Editor’s List: Required Reading

Well, school’s almost back in session. Shouldn’t you get cracking on that summer reading list? (Okay fine, the Bureau Editors just needed an excuse to link to their favorite writing on the web so far this year.)

“Nakatomi Space”

by Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG

What is the best architecture film of the past 25 years? According to Geoff Manaugh, it’s Die Hard. BLDGBLOG is deeply interested in the relationship and usage of designed spaces, and Die Hard is an action flick wherein Bruce Willis survives and succeeds by navigating Nakatomi Plaza on his own terms:

Over the course of the film, McClane blows up whole sections of the building; he stops elevators between floors; and he otherwise explores the internal spaces of Nakatomi Plaza in acts of virtuoso navigation that were neither imagined nor physically planned for by the architects.

His is an infrastructure of nearly uninhibited movement within the material structure of the building. The film could perhaps have been subtitled “lessons in the inappropriate use of architecture,” were that not deliberately pretentious.

The discussion extends to other films that interpret space well (the Jason Bourne series, District 9) and those that don’t (James Bond), and it becomes apparent that, on a broader level, this essay explains why movies are important to architecture. “It is Hollywood action films that reveal to us something very important about how cities can be known, used, and navigated,” he writes.

It’s becoming a little embarrassing how often I applaud BLDGBLOG, but until I find another writer who forces me to rethink my relationship with everything around me — and now even in action movies — I’ll continue to give high praise for Geoff Manaugh.

“How Far We’ve….”

by Lynsey G. at McSweeney’s

It’s hard to deny an article that opens with: “I’ve been thinking about facials.” And because this is the sixteenth installment of McSweeney’s very excellent The Conflicted Existence of a Female Porn Writer, you know immediately what kind of facial Lynsey G. is talking about.

Pornography is an inherently fascinating subject. It’s the most pervasive of private activities. Lynsey G. admits that porn operates in a “moral gray zone” but understands that it also plays an important role in how it affects our sex lives. Which brings us back to facials:

The degree to which the facial has, happily or unhappily, invaded the bedrooms of many got me to thinking even more about just how much pornography may have affected our sex lives. Really, I wonder where we might be sexually without porn… Would we as a society be anywhere near as comfortable with anal sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, if not for our heavy consumption of pornography?

I’ve enjoyed the entire Conflicted Existence series — other highlights from the series include the rise of “gonzo” porn and the time Ron Jeremy gave her his number — but I think “How Far We’ve…” is Lynsey G. at her best: funny without being cheeky, smart without taking herself too seriously.

“The Last Beautiful”

by Robin Sloan

Over at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan has a number of posts I have adored but my favorite thing he’s written this year is actually a piece of short fiction. “The Last Beautiful” surprised and charmed me.

I grew up reading a lot of science fiction, but I’ve had a hard time getting back into it since high school. Much of it is too dark, often cynical. (Case in point: William Gibson’s Twitter account is @GreatDismal.) Sloan’s fiction isn’t sci-fi per se, but where most authors tell us why we should be afraid of technology, Sloan gives us a reason to be excited about it. Perhaps fiction is a better space for him to humanize and embrace these ideas.

“The Last Beautiful” is short enough that it might be better if I don’t give you a dust-jacket synopsis, but I admit that I found myself returning to this story more than once since he posted it last April. And maybe it’s worth pointing out that @robinsloan has ten times more Twitter followers than @GreatDismal.

Also:

“Cheater Cheater” by Michael Erard at The Morning News

“13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon” by Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown

“Metagames and Containers” by David Cole

“Untitled” by Meaghan O’Connell

“The Editor and the Curator” by Joanne McNeil at Tomorrow Museum

“On Tetris” by Jacob Lambert at The Millions

— Editor Kevin Nguyen


“Real America: The ‘Treasure Hunters Roadshow’ and Their Small-Town Newspaper Grift”

by Abe Sauer at The Awl

This is the perfect counter-argument against anyone who says that blogs are bad for journalism. In a flurry of unconventional sources, blurry cellphone photos, online snooping, and personal experience, Sauer explains, explores, and dismantles the shady Antiques Roadshow-knockoff known as Treasure Hunters Roadshow. The story invokes familiar specters of the collapse — skyrocketing gold prices, personal finical ruin, desperate optimism, the woes of newspapers — and shows how one unscrupulous organization exploits them all for a delightfully old-fashioned prize: cheap gold. It’s a modern tragedy of the highest caliber; a pleasure to read thanks to Sauer’s wry, indignant, and humanizing prose; and it is everything that journalism can and should be in 2010.

Oh, and now is a great time to jump on the “Real America” column’s bandwagon. Sauer is currently using it to hold Target’s feet to the fire for hypocritically backing a PAC with anti-gay positions. Fantastic work.

“Toy Soldiers”

by Greg Purcell at The Supercollider

Tower defense is one of the more mundane styles of videogame yet invented. The whole genre is just a brute-force attack on the player’s obsessive tendencies. There isn’t much to say about it, really. Well, except this:

Video games do not capture the subtle quality of ennui well, and the violence they depict is explicitly not arbitrary. For this reason, games have jibed well with the journalistic historical record of World War Two described in the first-person accounts of Pyle and Murrow and even Liebling, but not with the accounts of First World War captured by writers like Robert Graves and Paul Fussell. I chalk this up to the change in journalism’s cultural position between the wars.

Yeah, you’re gonna want to keep reading. Purcell deftly explains his thesis, offers an insightful lesson on wartime reporting in the process, and introduces a well-measured dose of academia into the discussion of videogames. That last part is the trickiest, a path that many have failed to navigate, so it’s heartening to see a writer who manages to keep it readable and relatable. That’s a rare skill, and I hope Purcell deploys it in the service of videogames again in the future.

Comment on “Adoption Confidentiality Being Bypassed Through Social Media”

by Jody Tresidder at MetaFilter

It would probably be dishonest if I didn’t list the one thing I read on the web this year that made me cry, so here it is. (It’s a comment on MetaFilter post. When you click the link, the text will be at the very top of your browser window, starting with “My late (lovely) father died very young in a car accident.”)

The post in question is about how social networks are making confidential adoptions more challenging, but Tresidder’s comment on it is decidedly low-tech. She describes a beautiful relationship that grew when her family tracked down her late father’s birth mother (he was adopted), only to discover that she had also died, leaving her 90-year-old husband a widower. I won’t say too much, only that it’s a lovely story, capped with a perfect closing line that I defy you to read without misting up.

Furthermore:

“Video Game Feminist of the Decade: or, When ‘You’ Is a Girl” by Jenn Frank
(This is actually the best thing about videogames I read this year, but since Frank implores readers to check out the expanded version in Kill Screen Issue 1, and since it gives me a chance to brag about Kickstarting Issue 0, I’ll encourage you to buy that instead. It’s an excellent magazine, and Frank’s essay is worth the $20 alone.)

“The Birth And Death Of Big Air” by Katie Baker at Deadspin
(“It’s only a matter of time before we witness a death at the X Games.”)

“It Is Written” by Matthew Battles at HiLobrow
(Remember that weird story about “artificial cells” earlier this year? Want to know what that actually means, and have your mind thoroughly blown in the process? Read this.)

“Playing The Odds” by Soren Johnson at Game Set Watch
(“At their core, solitaire and Diablo are not so different.”)

“The Form of the Book” by Mandy Brown at A Working Library
(Since we’re talking about great writing on the web, it’s worth taking a second to consider how that writing is presented.)

— Editor Nick Martens


“Charles Dickens: The First Great Travel Writer?”

by Frank Bures at World Hum

After reading Great Expectations in high school, I put down Charles Dickens and never really picked him up again. To me, his writing was all the wrong things: needlessly verbose (“he got paid by the word!” I’d remind people), heavy-handed and sentimental in places, and otherwise generally about a social world that I really didn’t get into. Even his ghost stories left me cold.

So when I came across this piece arguing that Dickens had quite a knack for travel writing, I was skeptical; I had never thought to describe any of the travel writing that I had come across as “Dickensian.” But by the end, the author had convinced me:

It seems remedial now, and it is, but it’s something Dickens seemed to realize long ago: Travel is not that interesting. People are. Stories come alive only when there are people in them. Travel and nature writing both purport to be about physical things. But they are really about us, and to the extent that they aren’t, they are simply bad, or boring, writing.

“Somewhere A Dog Barked”

by Rosecrans Baldwin at Slate

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for these kinds of literary miscellany. And Rosecrans Baldwin has managed to find a pretty good one that’s also really obvious in retrospect. I can think of a couple more barking dogs that come to mind right away, from Murakami, Orwell, and (I think) some Star Trek novel the name of which I’d forgotten a long time ago. Maybe that one was a space dog of some kind, I’m not sure.

Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time; since the bark is hollow, a reader can read anything into it, or nothing at all.

From now on, I think the dog bark will be the literary equivalent of the arrow in the FedEx logo: you don’t realize it for a long time, but then when someone points it out, you can never un-see it — and you can’t resist pointing it out to everyone, either.

“The Pretend Astronaut”

by Jason Zasky at Failure Magazine

Did you know that one proposed idea for early space waste disposal was the “defecation glove,” which was basically a self-pooper-scooper for zero-gravity? Or that NASA will pay you $17,000 to lie in bed for three months, not get up for any reason, and keep your head at a six-degree downward tilt? Or that right now, nine intrepid volunteers are going on the grown-up version of space camp, wherein they get locked in a mock spacecraft to simulate a 540-day mission to Mars? This and many more little gems in this Failure Magazine article:

It should be noted, however, that weightlessness can do wonders for one’s physical appearance. Your hair has more body, your breasts don’t sag, body fluid migrates to the head (filling out wrinkles and crow’s feet), and water weight decreases by ten to fifteen percent due to the absence of gravity. So astronauts may look more attractive in space than they do on Earth. (On the other hand, these effects have also been referred to as Puffy-Face Chicken-Leg Syndrome, so perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

Additionally:

“29 Rules for E-mailing Your Instructor” by Sara Joy Culver at The Rumpus

“Confessions of a Book Pirate” by C. Max Magee at The Millions

“The Arab Tomorrow” by David Ottaway at The Wilson Quarterly

“Paying Zero for Public Services” by Fumiko Nagano at The World Bank Blog

— Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell