In 1943, Winston Churchill allegedly ordered a special run of condoms to be manufactured at double the regular size. He then had them shipped to Moscow in boxes stamped “Made in Britain – Medium.”
This reminds me of the fusillade of Long-Form essays sprouting up since we’ve been locked-down, non-fiction essays of such vast length that they are called The Long Read in The Guardian, Long Reads in Toronto Life, Long Reads in GQ, The Audio Long Read (again, The Guardian) and even a standalone, LongReads: The best longform stories on the web. How long is long? 1,400 to 6,800 words. A 5- to 16-minute read.
For many years until the pandemic, conventional paranoia claimed that “long-form journalism was dead.” It was, if you meant published on pieces of paper, which disappeared along with their advertisers. But now that we’re living online, there’s no limit to how long articles can be. Until, that is, we run up against that opposite reality, our shredded attention spans. A goldfish has more focus than I do.
So, what used to be Long Reads may just be Medium Reads. But whatever they’re called, we’re entering their Gilded Age. Not just in size and number, but in quality too. The world of reading is becoming like the world of streaming. We have infinite choice, and the really hard part is separating what we love from what we’re told we’ll like, and not take all day sorting out the difference.
To that end, I subscribe to Pocket, which lets me save articles instantly and forever, so I can go back to read them when I have time.
Here then are half a dozen Long-Form writers who shock and delight me. One reason is, they’re writing different things during COVID, and their work is turning up in different places.
Another is that space, like our sense of time during COVID, seems elastic. Yes, a Globe and Mail comment piece should be no more than 750 words, but when an editor says about a Long Piece, “Give me 7,500 words”, well, that harkens back to Dickens’ day when novels were 500 pages long and opening sentences, 50 words. In fact, Dickens’ novels, real door-stoppers like Little Dorrit and Bleak House, were published weekly, one chapter at a time. It’s no fluke that Victorian England was the Golden Age of the Novel, and today’s dramatic TV series are the Golden Age of Television. They both offer Long in Short bites.
But Kelly’s editors have him writing more cultural pieces, which he clearly views as the same blood sports in a tonier arena. His latest, Oprah’s the only winner in unseemly royal rumble, ends with this observation that hundreds of other journalists missed: “In the end, the easiest way to understand how this works is to look at the winners and losers in that interview. All the main players, on or off the stage, to larger and lesser extents, lost. Only Oprah won.”
Next is Rebecca Mead, who’s been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1997. Maybe because she’s a British import, her writing sounds like Churchill and Dickens having dinner. Here’s the opening to her piece on the British reaction to the Meghan and Harry interview:
“Monday, March 8th, was Commonwealth Day in the United Kingdom, an annual celebration of the association of fifty-four former colonial territories of Britain, headed, as it has been for the past sixty-nine years, by Her Majesty the Queen. Up and down the country, Britons from all walks of life were, naturally, preoccupied by the commemoration, taking the opportunity to reflect thoughtfully upon the legacy of colonialism, upon the service of the ninety-four-year-old monarch, and upon the still wide-reaching influence of the Crown.
Then there’s always Wade Davis – always because he’s been around for eons and somehow makes everything sound new. Maybe it’s because he always pushes to write in new places in new ways. Last summer, he wrote a think-piece about the decline of America, as did scores of others. But he wrote about The Unravelling of America as an anthropologist, and published it in Rolling Stone where it got over three hundred million social media hits. Last month, Davis wrote a rousing defence of Why Anthropology Matters, claiming “it’s the antidote to nativism, the enemy of hate, a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that can counter the rhetoric of demagogues.” Where will you find it? In Scientific American.
But Cathal Kelly, Rebecca Mead and Wade Davis are far better known than Morgan Housell whose clear-eyed take on hard subjects like chance and capitalism will make you think you understand them. His latest blog, on Investing: the Greatest Show on Earth is wondrous precisely because it’s not about investing; it’s about forests and about medicine. But he uses these other big and gnarly subjects to make our understanding of investing suddenly clear and simple.
In fact, this is his point: “It’s that you can learn lots about investing by reading things that have nothing to do with investing. Greed, fear, risk, opportunity, and scarcity – the most critical topics in investing – reveal themselves in all kinds of fields.”
You can also reveal so much by writing about things that have nothing to do with what earned you the right to do the piece you’re doing: which is what each of these four long-form writers is now thriving at doing.
Cunning linguists, all.
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