Editor's Note — November 13, 2014, 12:03 pm

Introducing the December 2014 Issue

Sarah Topol follows the trade routes used by arms smugglers, Eric Foner explores the hidden history of the Underground Railroad, Karl Ove Knausgaard recounts a humiliating episode from grade school, and more

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“Most people don’t grow up,” Maya Angelou told The Paris Review in her 1990 Art of Fiction interview. “It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older.” For our December issue, we asked some of our favorite writers to share their coming-of-age stories: Karen Russell describes the adolescent language of Miami beeper code; Karl Ove Knausgaard recounts a humiliating episode from grade school; Suketu Mehta explores his sexual awakening at NYU; and Amie Barrodale tells us about living with her mother in her thirties. Also included are introductory essays by New Books columnists Christine Smallwood and Joshua Cohen, and fiction by Wells Tower.

Where do the weapons being used in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Gaza come from, and how do they get to their destinations? To answer these questions, we sent Sarah Topol, who has previously written for Harper’s on the turmoil in Egypt (“The People’s Assembly,” Letter from Cairo, October 2012), to follow the trade routes through the Sahel used by arms smugglers. She meets with gun runners, border guards, militia leaders, and government officials—most of whom loudly proclaim their innocence while the dangerous business continues all around them.

In 1980, nineteen-year-old Kenneth Hartman killed a man during a drunken brawl and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. “Christmas in Prison” recounts Hartman’s struggle to maintain his humanity during his time in the California penal system, which has spanned almost forty years and included stints at Soledad and Folsom.

Eric Foner’s forthcoming book, Gateway to Freedom, reveals the hidden history of the Underground Railroad. In a chapter adapted for this month’s issue, Foner describes in depth the work of New York City’s Vigilance Committee and how crucial this organization was to the protection of fugitive slaves and the establishment of the Underground Railroad.

Our December Readings section includes an essay on “pregnancy brain,” by Sarah Manguso; a list of films Patton Oswalt wished existed (Terrence Malick’s Blood Meridian, Orson Welles’s Batman); fiction by Jean Echenoz; and a conversation between Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur and Robert Caro, author of The Power Broker as well as a multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson. (The remarkable Caro made sure to research all the material contained in this conversation so that it would be unimpeachably accurate.)

Also in this issue is a new story by Geoff Dyer; a scathing review of the work of Cass Sunstein by Robert Kuttner; and an essay by Rebecca Solnit on the evils of Apple Computer: “The Macintosh was and is a good product, but the corporation that made it is part of a nightmare industry.”

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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