If you’re not a regular reader of my site, please do me a favor and subscribe to the email (it comes infrequently — whenever I add a post here). I write about business, technology, history, mental models (a lot of those), and all the random interesting stuff I’m reading about. It’s a hodge-podge and I hope you’ll enjoy.
At the beginning of last year I decided I was going to spend more time reading books in 2018. I set myself a goal of 30 on Goodreads and blew past that by year end. While it felt good and something I’m looking to reproduce in 2019, it left me wondering whether I’d actually read enough articles to put together my favorite longform list.
As I was wondering this, a series of plagues befell my house and knocked me off my feet (and computer) for just about two full weeks (it was not fun). When I was finally feeling better this week I thought I’d at least see how many articles I favorited in Instapaper and try to figure out whether a list was feasible. Sixty-something links later I realized I read enough to put it together, so here it is. Some usual caveats apply:
- This is a list of my favorites. It’s not meant to be conclusive and I know I missed lots of great stuff (especially this year with my focus on books).
- You’ll notice a concentration of articles from The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. That’s because I get both of those delivered. Again, this isn’t meant to be the definitive list of best articles of the year (if you want that I’d head over to longform.org).
- The way I put this together is first I just list out all the articles I favorited in Instapaper. You can find those at the bottom of this post and also follow them (and favorites from YouTube) at my @heyitsinstafavs automated Twitter account. After I list them all out I just look over the list again and pull out all the ones I specifically remember with the thought that those were the ones that had the biggest impact on me.
- Everything is categorized and my picks are in bold throughout. The full list of favorites is at the bottom.
Finally, if you get through this whole list and want more, here are my past versions:
Okay, onto the list:
If you’ve ever read one of these lists before you’ll know that I love David Grann. Basically anything he writes automatically makes the cut. In 2012 that was his story about an American who fought in the Cuban revolution titled “The Yankee Comandante” and in 2011 it was “A Murder Foretold”. After a few years off to publish his excellent book Killers of the Flower Moon, he was back in the New Yorker in February with “White Darkness”, an amazing story of a solitary journey across Antarctica. (It’s also out as a book now, though I think it’s just the article with some more pictures.) What’s amazing about Grann’s writing obviously starts with the stories he finds, but as you read you realize it’s more about the characters that make up those stories. Somehow he always seems to discover people who both live amazing adventures and are also poets, or something close to it. (As an aside, if you haven’t read Grann’s book of essays The Devil and Sherlock Holmes do yourself a favor and get on that or at least pick a few from his New Yorker profile page.)
[“The White Darkness” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 12, 2018]
This is another category where there was really only one entry for me. It comes from the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, who will show up again when we get to favorite podcasts. Callimachi’s work is pure effort and for her huge feature on the Isis she found and sifted through thousands of internal documents and receipts to piece together the story of how the terror organization actually governed in Iraq. The work in and of itself makes the piece worthy for this list, but what makes the article so memorable for me is how it exposed the banality of Isis’s approach in Iraq. “ISIS built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage,” she writes. “[T]he group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.” If you had to sum the piece up in one sentence it would probably be this one: “The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy.” (If you’re interested in learning more about how the documents were collected or what’s happening with them, there’s a Q&A on the Times’ site. You should also check out Callimachi on the longform podcast for an inside look on how she approaches her work.)
[“The Isis Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall” – Rukmini Callimachi – New York Times – April 4, 2018]
Health & Parenting
I’ve got three entrants for this one and they’re all pretty different.
The first is all about parenting. I would have sworn “The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry” came out last year, but apparently it was from the beginning of this one. It makes sense I wouldn’t have much sense of time, though, since it came out right around when my second daughter was born. The article plainly spells out how big of an industry parenting advice is and how much its foundation is built on bullshit. The bit I remember best is this aside about how statistically insignificant most baby advice really is:
“(Parenting experts who are childless, such as the “queen of routine” Gina Ford, author of the unavoidable Contented Little Baby series, attract a lot of sharp words for it, but this seems unfair. Where Ford has direct experience of parenting none of the 130 million babies born on Earth each year, most gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn’t much better as a sample size. The assumption that whatever worked for you will probably work for everyone, which is endemic in the self-help world, reaches an extreme in the pages of baby books.)”
The other two are a lot more serious. First is an amazing piece from Guardian writer Hannah Jane Parkinson about her own struggle with mental illness (and specifically bipolar disorder). Parkinson is a very good writer and there’s something about reading an accomplished journalist using her work to explain why her work is so hard that’s particularly impactful. The article’s title “It’s nothing like a broken leg” comes from this passage:
In the last few years I have lost count of the times mental illness has been compared to a broken leg. Mental illness is nothing like a broken leg.
In fairness, I have never broken my leg. Maybe having a broken leg does cause you to lash out at friends, undergo a sudden, terrifying shift in politics and personality, or lead to time slipping away like a Dali clock. Maybe a broken leg makes you doubt what you see in the mirror, or makes you high enough to mistake car bonnets for stepping stones (difficult, with a broken leg) and a thousand other things.
Finally, my pick for this category comes from a New York Times Magazine story titled “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” The article shocked and saddened me as it spelled out just how inadequate the care pregnant black mothers receive. Education and income, as the article explains, don’t explain it. “In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.” Most shocking to me was this story about how the institutional racism embedded in the system manifests itself in obviously bad science amongst doctors:
In 2016, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia examined why African-American patients receive inadequate treatment for pain not only compared with white patients but also relative to World Health Organization guidelines. The study found that white medical students and residents often believed incorrect and sometimes “fantastical” biological fallacies about racial differences in patients. For example, many thought, falsely, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites, that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and that black skin is thicker than white. For these assumptions, researchers blamed not individual prejudice but deeply ingrained unconscious stereotypes about people of color, as well as physicians’ difficulty in empathizing with patients whose experiences differ from their own. In specific research regarding childbirth, the Listening to Mothers Survey III found that one in five black and Hispanic women reported poor treatment from hospital staff because of race, ethnicity, cultural background or language, compared with 8 percent of white mothers.
Go read the whole thing and when you’re done please donate to the Birthmark Doula Collective who are trying to help change the care black mothers receive.
[“Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” – Linda Villarosa – New York Times Magazine – April 11, 2018]
As you may or may not know I’m a big NBA fan. The league is as good as its ever been and has been fundamentally transforming the way the game is played for the last ten years or so. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to explain this to friends and now, thanks to Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton, I can just send them the article “How the NBA got its groove back.” In the piece, the Kevins spell out how much faster the league got over the last decade, starting with the D’Antoni/Nash. In fact, as the article explains, those 2004-05 Suns wouldn’t even be considered a fast team by today’s standards. “Back then, Phoenix’s 98.6 pace was more than a possession per game faster than that of any other NBA team. In 2017-18, the average team had 99.6 possessions per 48 minutes, and the Suns’ 2004-05 pace would have ranked 19th in the league.” It’s a fun time to be an NBA fan. (Honorable mention sports story has to go to The Ringer’s insane “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account”.)
[“How the NBA got its groove back” – Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton – ESPN – May 24, 2018]
Society isn’t a perfect title for this category, but it gets at it. I’ve got two pieces here. The first comes from psychology professor Alison Gopnik (who shows up in the podcast list as well). Although not terribly wrong, I thought her review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now offered a really interesting rebuttal to the macro “everything is getting better” story. Gopnik opens the piece by stating her credentials: She’s a scientist, professor, and “card-carrying true believer in liberal Enlightenment values.” But she doesn’t think we can, or should, push aside local needs and values for the global:
The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.
In some ways there’s a similar theme in my pick for this category. “Pay the Homeless” is all about the local realities. It’s an argument against the idea that giving money to someone asking for it is somehow not good for the system as a whole or that individual specifically:
Yet on the whole, all the evidence, from the statistical to the spiritual, points in one direction: if you can give, you should give. It won’t solve the problems of mass homelessness or impoverishment. But it will improve someone’s life ever so slightly and briefly. “People are in dire straits and raising money for bare necessities,” Jerry Jones, policy director at the Inner City Law Center, told me. They might be trying to collect enough to pay for a room for the night. They might need bus fare or gas to get to an appointment.
[“Pay the Homeless” – Bryce Covert – Longreads – June, 2018]
I try to read just about anything Tim Harford writes. His ability to take complicated topics and simplify them are impressive and inspiring. Last year’s piece on Arrow’s impossibility theorem is something I still think about and his BBC Pop-Up Ideas series was absolutely amazing, particularly this episode on the idea of feral cities. This year his FT feature “Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” introduced me to the idea of architectural innovation, which I wrote about in some length in my Framework of the Day piece on Conway’s Law. If you enjoy the piece I would also suggest checking out the reading list, which includes links to all the source material.
[“Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – September 8, 2018]
There aren’t that many pieces that stood out in the world of politics for me this year. I suspect that’s because I actively avoided them (as opposed to last year). With that said, one writer and two pieces stood out for me this year.
First, the writer. I don’t know of anyone I turned to more this year to get the pulse of the country than the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan. She doesn’t have a piece on the list because her writing is more ephemeral. In a world where the President is a TV star, it seems appropriate that the most important columnist is someone who has a deep understanding of how the media functions. A few of her pieces that stood out: “Publishing that anonymous New York Times article wasn’t ‘gutless.’ But writing it probably was.”, “It’s high time for media to enter the No Kellyanne Zone — and stay there”, “Don’t forget how the movement that changed Hollywood started: With great reporting”, and “Enough, already, with anything Steve Bannon has to say. We got it the first time.”. She’s who I turned to when I wanted to understand the importance of a moment.
Okay, back to the longform. First up is Jane Mayer’s masterful profile of Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous Trump Dossier. The piece didn’t necessarily break new ground (after all, Buzzfeed had already published the whole thing), but it did paint an interesting picture for the man who wrote it, his credibility, and the accuracy, or lack thereof, that his methods may have led to.
My pick for politics goes to Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine profile of House leader Nancy Pelosi. We’re about to hear A LOT about Pelosi as she battles Trump and the Republicans over the next two years and, for me at least, my knowledge and understanding of her was surface at best. The profile is pretty unvarnished and paints Pelosi as a pure politician who knows how to operate as well or better than anyone out there. I suspect we’re going to see a lot of stereotypical framing of Pelosi because she’s a woman and this felt like a good foundation to build understanding. I thought this bit about how much of her perception, even amongst Democrats I’d argue, has been shaped by the Republicans was particularly interesting:
Still, Pelosi’s foremost liability is the effectiveness of the attacks against her. In 2010, Republicans spent $65 million attacking Pelosi in ads; the Republican National Committee hung a banner from its headquarters that read FIRE PELOSI. The attacks have often borne more than a tinge of sexism; in 2012, when Pelosi, as minority leader, wielded less power than the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, Republicans’ negative television ads were seven times as likely to mention Pelosi as Reid, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. The 2010 onslaught took its toll on Pelosi’s public standing — her favorable rating dropped into the 20s — but otherwise did not faze her. She made clear to her caucus members that they should do whatever it took to win, even if it meant publicly distancing themselves from her. “I don’t know anyone in the world with thicker skin, or anyone about whom more callous things have been said, and she just truly doesn’t care,” a former Pelosi staff member told me. “There’s a small constituency she cares about: her members.”
[“Nancy Pelosi’s Last Battle” – Robert Draper – New York Times Magazine – November 19, 2018]
I listened to fewer podcasts this year thanks to the introduction of audiobooks into my media diet. With that said, there were a few that stood out. Rather than specific episodes, though, this year my favorites felt more like shows in their entirety. This might be because I explored fewer new podcasts this year or just because there were a few exceptional short series that came out in 2018.
First off is Reply All. As far as week-after-week quality goes, it’s hard to beat these guys. Two (really three) episodes in particular stood our for me:
- “Invcel”: “How a shy, queer Canadian woman accidentally invented one of the internet’s most toxic male communities.”
- “The Crime Machine, Part 1” & “The Crime Machine, Part 2”: “New York City cops are in a fight against their own police department. They say it’s under the control of a broken computer system that punishes cops who refuse to engage in racist, corrupt policing. The story of their fight, and the story of the grouchy idealist who originally built the machine they’re fighting.”
Next up is American Fiasco, Roger Bennet’s ten-part series on the disaster that was America’s 1998 World Cup.
Finally, and my real pick, is Rukmini Callimachi’s ten-part series Caliphate. The podcast follows Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul. It’s an extraordinary piece of reporting with the kinds of twists and turns that we’ve come to expect in great podcasts these days. Again, I can’t say enough about Callimachi’s work this year between Caliphate and The Isis Files.
[Calpihate – April, 2018]
Not This Year
Finally, because I can’t resist, I read a bunch of longform that was amazing and didn’t come out this year. Although it doesn’t officially fit my rules, I’m going to include a few picks as a way to wrap things up.
I already talked about David Grann at length, so I won’t spend too much time introducing the amazing 2008 New Yorker story I reread titled “True Crime: A Postmodern Murder Mystery.” It’s insane. Go read it.
I think I read “Promthea Unbound” just after I put together last year’s list otherwise I have to assume it would have made the cut. It’s the extraordinary (sorry, I’m running out of superlatives) story of a child genius and her mom and how they got through life together.
Finally, my pick for “Not This Year” maybe shouldn’t officially even count as longform, but I’m making the rules and I say short stories are allowed. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story by Ursula Le Guin that feels as appropriate today (if not more) than it must have when it was published in 1973. It’s about the costs were willing to take on to live happily. I’ll leave it at that so you can enjoy.
[“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula Le Guin – October, 1973]
Alright, that’s it, thanks for reading. Here are the picks all wrapped up:
- David Grann: “The White Darkness” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 12, 2018
- Geopolitics: “The Isis Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall” – Rukmini Callimachi – New York Times – April 4, 2018
- Health/Parenting: “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” – Linda Villarosa – New York Times Magazine – April 11, 2018
- Sports: “How the NBA got its groove back” – Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton – ESPN – May 24, 2018
- Society: “Pay the Homeless” – Bryce Covert – Longreads – June, 2018
- Business: “Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – September 8, 2018
- Politics: “Nancy Pelosi’s Last Battle” – Robert Draper – New York Times Magazine – November 19, 2018
- Podcast: Calpihate – April, 2018
- Not This Year: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula Le Guin – October, 1973
The Full Lists
Articles (in chronological order):
- “Parking for Gold” – Geoff Manaugh – The Atlantic – January 2, 2018
- “The Case for the Subway” – Jonathan Mahler – New York Times Magazine – January 3, 2018
- “Making China Great Again” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – January 8, 2018
- “My Father’s Body, at Rest and in Motion” – Siddhartha Mukherjee – New Yorker – January 8, 2018
- “The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed” – Alexis C. Madrigal – The Atlantic – January 10, 2018
- “The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry” – Oliver Burkeman – The Guardian – January 16, 2018
- “The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash” – Jia Tolentino – New Yorker – January 24, 2018
- “To Be, or Not to Be” – Masha Gessen – New York Review of Books – Feburary 8, 2018
- “Has Anyone Seen the President?” – Michael Lewis – Bloomberg – February 9, 2018
- “Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook—And The World” – Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein – Wired – February 12, 2018
- “The White Darkness” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 12, 2018
- “What has really been going on with Markelle Fultz?” – Kyle Neubeck – Philly Voice – February 12, 2018
- “Jerry and Marge Go Large” – Jason Fagone – Highline – February 28, 2018
- “I Got a Story to Tell” – Steve Francis – Player’s Tribune – March 8, 2018
- “Christopher Steele, the Man Behind the Trump Dossier” – Jane Mayer – New Yorker – March 12, 2018
- “A $1.6 Billion Spotify Lawsuit Is Based On A Law Made For Player Pianos” – Sarah Jeong – The Verge – March 14, 2018
- “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous” – Peter Brannan – The Atlantic – March 15, 2018
- “Tragically Lost in Joshua Tree’s Wild Interior” – Geoff Manaugh – New York Times Magazine – March 22, 2018
- “When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough” – Allison Gopnik – The Atlantic – April, 2018
- “The Isis Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall” – Rukmini Callimachi – New York Times – April 4, 2018
- “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” – Linda Villarosa – New York Times Magazine – April 11, 2018
- “The Young and the Reckless” – Brendan Koerner – Wired – April 17, 2018
- “Whose Story (and Country) Is This?” – Rebecca Solnit – Literary Hub – April 18, 2018
- “How American Racism Influenced Hitler” – Alex Ross – New Yorker – April 30, 2018
- “Bad TV” – Andrea Long Chu – n+1 – Spring, 2018
- “The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code” – Kit Chellel – Bloomberg Businessweek – May 3, 2018
- “The Man Who Cracked the Lottery” – Reid Forgrave – New York Times Magazine – May 3, 2018
- “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” – Ta-Nehesi Coates – May 7, 2018
- “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul” – Jia Tolentino – New Yorker – May 14, 2018
- “How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds” – Nick Paumgarten – New Yorker – May 21, 2018
- “Trump vs. the ‘Deep State'” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – May 21, 2018
- “How the NBA got its groove back” – Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton – ESPN – May 24, 2018
- “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It Somebody had to foot the bill for Anna Delvey’s fabulous new life. The city was full of marks.” – Jessica Pressler – New York Magazine – May 28, 2018
- “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account” – Ben Detrick – The Ringer – May 29, 2018
- “The Ultimate Humiliation” – Sarah Nicole Prickett – n+1 – May 30, 2018
- “Pay the Homeless” – Bryce Covert – Longreads – June, 2018
- “Stephen A. Smith Won’t Stop Talking” – Vinson Cunningham – New Yorker – June 25, 2018
- “‘It’s nothing like a broken leg’: why I’m done with the mental health conversation” – Hannah Jane Parkinson – The Guardian – June 30, 2018
- “How a Notorious Gangster Was Exposed by His Own Sister” – Patrick Radden Keefe – New Yorker – August 6, 2018
- “Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – September 8, 2018
- “What Termites Can Teach Us” – Amia Srinivasan – New Yorker – September 17, 2018
- “The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care” – Larissa MacFarquhar – New Yorker – October 8, 2018
- “This Melissa McCarthy Story Just Might (Maybe? Possibly?) Cheer You Up” – Taffy Brodesser-Akner – New York Times Magazine – October 17, 2018
- “What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick?” – Gary Greenberg – New York Times Magazine – November 7, 2018
- “Nancy Pelosi’s Last Battle” – Robert Draper – New York Times Magazine – November 19, 2018
- “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome” – Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson – New Yorker – November 19, 2018
- “Carmelo Anthony is the last great American ball hog” – Kirk Goldsberry – ESPN – December 6, 2018
Podcasts (in chronological order):
- “The Hollywood Edition” – Slate Money – March 31, 2018
- Calpihate – April, 2018
- “Jason Alexander” – WTF with Marc Maron – April 5, 2018
- “Alison Gopnik on ‘The wrong way to think about parenting, plus the downsides of modernity'” – Rationally Speaking – April 29, 2018
- “Invcel” – Reply All – May 10, 2018
- “Data, Decisions, and Basketball with Sam Hinkie” – Invest Like the Best – May 22, 2018
- American Fiasco – June, 2018
- “Charles Oakley Talks MJ Stories, LeBron, and His Favorite Fights” – The Bill Simmons Podcast – June 8, 2018
- “General Chapman’s Last Stand” – Revisionist History – June 13, 2018
- “The Crime Machine, Part 1” & “The Crime Machine, Part 2” – Reply All – October 11, 2018
- “Negative Mount Pleasant” – Reply All – December 6, 2018
Articles [Not 2018] (in chronological order):
- “The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov – November, 1956
- “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula Le Guin – October, 1973
- “True Crime: A Postmodern Murder Mystery” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 11, 2008
- “The Last Days of Stealhead Joe” – Ian Frazier – Outside – August 21, 2013
- “After decades of defeat, Caltech finds formula for winning in conference” – Chris Ballard – Sports Illustrated – November 23, 2015
- “The Falling Man: An Unforgettable Story” – Tom Junod – September 9, 2016
- “Promethea Unbound” – Mike Mariani – Atavist Magaqzine – October 27, 2017
- “Downward Spiral” – David Roth – The Baffler – December 4, 2017