Nearly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism

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These must-reads are my personal picks for the best nonfiction of 2010

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Awards season in journalism is almost over: David Brooks has long since handed out the Sidneys, the Pulitzer Prizes have been issued, and the National Magazine Award finalists find out who won next week.

Throughout 2010, I kept my own running list of exceptional nonfiction for the Best of Journalism newsletter I publish. The result is my third annual Best Of Journalism Awards - America's only nonfiction writing prize judged entirely by me. I couldn't read every worthy piece published last year. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention. Thanks to Byliner, a promising new site dedicated to publishing and sharing feature-length nonfiction, my annual awards dating back to 2008 are soon going to have a permanent home. I am indebted to its founder, John Tayman, for including me in an enterprise well worth checking out - and for his encouragement as I assembled this list.

It was put together before I began my current gig at The Atlantic. The pieces I've selected represent only my own judgment, and do not reflect the opinions of my colleagues, whose lists would surely be wonderful and different.  

The Art Of Storytelling

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WASHINGTON MONTHLY
Dirty Medicine by Mariah Blake

Thomas Shaw invents breakthrough medical devices. In America's hospitals they'd save lives and money. But the dysfunctional industry that supplies doctors and nurses prevents these wares from getting to the patients who need them. And health care reform hasn't changed a thing.

THE TEXAS MONTHLY
Last Days Of The Comanches by S.C. Gwynne

"By the autumn of 1871, the Western frontier was rolling backward, retreating in the face of savage Indian attacks. When a ragtag army of federal soldiers arrived on the Llano Estacado to crush the hostile natives once and for all, they had numbers and firepower on their side. What they didn't know was that their enemies were led by Quanah Parker, a half-white war chief who may have been the greatest fighter of his time."

THE NEW YORKER
Pandora's Briefcase by Malcolm Gladwell

During World War II, the British pulled off one of the most successful acts of espionage in history. In its details, however, even this fascinating tale of Allied trickery suggests that spying might not be worthwhile.

THE NEW YORKER
The Hunted by Jeffrey Goldberg

In a remote corner of Africa, two American conservationists did their utmost to prevent poachers from destroying an endangered species of elephant. In their zealousness, did they go too far?

THE MORNING NEWS
The High Is Always The Pain And The Pain Is Always The High by Jay Kang

After living the ups and downs of life as a professional poker player, the author observes that "gambling narratives tend to glamorize the upswing." In his own story, however, the romance is wrapped up in the losses.

THIS AMERICAN LIFE
Patriot Games by Ben Calhoun

An unsurpassed case study in how idealistic people who enter professional politics wind up compromising their values.

ESQUIRE
The Gun by CJ Chivers

Shortly after President Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex, an unholy alliance of defense contractors and military brass conspired to cover up the fact that they put American troops into combat with a defective gun.

JOE BLOGS
The Promise by Joe Posnanski

The story of Bruce Springsteen's most moving song, how it got recorded, and the way it captures certain truths about working class life better than anything else.

VANITY FAIR
The Case Of The Vanishing Blonde by Mark Bowden

Private investigator Ken Brennan was given a mystery: who raped, beat and left for dead a 21-year-old blonde woman? She couldn't remember her attacker. The police gave up on the case. This is the story of the man who broke it open, and the steps that led him to a perpetrator no one else suspected.  

OUTSIDE
The Killer In The Pool by Tim Zimmerman

The story of a killer whale's life - one that ends with a Sea World trainer's tragic killing. Or was it murder?

THE NEW YORKER
The Mark Of A Masterpiece by David Grann

A painting done by a famous artist can be worth many millions of dollars. An imitation is basically worthless. Art historians used their expertise to differentiate between the two - until recently, when Peter Paul Biro began using fingerprints on canvases to authenticate works scientifically.


Crime & Punishment

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WIRED
Art Of The Steal by Joshua Bearman

Gerard Blanchard has been compared to a criminal Rain Man. His story is like every larger than life heist film you've ever seen - but this scourge of the world's bank managers is a real person.

OUTSIDE
The Ballad Of Colton Harris-Moore by Bob Friel

"In the Northwest's San Juan Islands, best known for killer whales and Microsoft retirees, a teen fugitive has made a mockery of local authorities, allegedly stealing cars, taking planes for joy­rides, and breaking into vacation homes. His ability to elude the police and survive in the woods has earned him folk-hero status. But some wonder if the 18-year-old will make it out of the hunt alive."

THE ATLANTIC
Prison Without Walls by Graeme Wood

What if America replaced much of its broken prison system by tracking convicted lawbreakers with ankle bracelets? Early studies show a benevolent twist on Big Brother might be better at reducing incarceration costs and cut crime.

THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
The Rape Of American Prisoners by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stanow

The most shocking thing about this piece isn't the alarming frequency with which juvenile offenders are raped while in custody - it's how seldom their abusers are charged with crimes even when they are caught.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
A Solitary Jailhouse Lawyer Argues His Way Out Of Prison by Sean Gardiner

A high school dropout educates himself in a law library, sues for access to records from his trial, confronts witnesses who testified against him, and proves the corruption of the prosecutor who wrongfully convicted him.

THIS AMERICAN LIFE
Is That A Tape Recorder In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me
(based on a five part Village Voice story by Graham Rayman)

What happens when an NYPD officer spends months carrying a tape recorder in his front pocket? He documents how one precinct really works, captures numerous illegal acts by police, and is nearly committed against his will by superiors eager to intimidate him.

THE ATLANTIC
The Wrong Man by David Freed

Falsely accused of perpetrating a series of anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, Dr. Steven J. Hatfield tells his story for the first time.

SLATE
The Chemist's War by Deborah Blum

The strangely forgotten story of "how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition," ultimately killing perhaps 10,000 Americans.

GQ
Hope. Change. Reality. by Wil S. Hylton

When Barack Obama won the White House, campaigning in part against the lawlessness of the Bush Administration, he tapped Eric Holder as Attorney General. Two years later, the man charged with cleaning up the Justice Department and closing down Gitmo has been stymied at every turn.

THE NEW YORKER
In The Name Of The Law by William Finnegan

In Tijuana, where endemic police corruption prevented anyone from opposing the drug cartels, an uncompromising new law enforcement official is finally fighting back against organized crime. Is he reasserting the rule of law or undermining it in a different way?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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