Each year, I keep a running list of exceptional nonfiction for The Best ofJournalism, 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.
"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."
"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."
"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."
"...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."
"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."
"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."
"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.'"
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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."
"...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."
"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."
"Tackling the flaccid, unsmoked pizzles was something else. Trying not to breathe in their offensive vapors, I stripped off the fur and testicles, like an extreme bikini wax. Disentangled from these impediments and the pubic bone, the pizzles were shape-shifting things, squeezy and rubbery, and encased in slimy layers of membrane. Removing these skins was at times a two-man job, as the pizzles slithered and slipped out of my grasp."
"It was such a rare scenario. This little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, right on the ocean, only 25 seats, with its own farm and its own fishing boats. You don’t hear that very often. It caught my attention right away, and then it sparked my imagination.”
"What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive."
LAPHAM'S QUARTERLY / Last Meals by Brent Cunningham
"In America, where the death rows—like the prisons generally—are largely filled with men from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, last-meal requests are dominated by the country’s mass-market comfort foods: fries, soda, fried chicken, pie. Sprinkled in this mix is a lot of what social scientists call “status foods”—steak, lobster, shrimp—the kinds of foods that in popular culture conjure up the image of affluence. Every once in a while, though, a request harkens back to what, in the Judeo-Christian West, is the original last meal—the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ, foreseeing his death on the cross, dined one final time with his disciples."
"North Korea is a mythically strange land, an Absurdistan, where almost nothing is known about the people or, more important, their missile-launching leaders. There is, however, one man—a humble sushi chef from Japan—who infiltrated the inner sanctum, becoming the Dear Leader's cook, confidant, and court jester. What is life like serving Kim Jong-il and his heir? A strange and dangerous gig where the food and drink never stop, the girls are all virgins, and you're never really safe."
"Los Angeles, and especially the abbreviated LA, has become a byword for the shallow, the ephemeral, the vain – and it is the duty of any right-thinking Englishman, properly cask-aged in rainwater, body dysmorphia and sarcasm, to scorn it. And it’s not just the British press who feel this way. The rest of the world, and much of America, treats Los Angeles with the same weird mixture of envy and snobbery – qualities that ought to contradict each other, but somehow never do. Well... I’m heading in the other direction. I’m sticking up for the beautiful city of Los Angeles."
"My sisters and I had no trouble adapting. We liked riding in Rolls-Royces and playing shuffleboard on the porch of our new ranch-style house, the one that Dad purchased on a sixty-day note from the bank. For my second-grade show-and-tell, I brought a mason jar full of crude oil that Dad had skimmed off one of the rigs. Standing in front of my class, I popped open the lid and dipped a finger into the green-black liquid. As it streaked down my hand, the room filled with its sulfury vapor."
THIS AMERICAN LIFE / The weekly radio show consistently produces some of the best journalism in the country, so much so that creating separate listings for every exceptional story would overwhelm this list. Winnowing them this far as been difficult, but I'd especially urge listening to Cars, House Rules, Taking Names, The One Thing You're Not Supposed to Do, and Harper High School Part I and Part II.
"The flush toilet has transformed lives for millions but it continues to be derided as a wasteful, almost evil, part of modern life. The charges seem unfair to a portal that makes lives easier for so many—there is nothing like a temporarily dysfunctional one to remind you of the necessary part it plays in life."
"He was named the prom king, the most likely to succeed, the senior class salutatorian. He was accepted to UC Berkeley, one of the nation's most renowned public universities. A semester later, Kashawn Campbell sat inside a cramped room on a dorm floor that Cal reserves for black students. It was early January, and he stared nervously at his first college transcript. There wasn't much good to see."
"On days like this, even aloof kids displayed uncharacteristic kindness and affection. Boys lingered over handshakes and looked into my eyes solemnly. Girls threw their arms around me and wordlessly moved away. No one said enough."
"Adrenaline swallows the pain but not the scrape of bone-on-bone, the pop, some deep and definitive readjustment in the mechanism that is his hand. He’s worried that bone has already broken through skin, but when he looks the wound is still invisible."
"...the three most important letters in sports are not NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL but ACL, as in the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament, that little bundle of collagen right at the center of your knee. It is that bundle that tears apart, leaving athletes to scream, cry, and pound the turf or court in frustration and torment. There are nearly 400,000 ACL repair procedures each year in the United States."
"Three decades ago the handball community in Forest Park was forever changed when one of its own was gunned down as he left the courts. Today the man's killer is a frequent visitor to the Forest Park courts, though he hides his identity from the handball players who continue to tell the story of the 1979 murder in almost mythic terms. But more on that later."
"I've given up hope of ever fully understanding the fractured things I saw while chasing the Serie A soccer circus around Italy. Let me be honest. I got sent to write about racism, which I found in staggering amounts. But Italy isn't like America, and racism there is tied into a thousand years of feuds, and hatred of anyone different, even if they're from only a few miles away, and fascism, and the recent wave of immigration. That's all in here, but it's unfair to hide my predicament, which became clear after only a day or two. I'd fallen into a parallel universe of contradictions."
"If you have ever wondered why the act of hitchhiking has dramatically waned in recent decades, this is the first reason: it became less sexy. The second reason is that personal automobiles and mass transportation became cheaper. The third—and biggest—one is fear."
"King says he divides his life into two categories — Before the Penitentiary and After the Penitentiary. There is no doubt that his time in prison expanded King’s ambitions. He read voraciously, and by the time he got out he had built up the lexicon of quotations and malapropisms that would turn him into one of the great talkers of his time. Within a year of his release, Don King was putting together his first fight."
"Mostly via text message, he has to keep the sport’s bloodhounds aware of his whereabouts at all times. He could be tested at random at any given moment. Three missed tests would equate to testing positive and he’d be subject to punishment. In addition, his blood values — his 'biological passport' — are checked quarterly for abnormalities. He’s not worried about any of it."
"All told, more than 76,000 soldiers have been kicked out of the Army since 2006. They end up in cities large and small across the country, in hospitals and homeless shelters, abandoned trailers and ratty apartments, working in gas fields and at the McDonald's counter... It doesn't take serious misconduct to be discharged and lose a lifetime of benefits. The Gazette found troops cut loose for small offenses that the Army acknowledges can be symptoms of TBI and PTSD. Some soldiers missed formation a handful of times or smoked marijuana once. Some were discharged for showing up late or missing appointments. Some tested positive once for drugs, then were deployed to combat zones because the Army needed the troops, only to be discharged for the drug offense when they returned."
"One year ago this month, under cover of night, fifteen Taliban, dressed as American soldiers, snuck onto one of the largest air bases in Afghanistan. What followed was a bloody confrontation highlighting a startling security lapse, with hundreds of millions in matériel lost in a matter of hours—the worst day for American airpower since the Tet Offensive. Yet the attack faded from view before anyone could figure out what went wrong."
"The night before, I strolled back to my hotel from a restaurant well past midnight — a stupid idea in just about any other African capital. But Rwanda is one of the safest places I’ve been, this side of Zurich, which is hard to reconcile with the fact that less than 20 years ago more civilians were murdered here in a three-month spree of madness than during just about any other three-month period in human history, including the Holocaust."
"The dean asks the child and his family if he wishes to be sacrificed in the way of Islam. This doesn’t mean giving him up to suicide bombing, but some will be. It can escalate from one madrassah to another and eventually the child might find himself in a place where the children are training to be suicide-bombers. The students in these madrassahs will be taken to the ultimate training centre in Pakistan blindfolded."
"China is currently in disputes with several of its neighbors, and the Chinese have become decidedly more willing to wield a heavy stick. There is a growing sense that they have been waiting a long time to flex their muscles and that that time has finally arrived."
"They’re the two titans of the tech industry, and they command attention throughout the digital realm the way the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. once drove the geopolitical agendas of the entire world. They’ve sparred before, especially on the issue of Android vs. the iPhone. But what if the cold war between these two behemoths got hot?"
"Noting the absence of cabin, bridge, bulkheads and benches, I wondered whether anyone else shared my deluded hope: that there was another, larger ship anchored somewhere farther out, and that this sad boat was merely to convey us there."
"Jimmy Iovine is a mogul par excellence; a man who helped mastermind the works of Bruce Springsteen and 50 Cent alike, co-produced 8 Mile, and today sits as the Chairman of Interscope Records. Dr. Dre is Dr. Dre. When hawking Beats at press events, the two work as a pair: Iovine, fast-talking and dagger-sharp, spouts the same corny origin story every time. Interscope wanted Dre to endorse sneakers. Dre replied: "Fuck sneakers, let's make speakers." The almost-certainly-apocryphal moment works partly because it's cute, and and mostly because it rhymes. From there, they'll have you believe, Beats was born. But the Lees say this is only half true."
"I was neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic, nor was I a criminal. But I had committed one of the more basic of American sins: I had failed. In eight years, my career had vanished, then my savings, and then our home. My family broke apart. I was alone, hungry, and defeated."
"From the mid-70s until the mid-90s, this fragrance was an object of intense feminine fetishization for girls who had reached a certain age: the one at which we began to feel, rather definitively, not quite like little girls, not yet like teenagers."
"At its peak, one in 20 Georgians was on hard drugs, with Subutex driving the epidemic. And now it’s gone: from zero users to hundreds of thousands and back to zero again, in a decade or less. The journey has been torturous, a case study in grotesque consequences and appalling trade-offs—some former Subutex devotees have taken to injecting pills dissolved in gasoline instead—and it shows that, whatever you think the solution to drug abuse is, you’re probably mistaken."
"We’re in Williston, North Dakota, because oil companies are here working to extract the abundant natural resources of the region, and to do so, they require many men. Female company is far less abundant than the petroleum resources. It is mobile, though, so here we come, the next sign of a boomtown after the oil and the men."
"Depending on whom you talk to in the plant sciences today, the field of plant neurobiology represents either a radical new paradigm in our understanding of life or a slide back down into the murky scientific waters last stirred up by “The Secret Life of Plants.” Its proponents believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects—the mute, immobile furniture of our world—and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature."
"You can't tell just by looking what is primeval and what is recent in Australia. The climate here is weird, aperiodic, and prone to abrupt shifts. Places that look like Mars today may have been lush and green just a few decades back. Other areas, like the Daintree rain forest, have not changed in tens of millions of years."
"They are not us, but to look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there. Imposing our own specific thoughts and feelings on that someone is in one sense too imaginative, in presuming he could receive the world in the way we do, and in another not imaginative enough, in not opening our minds to the full possibilities of his difference."
"Humans have a long history of using biology’s deadlier innovations for ill ends; we have proved especially adept at the weaponisation of microbes. In antiquity, we sent plagues into cities by catapulting corpses over fortified walls. Now we have more cunning Trojan horses. We have even stashed smallpox in blankets, disguising disease as a gift of good will. Still, these are crude techniques, primitive attempts to loose lethal organisms on our fellow man. In 1993, the death cult that gassed Tokyo’s subways flew to the African rainforest in order to acquire the Ebola virus, a tool it hoped to use to usher in Armageddon. In the future, even small, unsophisticated groups will be able to enhance pathogens, or invent them wholesale."
"...demographic studies show clearly that Baker’s methods of common sense and compassion, dispensed not by machines but by real human beings, probably saved more American children’s lives than anything else."
"...it is not the jaw’s power to destroy that fascinates Dr. Van der Bilt; it is its nuanced ability to protect. Think of a peanut between two molars, about to be crushed. At the precise millisecond the nut succumbs, the jaw muscles sense the yielding and reflexively let up. Without that reflex, the molars would continue to hurtle recklessly toward one another, now with no intact nut between."
"At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West."
"The screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same." Be sure to read through to the end.
UNFICTIONAL / Little Julian's Secret by Alex Schmidt (audio–look for the "listen" tab beneath the producer credit)
"Talk to a musician, a record collector, or a fan of East LA music of the 50s and 60s, and before long they'll bring up Little Julian Herrera. He's a mysterious and legendary part of East LA's musical history. He was the first Chicano R&B heartthrob, until one day he just disappeared. Some say he's still alive out there somewhere, and they're looking for him."
"When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time. At the Rio, a man’s cell phone disappeared from his jacket and was replaced by a piece of fried chicken; the cigarettes from a pack in one man’s breast pocket materialized loose in the side pocket of another; a woman’s engagement ring vanished and reappeared attached to a key ring in her husband’s pants; a man’s driver’s license disappeared from his wallet and turned up inside a sealed bag of M&M’s in his wife’s purse."
"Hanging above the toilet in San Francisco’s Different Fur recording studios — where artists like the Alabama Shakes and Bobby Brown have recorded — is a clipping from Tape Op magazine that reads: “Don’t admit to Auto-Tune use or editing of drums, unless asked directly. Then admit to half as much as you really did.”
"Years later, I’m still trying to make sense of what these books meant to me—why I wrote so many of them, and why (eventually) I stopped. The books are packed away in my attic now—dozens of them, with their lilac and dusty-pink paperback covers—but the experience is harder to sort out and put away."
"I did not publish my first book until I was nearly 40, and while I used to regret that late start, I now am thankful that I didn’t get the chance earlier in life to pour forth yet more sentences to spend my latter years regretting."
"In the false American imagination, West Virginia is a joke or else it’s a charity case; but more than anything it is unseen, an invisible architecture of labor and struggle; and incarceration shares this invisibility, hidden at the center of everything."
"In our justice system, there is no other crime that more efficiently punishes victims rather than those who victimize. There may be no other human cruelty that is more misunderstood, no subject more uncomfortable to read about or consider deeply, no quandary that so greatly challenges society’s assumptions about free will and justice. Lacking resources and comprehensive laws, those striving to help must make herculean and unorthodox efforts to recover and rehabilitate children suffering in the sex trade."
"He flew multiple missions, but he never left his computer. He hunted top terrorists, saved lives, but always from afar. He stalked and killed countless people, but could not always tell you precisely what he was hitting. Meet the 21st-century American killing machine. who's still utterly, terrifyingly human."
The life's work of Harry Belafonte, who says: "We have a culture where to tell the truth is not an easy thing to do. Every day we wake up we do our minstrel act. And our minstrel act means we put on the mask. We put on our burnt cork. And we grin like we know we have to grin to get through the day even though there’s a rage inside of us.”
"Jahar's friends were a diverse group of kids from both the wealthier and poorer sections of Cambridge; black, white, Jewish, Catholic, Puerto Rican, Bangladeshi, Cape Verdean. They were, as one Cambridge parent told me, 'the good kids' – debate champs, varsity athletes, student-government types, a few brainiacs who'd go off to elite New England colleges."
"This led to a strange democratic experiment in which radical secularism co-existed side by side with extreme Orthodoxy. Posters of women in bikinis dot the beaches of Tel Aviv, while bus shelters with images of even modestly dressed women are either torn off or spray-painted in Jerusalem."
"A couple of kettles served them well for many years, but when rust finally overcame them, the only replacements they could fashion came from birch bark. Since these could not be placed in a fire, it became far harder to cook. By the time the Lykovs were discovered, their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds."
"I was a pudgy kid, very shy, almost effeminate-shy, and I spoke with a lisp. Sometimes my mother would be passed out from drinking the night before and wouldn’t walk me to school. It was then that the kids would always hit me and kick me. We would go to school and these people would pick on us, then we would go home and they’d pull out guns and rob us for whatever little change we had. That was hard-core, young kids robbing us right in our own apartment building."
"Say you want someone, you know, eliminated —a lover, a business partner, a mother-in-law. There are guys out there who will do that. For a price. Then there's another kind of guy. A guy who looks and acts just like a regular hit man. But instead of doing the job, he turns sides and then you realize that you were his target all along."
"America saw Stephen Hill's face for 15 seconds. It took him a lifetime to show it."
* * *
A reflection on last year's journalism wouldn't be complete without noting the courageous reporting that Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman did on the Edward Snowden leaks, as well as the indispensable analysis of Marcy Wheeler. Although I didn't read nearly enough nonfiction books to provide a broad survey, I also very much enjoyed The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and The Power of Glamour.
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.