Last year I listed out my five favorite pieces of longform writing and it seemed to go over pretty well, so I figured I’d do the same again this year. It was harder to compile the list this year, as my reading took me outside just Instapaper (especially to the fantastic Longform app for iPad), but I’ve done my best to pull these together based on what I most enjoyed/found most interesting/struck me the most.
One additional note before I start my list: To make this process slightly more simple next year I’ve decided to start a Twitter feed that pulls from my Instapaper and Readability favorites. You can find it at @HeyItsInstafavs. Okay, onto the list.
- The Yankee Comandante (New Yorker): Last year David Grann took my top spot with A Murder Foretold and this year he again takes it with an incredible piece on William Morgan, an American soldier in the Cuban revolution. The article was impressive enough that George Clooney bought up the rights and is apparently planning to direct a film about the story. The thing about David Grann is that beyond being an incredible reporter and storyteller, he’s also just an amazing writer. I’m not really a reader who sits there and examines sentences, I read for story and ideas. But a few sentences, and even paragraphs, in this piece made me take notice. While we’re on David Grann, I also read his excellent book of essays this year (most of which come from the New Yorker), The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. He is, without a doubt, my favorite non-fiction writer working right now.
- Raise the Crime Rate (n+1): This article couldn’t be more different than the first. Rather than narrative non-fiction, this is an interesting, and well-presented, arguments towards abolishing the prison system. The basic thesis of the piece is that we’ve made a terrible ethical decision in the US to offload crime from our cities to our prisions, where we let people get raped and stabbed with little-to-no recourse. The solution presented is to abolish the prison system (while also increasing capital punishment). Rare is an article that you don’t necessarily agree with, but walk away talking and thinking about. That’s why this piece made my list. I read it again last week and still don’t know where I stand, but I know it’s worthy of reading and thinking about. (While I was trying to get through my Instapaper backlog I also came across this Atul Gawande piece from 2009 on solitary confinement and its effects on humans.)
- Open Your Mouth & You’re Dead (Outside): A look at the totally insane “sport” of freediving, where athletes swim hundreds of feet underwater on a single breath (and often come back to the surface passed out). This is scary and crazy and exciting and that’s reason enough to read something, right?
- Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up (New York Times): I’ve been meaning to write about this but haven’t had a chance yet. Last year HBO had this amazing special called Talking Funny in which Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld sit around and chat about what it’s like to be the four funniest men in the world. The format was amazing: Take the four people who are at the top of their profession and see what happens. But what was especially interesting, to me at least, was the deference the other three showed to Seinfeld. I knew he was accomplished, but I didn’t know that he commanded the sort of respect amongst his peers that he does. Well, this Times article expands on that special and explains what makes Seinfeld such a unique comedian and such a careful crafter of jokes. (For more Seinfeld stuff make sure to check out his new online video series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is just that.)
- The Malice at the Palace (Grantland): I would say as a publication Grantland outperformed just about every other site on the web this year and so this pick is part acknowledgement of that and part praise for a pretty amazing piece of reporting (I guess you could call an oral history that, right?). Anyway, this particular oral history is about the giant fight that broke out in Detroit at a Pacers v. Pistons game that spilled into a fight between the Pistons and the Detroit fans. It was an ugly mark for basketball and an incredibly memorable (and insane) TV event. As a sort of aside on this, I’ve been casually reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and in it he obviously talks about this game/fight. In fact, he calls it one of his six biggest TV moments, which he judges using the following criteria: “How you know an event qualifies: Will you always remember where you watched it? (Check.) Did you know history was being made? (Check.) Would you have fought anyone who tried to change the channel? (Check.) Did your head start to ache after a while? (Check.) Did your stomach feel funny? (Check.) Did you end up watching about four hours too long? (Check.) Were there a few ‘can you believe this’–type phone calls along the way? (Check.) Did you say ‘I can’t believe this’ at least fifty times?” I agree with that.
And, like last year, there are a few that were great but didn’t make the cut. Here’s two more:
- Snow Fall (New York Times): Everyone is going crazy about this because of the crazy multimedia experience that went along with it, but I actually bought the Kindle single and read it in plain old black and white and it was still pretty amazing. Also, John Branch deserves to be on this list because he wrote something that would have made my list last year had it not come out in December: Punched Out is the amazing and sad story of Derek Boogaard and what it’s like to be a hockey enforcer.
- Marathon Man (New Yorker): A very odd, but intriguing, “expose” on a dentist who liked to chat at marathons.
That’s it. I’ve made a Readlist with these seven selections which makes it easy to send them all to your Kindle or Readability. Good reading.
Yesterday I wrote about David Grann’s amazing New Yorker essay on William Morgan, an American revolutionary in Cuba. While I was reading I remembered thinking to myself, “that’s a great sentence, I should blog that,” but then I couldn’t find it again when I finished (I should have just underlined it in the magazine). Anyway, it came back to me last night and I wrote myself a note (only to not be able to find that … can’t figure out which of my three different self-organization systems I sent it to). On rummaging around I just found it agin. (Italics are mine to denote the sentence I’m particularly fond of.)
Hoover and his men tried to detect a hidden design in the data they were collecting. They were witnessing history without the clarity of hindsight or narrative, and it was like peering through a windshield lashed with rain. As Hoover confronted the gaps in his knowledge, he became more and more obsessed with Morgan. A former fire-eater at the circus! Hoover hounded his evidence men to “expedite” their inquiries, homing in on Morgan’s ties to Dominick Bartone. The mobster, whom the bureau classified as “armed and dangerous,” had recently been arrested with his associates at Miami International Airport, where they had been caught loading a plane with thousands of pounds of weapons—a shipment apparently destined for mercenaries and Cuban exiles being trained in the Dominican Republic.
Also, since writing yesterday’s post I was informed that David Grann also wrote the amazing Guatemala murder article from the New Yorker last year (which I included in my top longform of 2011) as well as one of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time: Lost City of Z. He also has a new book out called The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and my fine friends over at Longform.org have compiled a reading list of his finest writing. Awesome awesome awesome.
Not sure what to say about this VERY long New Yorker article about William Morgan, an American solider in the Cuban revolution, other than it’s incredibly detailed a well-written. Give yourself plenty of time to get through it, though, as it’s a good 20 pages long. Here’s a quick paragraph to give you a taste:
Menoyo cursed under his breath as both sides began shooting. Bullets split trees in half, and a bitter-tasting fog of smoke drifted over the mountainside. The thunderous sounds of the guns made it nearly impossible to communicate. A Batista soldier was hit in the shoulder, a scarlet stain seeping through his uniform, and he tumbled down the mountain like a boulder. The commander of the Army patrol retrieved the wounded soldier and, along with the rest of his men, retreated into the wilderness, leaving a trail of blood.
The new Readability iOS app looks beautiful and all, but the big feature I keep waiting for is the ability to highlight things and save them to some sort of archive. I understand it would be a pain-in-the-ass because of the offline mode and all that jazz, but isn’t that the thing you most want to do when you’re reading really interesting stuff (to me, highlights is the real killer feature of the Kindle). Does this exist and I just don’t know about it?
Last week James asked me for my top 5 articles of last year (he posted his) and so I spent an hour or so going through as much as I could find from last year (Instapaper archive is helpful) to come up with my list (which includes a few extra that didn’t make the top 5 cut, but were great). Here it is (I’m not necessarily sure the order is right, but it’s close):
- A Murder Foretold (New Yorker) – Here’s what I wrote about this when I first read it: “Clocking in at just under 15,000 words, the New Yorker article on the murder of a Guatemalan named Rodrigo Rosenberg is long even by their standards. It’s so worth it though. I don’t even want to say anything about it so that you can go and enjoy it yourself. Let’s just say if I could get my hands on the movie rights I definitely would.”
- The Shame of College Sports (The Atlantic) – I’ve read a few things that said this is the best piece of sportswriting in history. I haven’t read enough to say whether I agree or not, but this epic look at the NCAA was amazing. To cover something we’re all so aware of, but know so little about was a brilliant move and added a ton of nuance to the conversation around whether college athletes should be paid.
- The Information (New Yorker) – A good way to judge writing (for me at least) is how much it sticks in my head. Adam Gopnik’s discussion around the current state of internet discourse was probably the idea I talked about most. His breakdown of never-betters, better-nevers and ever-wassers gave a framework for understanding how people view the web (and technology generally).
- When Irish Eyes are Crying (Vanity Fair) – I almost didn’t include this because I’m sure it’s on everyone’s list. Michael Lewis breaking down what went wrong in Ireland. You read it already.
- The Shot That Nearly Killed Me (Guardian) – I debated back-and-forth (with myself) about whether this should make the list or not. It’s not a classic piece of journalism in that it’s not written by a single person about a single topic. However, the idea of getting the best conflict photojournalists in the world and asking them to talk about the most dangerous shot they ever took was breathtaking.
Okay, so those are my five. The last two I’m not totally comfortable with, but a list is a list …
Here are a few others that could/should be on there:
- Getting Bin Laden (New Yorker) – Somebody was going to get this story and it went to the New Yorker. There was some controversy around the amount of truth in it, but no matter what reading a blow-by-blow account of the capturing of the most wanted fugitive in the world is a pretty compelling read.
- A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage (The Awl) – This is the only non-mainstream publication on my list and I so wanted to put it in the top five. I’m not sure there was another article this year that I enjoyed reading more. This crazy look/theory about why McDonald’s runs the McRib promotion in the way it does was totally insane.
- The Assassin in the Vineyard (Vanity Fair) – Again, part of how I judge what I read is how much I repeat it. I must have told a dozen people about this story this year. Some crazy dude holds a vineyard hostage and poisons some of the most expensive wine vines in the world. (I won’t give away the ending.)
Awesome, hope you enjoy.
Some interesting data and thoughts on what people choose to read later from Nieman Journalism Lab. The gist: “But the evidence seems to be that people find time-shifting useful regardless of length, and that using these tools for really long work is more of an edge case than common usage. It appears the user’s thought process is closer to ‘Let me read this later” than “Let me read this later because it’s really long and worthy.’”