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Writers and writing

The "phreaks" who inspired Steve Jobs

Pay phones

Tom McNichol interviews Ron Rosenbaum about his 1971 Esquire story on an early network of hackers who built "blue boxes" to make free phone calls: "Rosenbaum’s article is the rare magazine story that not only chronicled history, it also shaped it. A tech enthusiast named Steve Wozniak read Rosenbaum’s piece, and then showed it to his friend Steve Jobs. Before long, the two collaborated on building and selling their own blue boxes."

Ted Conover on immersion reporting

Meat inspectors

Katia Savchuk interviews the Newjack author about tricks of the trade for undercover reporting, as well as its ethics: "Don’t actively lie. Don’t make up a false backstory to explain why you’re there or to get a job … Some people will say you’re being deceptive simply by putting on a prison guard uniform or federal meat inspector uniform. To a degree, they’re right. On the other hand, I’m not pretending to do the job — I’m actually doing it."

How a scientist became Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

The author of Silent Spring was a government biologist when she was asked to produce a brochure for the federal Fisheries Bureau, Maria Popova writes: "When she turned in something infinitely more poetic than her supervisor had envisioned, he asked her to rewrite the brochure but encouraged her to submit the piece as an essay for the Atlantic monthly. She did." The essay was accepted and became part of Carson's first book, The Sea Around Us.

The power of a spoken poem

Cemetery

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was recording some BBC broadcasts when he wrote his signature poem "Do not go gentle into that good night," Maria Popova writes: "Perhaps because his broadcasting experience had attuned his inner ear to his outer ear and instilled in him an even keener sense of the rhythmic sonority of the spoken word, he wrote a poem tenfold more powerful when channeled through the human voice than when read in the contemplative silence of the mind’s eye."

The dictator as an editor

Gabriel García Márquez

Who's qualified to edit a Nobel literature laureate? If you're Gabriel García Márquez, you might send your work to Fidel Castro for review, Danuta Kean writes. Quoting from Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla, co-author of a book about the unusual relationship between the two men: "After reading his book The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Fidel had told Gabo there was a mistake in the calculation of the speed of the boat. This led Gabo to ask him to read his manuscripts."

A dozen top non-fiction books for 2016

Display of books for sale

Annalee Newitz lists 12 worthy books on "technology, science, history, and geek culture." They include Ed Yong's I Contain Multitudes ("Come for the poop transplant jokes and stay to have your view of nature turned upside down"), Christie Wilcox's Venomous ("Of course you want to learn more about the deadliest animals on Earth") and Welcome to the Universe, ("An astrophysics class with space science superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson and two of his smartest friends").

The importance of just hanging around

Teddy bear on clothesline

Francisco Vara-Orta interviews Eli Saslow of the Washington Post about his Pulitzer-finalist reporting on gun violence, including a profile of a 16-year-old victim of a mass shooting: "A huge job for a narrative reporter is finding ways to get people to be comfortable being themselves around you, because then you get to see what their lives are really like instead of people telling you what it is like or presenting one side of what they think their lives are like."

Hemingway, Plimpton and Cuba

Cuban revolution museum poster

Among the many stories from Fidel Castro's death is one from James Scott Linville about the time he tried to get George Plimpton to publish excerpts from Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries. Plimpton tried to brush him off. When Linville persisted, Plimpton told a story about his visit to Ernest Hemingway right after the Cuban revolution, and what he saw there: "In the twenty years I knew him, this remained the only time George refused to look at a piece of writing."

On reporting about youth suicides

Face in shadows

Katie Johns interviews Hanna Rosin about her Atlantic story on suicides at a Palo Alto, Calif., high school, how she struggled to find the right balance in her reporting, and the reactions she got: "A sister of one of the guys that killed himself said, 'Thank you, this is finally a discussion we needed to have.' Other people were like, 'How dare you come in and blame school pressure for this? Suicide is very complicated. You can’t blame it on school pressure.'"

Leonard Cohen and his writing process

Leonard Cohen

Maria Popova marks the songwriter's death with thoughts from Leonard Cohen on melding darkness and light in songs like "Anthem," and the mystery of good writing: "It’s just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse. I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines."