The Sunday Long Read (with Seyward Darby), 7/12/20

Hello again! We hope each of you is doing well this Sunday, as temperatures and coronavirus positives rise across much of the country. If you’re finding your reading lists dwindling with the summer huffing through this lengthy backstretch, we’ve got a treat for you, courtesy of this week’s guest editor, Seyward Darby.

Seyward’s book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism will be published by Little, Brown on July 21. She is the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine. She was previously an editor at Foreign Policy and The New Republic. She has contributed to Harper’s, The Washington Post, Topic (RIP), and The Cut, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter and pitch her story ideas.

And now, Seyward Darby’s SLR…

For most of 2020, I had trouble reading. Not in my job as a magazine editor—don’t worry, Atavist writers—but when I wasn’t on the clock. I couldn’t get comfortable with a magazine or a book. Like many ambitious nerds and former English majors acutely aware of the Great Works they’ve never read, I decided to use New York City’s months-long lockdown to make my way through War and Peace. I made a respectable dent in the tome, but my pace was painstaking, a few pages here and there. My mind would wander. I would get anxious. I would compulsively check my phone for the latest news about the latest American catastrophe and wind up doom-scrolling for an hour. Or I would just fall asleep.

I knew I wasn’t alone. Friends who in precedented times read voraciously described a similar struggle. And this week, in the London Review of Books, essayist Patricia Lockwood writes that “the most stubborn fact” of her recovery from coronavirus “seemed to be that I had forgotten how to read.” (I have not had COVID-19—knock on wood—but can still relate.) In true Lockwoodian fashion, she details her “maniacal” attempts to recover her reading ability. “I have never been a straightforward reader, preferring to linger inside the cupboards of those paragraphs that describe Aunt March’s turquoise rings,” Lockwood explains. “Yet all of a sudden I wanted to read a book from cover to cover and be able to say what it was about. What is this about, I thought, what are books about? I read crazily, as if I were a train and the last page was Anna Karenina.”

Thankfully, my brain kicked back into gear not long before The Sunday Long Read’s editors tapped me as guest curator. (A quick pause here to say: Thanks for having me!) I can’t explain why it happened when it did, but I’m glad of it, because without reading I feel unmoored.

Reading features in some of my earliest or most comforting memories: Sitting in a stroller as a toddler, trying to make out words in a flappy copy of a Berenstain Bears book. In elementary school, returning home from a visit to the only independent bookstore in my small town and propping my feet on the dashboard of my mom’s red Honda wagon, determined to finish my new book before going inside. The summer after high school, freer than I’d ever felt, reading The Grapes of Wrath and Summer Sisters on our front porch until a late night became morning. Later, as a budding journalist, eagerly studying longform magazine articles to figure out: How do people do this?

Indeed, reading was the only way I knew how to become a writer. I know that’s true to one degree or another for anyone who taps out words for a living, but for me it was about more than understanding the craft. It was also about navigating a feeling that I couldn’t be a writer, or shouldn’t. Was I really creative enough to write something people cared to read? Was I original enough? Reading, as simple an activity as it is, helped me realize more than once—because I often forgot—that I was looking at writing the wrong way. “Books,” as Cormac McCarthy once said, and as my husband, a writer himself, now likes to remind me, “are made out of other books.”

When I started writing my first book, the first thing I did was read a bunch of other books. I bought them at bookstores. I ordered them online. I kept them out of the library so long I maxed out my renewal allowances. I stacked them near my desk so that they were in reach, and so that I could glance at them and think: Those are my building blocks. I packed them into bags and a suitcase when I went to a writers’ retreat, re-creating my little library in an otherwise (blissfully) barebones studio.

Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism is about exactly what the title suggests: the roles women have played in perpetuating far-right hate in America. It is a story told through the lens of three women’s lived experiences, braided with historical anecdotes and empirical research.

My book wouldn’t exist without those many books I read—and reread—written by journalists, historians, and social scientists. Nor would it exist without the work of other reporters as frightened by the resurgence of hate as I have been for the last several years. I say this all because while I hope that people read my book—my publicist would undoubtedly say that I should edit that to read “buy my book”—and find that it has a meaningful contribution to make, I also hope that it spurs people to read other books and articles about white nationalism. Ones already in the world, and ones yet to come. Just as books are made out of books, so should our understanding of the forces shaping our lives.

But enough of the preaching, for this readership is surely the choir. I was thrilled this week to read many fantastic stories and compile them for your reading pleasure. Some are serious, others are funny, some are the perfect cocktail of both. I got lucky in curating a stretch when the great Tom Junod wrote a new banger of a feature. I was surprised to find myself turning again and again to a story about the ickiest of bodily functions. Yes, I suggest some pieces on the “cancel culture” debate, but don’t sleep on the one about honky-tonk devotees in Japan.

It’s been fun. Happy reading.

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