Long-Form Nonfiction, Part 2: Finding Aids for Long-Form Nonfiction

In an earlier post I defined long-form nonfiction as essays with in-depth reporting, that are typically longer than magazine articles, but shorter than a book. As an example of long-form nonfiction, I recommended Jeffrey Toobin’s recent New Yorker essay on the Citizens United case.

So, how do you find long-form nonfiction? Sometimes you can discover a long nonfiction essay by following hyperlinks. In an age of ubiquitous Googling, one downside of Google is it does not determine the length of an article. Even viewing the first screen of an essay found online is not helpful in determining how long it might be. To see whether the story continues for more pages or not, a reader must scroll down often well below the fold—a  holdover term of art from the hard-copy newspaper world meaning the bottom half of a page of broadsheet newspaper.

Beyond mere serendipity, there are affirmative ways to discover long-form nonfiction. Byliner curates long-form essays in the arts, science, politics, technology, travel, sports, and crime. Readers can register to follow their favorite authors, and submit their reading recommendations for inclusion. As I write, Byliner claims to be a discovery tool for almost 30,000 feature articles and links to long-form nonfiction from an array of magazine such as Newsweek, New York, New York Times Magazine Rolling Stone, New York Review of Books, LA Weekly, Wired, Mother Jones, Boston Review, and n+1. This last, perhaps less know title, n+1, is a new journal of which the writer Mary Karr provides no faint praise: “the best goddamn literary magazine in America.”

On corporate finance of elections, the same topic as the Toobin article, Byliner recommends Lawrence Lessig’s Democracy After Citizens United, part of a forum issue of the Boston Review in which ten essays discuss the Citizens United case.

Byliner claims to have links to long-form nonfiction as far back as 1816. For a more recent example, going back only about forty years, consider an essay by Jimmy Breslin. Breslin, for those of you who may not remember, was—and still is—a New York columnist who has written for many newspapers and magazines. His writing tends toward New Journalism, in which the author is a character in the story and the story reads like a novel. In “Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?,” Breslin described the 1969 elections in New York City. With his friend, the novelist Norman Mailer, running for mayor, and Breslin running for president of city council, they established their own 51st State Party with a platform advocating New York City secession from New York State. It may be superfluous to remind you that they lost the election and that New York City remains part of New York State. The Lindsay in question was John Lindsay, 6’ 4” tall, Kennedy-esque handsome, a liberal Republican candidate, who was ultimately reelected as mayor of New York. Breslin uses the “too tall” metaphor to suggest that Lindsay was far removed from the everyday life of New Yorkers. And yes, that is not a typo, there were liberal Republicans in those days.

Like Byliner, Longform.org  compiles “new and classic non-fiction articles, curated from across the web, that are too long and too interesting to be read on a web browser.” Longform identifies long essays in the area of arts & culture, business, crime, media, sports, technology, politics, and war.

One link on the home page of Longform caught my eye. Last Friday was “Ride Your Bike to School Day” in Strafford, where I live. A couple of weeks ago the law school community was surveyed about our means of transportation, to and from VLS. As such the essay about kids biking to school caught my eye.   The May, 2012 issue of Bicycling Magazine contains an essay by David Darlington, “Why Johnny Can’t Ride,” in which he bemoans the fact that at a time when children suffer high rates of obesity and its consequences, the middle school in Saratoga Springs, NY prohibits students from biking to school. For those unfamiliar with the “Why Johnny Can’t” cliché, since at least the mid-1950s tens of books and essays have been published with titles beginning “Why Johnny Can’t…,” suggesting that American children are ill prepared to do…something—read, write, add, etc.

Along with the pleasure of reading, long-form nonfiction can have a law school-related purpose. While neither Byliner nor Longform cite directly to legal topics, the essays to which they link often provide the factual settings in which a variety of legal issues arise. It is like finding legal issues while reading the sports page; if you keep your lawyerly head about you, you will find the law even where you don’t expect it. Long-form nonfiction can provide interesting topics for your research and writing. I can easily imagine an interesting article reviewing laws and ordinances from various localities concerning the impropriety of biking to school.

Carl Yirka