigate and intuitively designed. Make sure that your page looks good and works well on every browser (including Internet Explorer), on every device (smartphones, tablets, and laptops) by every manufacturer (Apple, Google, etc.). HealthCare.gov was not appropriately user-tested before it was launched. Don’t let that happen to your site.
3. Blow up templates—Design for the story you’re publishing, not for the one you haven’t yet commissioned. The Internet opens up a world of design possibilities. Templates restrict creativity. Remember that you’re not planning the future look and feel of the Internet. You’re designing for a single story. Consider all the media you want to use (audio, video, PDFs, images, text, etc.) and the experience you want your readers to have. When The Commercial Appeal designed “Six:01,” they started from scratch. Their normal web design looks a lot like websites from five years ago, but the longform piece about Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was clean, like “Snow Fall” lite.