These must-reads aremy personal picks for the best nonfiction of 2010
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Was he the best ping pong player ever? Marty Reisman says that's how he'd be remembered if the game wouldn't have been taken over by whippersnappers with new-fangled paddles. So late in life, he began challenging some of the best in the sport with only one condition: old school equipment.
Is alcoholism "a physical condition with a spiritual solution," as Alcoholics Anonymous has long insisted? Dr Olivier Ameisen no longer thinks so - having successfully ended his own debilitating addiction, he thinks he's found a revolutionary cure for the disease in the form of a widely available pill.
The subject is ants: "If you think the numbers sound like abstractions, if you wonder what deranged census-taker came to the conclusion that in the shadow of each and every human being there lives a hidden host of 1.6 million, well, that only means you haven't attempted the experiment of peacefully coexisting with them."
In the United States, the norms that influence how we conceive of corruption are far different than what prevails in the Middle East - and our efforts in the region are doomed to failure until we understand that.
The Large Haldron Collider "exists in a near-magical realm, a $9 billion cathedral of science that is apparently, in any practical sense, useless." A look at the secrets physicists hope it will unlock.
THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE Tuna's End by Paul Greenberg
Blue fin tuna can swim as fast as 40 miles per hour, navigate journeys thousands of miles long, and thrive anywhere from the tropics to frigid subarctic seas. Unfortunately, they may not survive long enough to be seen by your grandkids.
An Italian restaurant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn is trying to do something every other institution in that neighborhood has failed at - bringing Hasidic Jews, blacks, and white secular liberals together in one place.
As a 15-year-old, Omar Hammami had just been elected president of his sophomore class at an Alabama high school. A decade later, he was on the eastern edge of Africa leading a brutal Islamist insurgency. Why?
It should have been a simple project: if Haitian mango farmers would just put their fruit in plastic crates they could double their income. In international development, however, nothing is ever that simple.
"In Japan, food portions are small, women's shoulders are modestly covered, and Pamela Anderson's breasts are not a certified national obsession. This makes Hooters' innuendo-heavy version of family dining an odd fit that the chain's Japan team had to coach into reality."
BLOGGERS OF THE YEAR
- In lively, exquisitely crafted prose, Will Wilkinson offered posts at Democracy In America that managed a rare trifecta: they were provocative, logically sound, and infused with razor sharp wit.
This list has improved every year thanks to reader support. If you value this effort - or if you're just a lover of nonfiction - I encourage you to sign up for The Best Of Journalism newsletter. For $1.99 per month, you'll get my recommendations on what to read
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journalism. Finally, congratulations to all the writers and editors who produced this year's winning entries.
Image credits: Reuters and Flickr users Bradley James, Doug Beckers, Tim Green, Spigoo, Jenny Downing and Epsos.de