Weekend Reading: Real and Imagined

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form articles, collecting them here and on Longreads and Twitter. This installment focuses on science fiction, anesthesia, and the language of Jesus.

The original theatrical poster for David Lynch's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.     Photo: Universal Pictures

The best fiction keeps one foot permanently planted in reality.

Outside was one of the last places I ever expected to end up. Not because I have no experience with the great outdoors (I was Indian Acres’ Camper of the Year in 1995, thank you), but because my extracurricular interests fall heavily in the realm of culture, specifically science fiction, heavy metal, and the odd video game adventure. I’ve come to realize, though, that while these are typically thought of as “indoor” activities, there is in fact a great deal of crossover with the outside world.

Witness the 2009 Harper's article by Jon Mooallem that resurfaced this week, about Star Wars fans who travel the globe in search of the set locations from the films. For them, the fiction is no longer enough. They need to experience the real, something they can touch. It bridges the gap between fantasy and reality.

In fact, much of what I enjoy comes from a deep appreciation of the outdoors. Frank Herbert’s Dune, the book that set me on my path into the realm of science fiction, is in many ways a lesson in ecology, one inspired by the author’s early work in conservation. Immortal’s epic black metal masterpiece, At the Heart of Winter, was inspired largely by front man Abbath’s many forays into the woods and mountains around his native Norwegian home of Bergen. The best fiction keeps one foot permanently planted in reality.

Anyway, without further delay, here is your Weekend Reading.

Star Wars fans travel across the world, from Tunisia to California, desperately searching for a piece of that which they hold so dear to their heart. Jon, Mooallen, Harper's.

"Somewhere under the sand lay the actual relics of a fake, futuristic past—which were also the set pieces from the actual past that had helped bring that fiction into being. It was hard to keep it all straight. But I sensed that, as with any archaeological endeavor, whatever physical objects we recovered would somehow tie us, in our time, more closely to the truths and mythologies of the era they survived. ‘We ready?’ Jad asked, when the last of us finished in the outhouse. We had decided to dig for those meaningful scraps of lumber and rubber nine days after the summer solstice, and the forecast predicted a high of 114 degrees. We needed to get to work."

In case you needed another reason not to get seriously injured on the slopes this winter, consider the horror you may encounter under the knife. Only now are we truly beginning to understand what happens when we use anesthesia. Joshua Lang, The Atlantic.

"This experience is called ‘intraoperative recall’ or ‘anesthesia awareness,’ and it’s more common than you might think. Although studies diverge, most experts estimate that for every 1,000 patients who undergo general anesthesia each year in the United States, one to two will experience awareness. Patients who awake hear surgeons’ small talk, the swish and stretch of organs, the suctioning of blood; they feel the probing of fingers, the yanks and tugs on innards; they smell cauterized flesh and singed hair. But because one of the first steps of surgery is to tape patients’ eyes shut, they can’t see. And because another common step is to paralyze patients to prevent muscle twitching, they have no way to alert doctors that they are awake."

An athlete’s performance is just as dependent upon their mental conditioning as their physical. Inside the world of sports psychology. Brian Mockenhaupt, Outside.

"Gervais’ athletes aren’t immune to the hang-ups that stymie the rest of us. They worry about failure or try to please everyone. They argue with their spouses and stress over money, even if the checks have a couple more zeros. But their physical and mental landscapes are less cluttered, or at least better mapped, with fewer unknowns. They’ve spent years honing their bodies. They already work with nutritionists and strength coaches and understand better than most of us how subtle changes in sleep, diet, or exercise manifests in performance. And for Gervais, their chosen sports provide ideal feedback, with clear metrics for progress. Did performance improve? A stopwatch or scorekeeper offers enticing clarity compared with the sometimes vague and imprecise self-reporting of feelings and emotional states that most psychologists have to work with."

Is there any way to truly repair a ruined childhood? Emily Bazelon investigates the lives of two girls victimized by the world of child pornography. The New York Times.

"Marsh suggested that Amy see a forensic psychologist, Joyanna Silberg, who evaluated Amy and said she would need therapy throughout her life and could expect to work sporadically because of the likelihood of periodic setbacks. Silberg attributed these costs—Amy’s damages—to her awareness of the ongoing downloading and viewing. ‘Usually, we try to help survivors of child sexual abuse make a very strong distinction between the past and the present,’ Silberg, who has given testimony on Amy’s behalf for restitution hearings, told me. ‘The idea is to contain the harm: it happened then, and it’s not happening anymore. But how do you do that when these images are still out there? The past is still the present, which turns the hallmarks of treatment on their head.’"

Join the quest to rescue Aramaic, the dying language of Jesus and The Bible, from the clutches of extinction. Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian.

"Aramaic is down now to its last generation or two of speakers, most of them scattered over the past century from homelands where their language once flourished. In their new lands, few children and even fewer grandchildren learn it. (My father, a Jew born in Kurdish Iraq, is a native speaker and scholar of Aramaic; I grew up in Los Angeles and know just a few words.) This generational rupture marks a language’s last days. For field linguists like Khan, recording native speakers—'informants,' in the lingo—is both an act of cultural preservation and an investigation into how ancient languages shift and splinter over time. In a highly connected global age, languages are in die-off. Fifty to 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to go silent by century’s end. We live under an oligarchy of English and Mandarin and Spanish, in which 94 percent of the world’s population speaks six percent of its languages. Yet among threatened languages, Aramaic stands out. Arguably no other still-spoken language has fallen farther."

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