The Top 5 Longreads of the Week January 4, 2013Longreads Member Exclusive: 'The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent,' by Thomas Frank

Become a Longreads Member for $3 a month and we'll send you full text and ebook versions of our latest exclusive stories. This week's Member pick: "The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent," Thomas Frank's 1992 essay from The Baffler, the magazine he cofounded in 1988.

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Read: Longreads Best of 2012
1. What's Inside America's Banks? Frank Partnoy, Jesse Eisinger | The Atlantic | January 2, 2013 | 37 minutes (9,440 words) It still remains nearly impossible for investors to understand what's going on inside the big banks—and what risks they're taking on:

"When we asked Dane Holmes, the head of investor relations at Goldman Sachs, why so few people trust big banks, he told us, 'People don’t understand the banks,' because 'there is a lack of transparency.' (Holmes later clarified that he was talking about average people, not the sophisticated investors with whom he interacts on an almost hourly basis.) He is certainly right that few students or plumbers or grandparents truly understand what big banks do anymore. Ordinary people have lost faith in financial institutions. That is a big enough problem on its own.

"But an even bigger problem has developed—one that more fundamentally threatens the safety of the financial system—and it more squarely involves the sort of big investors with whom Holmes spends much of his time. More and more, the people in the know don’t trust big banks either."

See also: "Hard Lessons in Modern Lending" (Burt Helm, Inc.)
2. A Pickpocket's Tale Adam Green | The New Yorker | December 31, 2012 | 33 minutes (8,436 words) On Apollo Robbins, a pickpocket legend who wows even the world's greatest magicians:

"'The coin’s not in my hand—it couldn’t be. You know why? It’s on your left shoulder.'

"Josh grew increasingly befuddled, as Robbins continued to make the coin vanish and reappear—on his shoulder, in his pocket, under his watchband. In the middle of this, Robbins started stealing Josh’s stuff. Josh’s watch seemed to melt off his wrist, and Robbins held it up behind his back for everyone to see. Then he took Josh’s wallet, his sunglasses, and his phone. Robbins dances around his victims, gently guiding them into place, floating in and out of their personal space. By the time they comprehend what has happened, Robbins is waiting with a look that says, 'I understand what you must be feeling.' Robbins’s simplest improvisations have the dreamlike quality of a casual encounter gone subtly awry. He struck up a conversation with a young man, who told him, 'We’re going to Penn and Teller after this.'

"'Oh, then you’ll probably want these,' Robbins said, handing over a pair of tickets that had recently been in the young man’s wallet."

See also: "The Honor System" (Chris Jones, Esquire)
3. America's Real Criminal Element: Lead Kevin Drum | Mother Jones | January 3, 2013 | 21 minutes (5,326 words) Why are violent crime rates still dropping, even during the recession? The latest evidence suggests lead—in the air, in our gasoline, in our paint—was responsible for the rise in crime in the 1960s & '70s, and the drop in the 1990s:

"And with that we have our molecule: tetraethyl lead, the gasoline additive invented by General Motors in the 1920s to prevent knocking and pinging in high-performance engines. As auto sales boomed after World War II, and drivers in powerful new cars increasingly asked service station attendants to 'fill 'er up with ethyl,' they were unwittingly creating a crime wave two decades later.

"It was an exciting conjecture, and it prompted an immediate wave of...nothing. Nevin's paper was almost completely ignored, and in one sense it's easy to see why—Nevin is an economist, not a criminologist, and his paper was published in Environmental Research, not a journal with a big readership in the criminology community. What's more, a single correlation between two curves isn't all that impressive, econometrically speaking. Sales of vinyl LPs rose in the postwar period too, and then declined in the '80s and '90s. Lots of things follow a pattern like that. So no matter how good the fit, if you only have a single correlation it might just be a coincidence. You need to do something more to establish causality."

See also: "Broken Windows" (George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, The Atlantic, 1982)
4. The Tip of the Spear Joel Sappell | Los Angeles Magazine | December 18, 2012 | 31 minutes (7,816 words) A journalist reexamines what happened to him more than 20 years ago during his investigation of the Church of Scientology for The Los Angeles Times:

"One morning my wife, a kindergarten teacher, was leaving for work when a process server sent by the church’s lawyers jumped out from behind a hedge with a subpoena for me. Another day I listened to Bob on the phone at work as he struggled to calm his wife. She was home alone and somebody had dropped Forest Lawn burial brochures on their doorstep. It would happen more than once, and one afternoon she even saw somebody scurrying away. Then there was the night when upwards of four California Highway Patrol cars, lights flashing, pulled Bob over as he drove home on the 710 freeway. He was ordered out of his car and given a sobriety test. After he passed, Bob asked why he’d been stopped; an officer said they’d been told he was weaving dangerously.

"The next day the Times’s security chief, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department official, made some inquiries and discovered that the pursuit had begun when a man called the CHP and said he was tailing a drunk and would direct units to his location. The caller said he was a Los Angeles police officer."

More Los Angeles Magazine: "The Cop Whisperer" (Ed Leibowitz, October 2012)
5. The Children Who Went Up In Smoke Karen Abbott | Smithsonian | December 25, 2012 | 11 minutes (2,809 words) What happened to five children who disappeared following a 1945 fire in West Virginia?

"For nearly four decades, anyone driving down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the grainy images of five children, all dark-haired and solemn-eyed, their names and ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath, along with speculation about what happened to them. Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumors always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive. What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again."

More Abbott: "Paris or Bust: The Great New York-to-Paris Auto Race of 1908" (March 2012)
Fiction Pick: We Shall Go to Her, But She Will Not Return to Us Thisbe Nissen | The American Scholar | October 1, 2012 | 21 minutes (5,147 words) A teenage mother leaves her childhood home, then returns three years later:

"Time seemed to pass according to alternate principles: spatially, barometrically. The car was a thing of the distance, and then it was so close, Cici felt the heat coming off its hood like fever. And then a person—Dane!—was flying out the door, engulfing Cici, submerging her. She breathed in cheap, buttery shampoo, and beneath that was the smell of Dane: rich, ripe, somehow feral. Dane’s pull on people was more than just attraction—and it wasn’t just men, and it wasn’t just sexual. Men, women, prepubescent boys, adolescent girls, family, and people who didn’t know Dane from a Mormon missionary. People wanted her. They wanted to be near her, to touch her, to breathe her in like air.ers closed systems, he prefers managing what’s perfect."

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Marissa Evans @marissaaevans
Marissa is a senior journalism major at Marquette University and founder/editor-in-chief of InHue Magazine.
"My favorite longread of the week is 'God's Surgeons in Africa' by Brian Till in The Atlantic. If you really want some insight into Africa's health care system, this is an absolutely brilliant read that explains specific health care issues and connects you with the surgeons in training who are trying to make a difference. The story looks at how Africa's lack of medical professionals who can perform basic surgeries is having deadly consequences for patients. 'I mean, can you imagine a kid falling out of a tree, and then being disabled for the rest of their life because they couldn't get their arm fracture fixed?' asks Adam Kushner, a lecturer at Columbia Medical School. Kushner estimates that '56 million people are in need of surgical care on the continent—twice the population suffering from HIV/AIDS.' The piece is heartbreaking, heartwarming and leaves you thinking and wanting to read more about global health policies."
God's Surgeons in Africa Brian Till | The Atlantic | December 28, 2012 | 20 minutes (5,001 words)
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