A soldier being wished good luck. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

A soldier being wished good luck. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.


Good luck on this Friday the Thirteenth! Here’s a collection of long reads to stimulate your neurons this weekend…

Simon Schama is one of my favorite writers. He’s one of those rare creatures: a scholar independent of academia. In a wide-ranging essay for the Guardian on the faces in the National Portrait Gallery, Schama swerves from reflections on the birth of his daughter to the portrait Winston Churchill hated to our narcissistic obsession with selfies.

In a fantastic essay “The Skin Feeling” at The New Inquiry, Sofia Samatar explores the complexities of race and tokenism in academia. Beginning with Charlie Parker’s notorious drug-induced crack-up in 1946, Samatar’s essay delves into what it means to be vulnerable in a society still grappling with its racial demons.

There is almost no way, in places where black people are few, to talk about the complexities of blackness, to go beneath the surface of a predictable form and refuse to be an institutional ornament

Ling Ma’s satirical, surrealist story “Los Angeles” in Granta features a mansion the protagonist shares with The Husband and her 100 ex-boyfriends, visits to artisanal slow-food restaurants and a reckoning with an abusive ex who wonders if “what she feels is real.”

Rebecca Solnit, over at Harper’s, ponders the upcoming climate change conference in Paris and notes what’s different from the last conference (better organized climate activists, a slew of damaging hurricanes, solar panels that cost 80 percent less). In addition to the bureaucrats, tens of thousands of protesters will be manning the barricades (and I’ll be there, too!).

In a fascinating post, Alex Mayyasi, explores the surprising history of pad Thai. Conceived by the military leader of Thailand in the late 1930s, the now-ubiquitous fried noodle dish was promoted as a new, specifically Thai aspect of culture, part of a modernization campaign that included standardized language and restrictive rules for how to dress.

Dark matter is the stuff that has bedeviled astronomers and physicists for decades: most of the universe, by their calculations, is made up of some sort of matter we’ve never seen. The Economist describes the efforts of a team scientists working find dark matter at the center of the Milky Way, by way wonderful terms such as WIMPS and hooperons.

Over at the New York Times, fiction mavens George Saunders (The Tenth of December) and Jennifer Egan (author of A Visit from the Goon Squad) chat about the benefits and perils of writing about the future. The article alone is worth it for Saunders’ line: “So I wrote some prose that was, you know, almost like Henry James on stupid pills…”

And finally, in the interest of shameless self-promotion, if you’d like to meander through such topics as difference engines, twittering machines, Italo Calvino’s funeral, the joy of concrete, and the fate of a Klimt masterpiece in Nazi Germany, you might peruse my essay on Twittering Machines  here at The Lost Salt Atlas.

That’s all for for this week. Bon chance!