Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism

My personal picks for must-read nonfiction from 2013.
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Wiertz Sebastien/Flickr

Each year, I keep a running list of exceptional nonfiction for The Best of Journalism, a weekly email newsletter I publish. The result is my annual Best Of Journalism Awards. I couldn't read every worthy piece published last year and haven't included any paywalled articles or many of the numerous pieces from The Atlantic that I enjoyed*. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention.

The Art of the Personal Essay

Serge Saint

ORANGE COAST / Center of the Universe by Jay Roberts

"Normally, I wouldn’t have gone to a motel room with a stranger, but I never gave it a thought. I just liked the guy so much, and he seemed so kind and together, that it never occurred to me he could be dangerous. But even if he were, I was a U.S. Marine, and of the pure canonical type—hard-core infantry, a rifle range coach at times, finishing the final leg of my four-year enlistment as a scout sniper... And although I served in peacetime, I was not a stranger to hands-on violence."
 
THE NEW YORKER / Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy
 
"People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself."
 
n+1 / What Do You Desire? by Emily Witt
 
"While I certainly worried about what I had seen, I could not find it in myself to feel that level of indignation. I ate my ice cream sandwich and went to sleep."
 
THE SUN / The Love of My Life by Cheryl Strayed
 
"I was bereft, in agony, destroyed over her death. To experience sexual joy, it seemed, would have been to negate that reality."
 
MTV HIVE / The Only Black Guy at the Indie-Rock Show by Martin Douglas
 
"It wasn’t my parents’ music. It was something that was happening right now, and regardless of the color lines placed between it and me, it was something that I was a part of."
 
AEON / My Mom by Mary HK Choi 
 
"She pulls rank all the time and once judo-flipped me onto my back in a grocery store to remind me where things stood."
 
THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR / One Road by Donald Hall
 
"Driving through postwar Yugoslavia was nearly impossible, but a young poet and his new wife struggled through the desolate landscape to Athens."
 
GAWKER / Our Kind of Ridiculous by Kiese Laymon
 
"I wanted her to say that we were the collateral damage of a nation going through growing pains. Part of me wanted us to hug and agree each other to death that we were better people than we actually were. But most of me was tired of lying to myself and really tired talking to white folks."
 
THE NEW YORK TIMES / The View from the Victim Room by Courtney Queeney
 
"In this court, your ex is referred to as the Respondent. I was there because my ex beat me."  
 

"...there is no female counterpart in our culture to Ishmael or Huck Finn. There is no Dean Moriarty, Sal, or even a Fuckhead. It sounds like a doctoral crisis, but it’s not. As a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, my survival depended upon other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me."

GQ / The Old Man at Burning Man by Wells Tower

"It's something we've all been meaning to do. The father-son bonding adventure. You know: The big fishing excursion, The road trip down Route 66. Last year, Wells Tower took a completely different approach with his dad: Burning Man, the world's largest chemically enhanced self-expression festival. They went to witness the Slut Olympics. They went to see the art. They went to discover what draws 60,000 people to one of the least hospitable places on Earth. Then they set up camp and took off their clothes." 

THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR / At Sixty-Five by Emily Fox Gordon

"A writer faces the contingencies of being old."

TEXAS MONTHLY / The Other Side of the Story by Jenny Kutner
 
"When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it's more complicated than that."
 
 
"By traveling to my daughter's new turf with the cloak of having been a camper there myself, I thought maybe the bubble might last a little longer. Maybe it would be 10 hours before our old routine closed back around us."
 
THE AWL / I Am an Object of Internet Ridicule by C.D. Hermelin
 
"Without the sign, without the context, I definitely look like someone who is a bit insane. That’s how I thought of it, before I clicked to look at the hundreds of replies; I figured people were probably wondering why I would bring my typewriter to a park. And when I started reading the comments, I saw most people had already decided that I would bring my typewriter to the park because I'm a 'fucking hipster.'"
 
 
"We didn’t laugh and clap, probably because we were all wondering if there is a point to being alive."

Man vs. Nature

Reuters

THE NEW YORK TIMES / There's a Reason They Call Them Crazy Ants by Jon Mooallem

"It’s common in Texas these days for a person who is shown one of these heaps of dead ants to take several seconds to realize that the solid surface he or she is scanning for ants actually is the ants."

PACIFIC STANDARD / The Most Senseless Environmental Crime of the 20th Century by Charles Homans

"It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret."


"They were approaching the camp in the golden dusk, framed by dark trees and the pinky purple sky, kicking through the swamp water and the brush, some of them trumpeting. Each rounded advancing creature was ridden by an upright man, sitting just behind its flapping ears, and though each rider was holding a goad, the stick with a hook that Indians call an ankusha, none of them used it. Instead, to direct the elephants, they were calling out commands in English—though not many commands were needed for elephants headed to the security of their enclosure."
 
NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / They're Taking Over by Tim Flannery
 
"If I offered evidence that jellyfish are displacing penguins in Antarctica—not someday, but now, today—what would you think? If I suggested that jellyfish could crash the world’s fisheries, outcompete the tuna and swordfish, and starve the whales to extinction, would you believe me?"
 
GRANTLAND / Out in the Great Alone by Brian Phillips
 
"With 12 dogs each, we’re looking at nearly 800 dogs within about a five-block radius. The dog factor is crazy, tremendous. Dogs are scratching themselves, snarfing down meat, yawning, whining, wrestling, pissing, drum-majoring their tails. Iditarod sled dogs are mostly not the Siberian huskies you might be picturing but smaller, faster mixed breeds, engineered for speed rather than hauling power. Downtown is giddy with barking. Reportorially, I note falsetto yaps, screams, howls, baritone woofs. There’s something jungle- or apelike about the cacophony. The presence of so many dogs drives all the dogs crazy. When the handlers start pulling out sleds and clipping the teams to their tow lines, the collective canine intelligence realizes that — ohmigosh, ohmigosh — it’s about to go for a run."
 
THE NEW YORK TIMES / Who Would Kill a Monk Seal? by Jon Mooallem
 
"We live in a country, and an age, with extraordinary empathy for endangered species. We also live at a time when alarming numbers of protected animals are being shot in the head, cudgeled to death or worse."
 
MOTHER JONES /  America's Real Criminal Element: Lead by Kevin Drum
 
"What molecule could be responsible for a steep and sudden decline in violent crime? Well, here's one possibility: Pb(CH2CH3)4."
 
THE SEATTLE TIMES / Sea Change by Craig Welch
 
"...changing sea chemistry already has killed billions of oysters along the Washington coast and at a hatchery that draws water from Hood Canal. It’s helping destroy mussels on some Northwest shores. It is a suspect in the softening of clam shells and in the death of baby scallops. It is dissolving a tiny plankton species eaten by many ocean creatures, from auklets and puffins to fish and whales — and that had not been expected for another 25 years. And this is just the beginning."
 

"After 85 years, antibiotics are growing impotent. So what will medicine, agriculture and everyday life look like if we lose these drugs entirely?"

GQ / Heart of Sharkness by Bucky McMahon 

"It was a show of unprecedented aggression in a surfers' paradise: ten shark attacks in the past two years, three of them fatal. Now the surfers are biting back, calling for a posse to hunt and kill the offending animals. Bucky McMahon paddles straight into the insanely unsafe waters of Réunion island, a little slice of France off the coast of Africa, and reports on a raging turf war between man and beast."

Matters of the Belly

Gone Apey/Flickr

SMITHSONIAN / Can Starbucks Do for the Croissant What it Did for Coffee? by Corby Kummer

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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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