Roughly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism

Exceptional nonfiction stories from 2014 that are still worth encountering today

Lisi Niesner / Reuters

Each year, I keep a running list of exceptional nonfiction that I encounter as I publish The Best of Journalism, an email newsletter that I send out once or twice a week. This is my annual attempt to bring some of those stories to a wider audience. I could not read or note every worthy article that was published last calendar year and I haven't included any paywalled articles or anything published at The Atlantic. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention and engagement.

Art of the Personal Essay

Infomastern / Flickr

BUZZFEED / Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500 by Drew Philp

"After college, as my friends left Michigan for better opportunities, I was determined to help fix this broken city by building my own home in the middle of it."

THE GUARDIAN / 'There Is Going to Be a Destruction… The Obliteration of a Person' by Marion Coutts

“A small tumour has been detected in Tom's brain. It's not known yet whether it is malignant but that is possible. It needs taking out and he'll be operated on in about a week. We don't know yet what any of this means, in terms of further problems or none, or possible side effects from the operation. It's a very uncertain time for us.”

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS / Diary by Emily Witt

SALON / The Day I Left My Son in the Car by Kim Brooks

“I made a split-second decision to run into the store. I had no idea it would consume the next years of my life.”

THE NEW YORKER / This Old Man by Roger Angell

"Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice... to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again.”

MEDIUM / On Kindness by Cord Jefferson

"...rather than the pain of her youth hobbling her such that more pain was all she had left to offer, she decided early in her life that her sorrows were evidence of too much heartache in the world as it was."

OXFORD AMERICAN / Dixie Zen by Sam Anderson

“Tubing, more than any narcotic, fundamentally changes your perception of time. The trip downriver takes almost five hours, but that’s only by the clock. As soon as you leave your last earthly point of reference—the bright, sandy piece of beach you rolled your tube down to start the trip—you slip into a state of religious, mystic timelessness.”

THE MESSAGE / How to Be Polite by Paul Ford

“I don’t look polite. I am big and droopy and need a haircut. No soul would associate me with watercress sandwiches. Still, every year or so someone takes me aside and says, you actually are weirdly polite, aren’t you? And I always thrill. They noticed.”

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS / Diary by Geoff Dyer

A stroke.

This Is a Business


THE NEW YORK TIMES / Working Anything but 9 to 5 by Jodi Kantor

“She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy. Months after starting the job she moved out of her aunt’s home, in part because of mounting friction over the erratic schedule, which the aunt felt was also holding her family captive. Ms. Navarro’s degree was on indefinite pause because her shifting hours left her unable to commit to classes. She needed to work all she could, sometimes counting on dimes from the tip jar to make the bus fare home. If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.”

GQ/ Love Me Tinder by Emily Witt

“I was staying only a mile from Tinder’s offices in West Hollywood, and within forty-eight hours both founders showed up on my Tinder feed. Other memorable appearances on my feed in Los Angeles included a guy holding a koala bear, a guy and his Yorkshire terrier, in matching sweaters, and a pipe-smoking dandy with a Rasputin beard, horn-rimmed glasses, and a gold ring the exact shape and size of a cicada.”

MEDIUM / How Much My Novel Cost Me by Emily Gould

“Besides a couple of freelance writing assignments, my only source of income for more than a year had come from teaching yoga, for which I got paid $40 a class. In 2011 I made $7,000. During that $7,000 year I also routinely read from my work in front of crowds of people, spoke on panels and at colleges, and got hit up for advice by young people who were interested in emulating my career path, whose coffee I usually ended up buying after they made a halfhearted feint toward their tote bag–purses.”

GRANTLAND / The Rise of Nintendo by Blake J. Harris

“The initial impression was that this was a silly game with an even sillier name. Who would possibly want to play a game where a tiny red plumber must rescue his beloved princess by hopping over obstacles tossed in his way by an obese gorilla?”

WIRED / One Startup’s Struggle to Survive the Silicon Valley Gold Rush by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

“Starting a company was once an urge felt only by the blindly ambitious and slightly unsound, but in the Valley it’s been ostensibly transformed into a scheduled path one can simply elect and apply for, rather as one might choose law school or Wall Street. And the promise of professionalized entrepreneurship has had a particular allure in recent years, since finance has been tarnished and a career in law made increasingly uncertain. Starting a company has become the way for ambitious young people to do something that seems simultaneously careerist and heroic.”

BUSINESS INSIDER / The Untold Story of Larry Page’s Incredible Comeback by Nicholas Carlson

“ 1985, a 12-year-old in Michigan finished reading Tesla's biography and cried. That was Larry Page. In that moment, Page realized it wasn’t enough to envision an innovative technological future. Big ideas aren’t enough. They need to be commercialized. If Page wanted to be an inventor, he was going to have to start a successful company, too.”

THE BIG ROUNDTABLE / Consider the Can by Robert W. Fieseler

“The aluminum beverage can is a marvel of industrial design. Everything about it is designed to please you. It’s easy to stack, satisfying to open, easy to grip with your thumb and forefinger, convenient to purchase in quantity. The can never rusts, due to the non-ferrous properties of aluminum, and its byproduct from exposure to air is a protective layer. The can is easy to crush when empty and nearly impossible to crush when sealed. Its cylinder will withstand up to ninety pounds of direct pressure. Four six-packs of beer can support a two-ton car. With its perfect seal and imperviousness to light, the can will shelter its contents from sun and air.”

AL JAZEERA AMERICA / For Hire: Dedicated Young Man with Down Syndrome by Michael Bérubé

"He is not quite capable of living independently and needs help with various life tasks, especially with things involving small motor skills, but otherwise he is good to go, with appropriate supervision. He was cleared for a Community Based Work Assessment. Now all we had to do was to figure out what kind of job he might be able to do.”

CABINET / Whitewood Under Siege by Jacob Hodes

The most important tool of global trade that you never think about: the humble palette.

VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW / Losing Sparta by Esther Kaplan

"The Sparta facility was named by Industry​Week as a Best Plant of the year, one of the top ten in North America. It won Best Plant within Philips’s global lighting division as well as the firm’s global 'Lean Challenge.' That summer, plant managers invited state officials and legislators to Sparta to celebrate. Then, one morning in November 2010, a Philips executive no one recognized drove up and walked into the plant, accompanied by a security guard wearing sunglasses and a sidearm.”

BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK / Now at the Sands Casino: An Iranian Hacker in Every Server by Ben Elgin and Michael Riley

“Other countries have spied on American companies, and they have stolen from them, but this is likely the first time—occurring months before the late November attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment (SNE)—that a foreign player simply sought to destroy American corporate infrastructure on such a scale. Both hacks may represent the beginning of a geopolitically confusing, and potentially devastating, phase of digital conflict. Experts worry that America’s rivals may have found the sweet spot of cyberwar—strikes that are serious enough to wound American companies but below the threshold that would trigger a forceful government response. More remarkable still, Sands has managed to keep the full extent of the hack secret for 10 months.”

L.A. WEEKLY / How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star by Amy Nicholson

“Like Humphrey Bogart saying, ‘Play it again, Sam,’ Tom Cruise jumping on a couch is one of our mass hallucinations. But there's a difference. Bogart's mythological Casablanca catchphrase got embedded in the culture before we could replay the video and fact-check. Thanks to the Internet, we have video at our fingertips. Yet rather than correct the record, the video perpetuated the delusion.”

NEW YORK / “Let’s, Like, Demolish Laundry” by Jessica Pressler

“We are living in a time of Great Change, and also a time of Not-So-Great Change. The tidal wave of innovation that has swept out from Silicon Valley, transforming the way we communicate, read, shop, and travel, has carried along with it an epic shit-ton of digital flotsam. Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems.”

THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / Find Your Beach by Zadie Smith

“The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.”

Officials Acting  Immorally

Paul Hanna / Reuters

THE NEW YORKER / Before the Law by Jennifer Gonnerman

"A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life." The injustice of what happened to this kid is put to readers like a visceral blow.

LOS ANGELES / The Downfall of Sheriff Baca by Celeste Fremon

“A year and a half after the FBI took 18 L.A. sheriff’s department deputies into custody for abusing inmates and visitors to county jails, former L.A. County undersheriff and current mayor of Gardena Paul Tanaka has been indicted for obstructing a federal probe into inmate abuse.”

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL / A Massacre in the Family b
“Over the next nine hours, the troopers slaughtered up to 200 people, at least two-thirds of them noncombatants, then mutilated the dead in unspeakable fashion. The Sand Creek Massacre scandalized a nation still fighting the Civil War and planted seeds of distrust and sorrow among Native Americans that endure to this day.”
“Since the outset of the war, the scale of the United States’ encounters with chemical weapons in Iraq was neither publicly shared nor widely circulated within the military. These encounters carry worrisome implications now that the Islamic State, a Qaeda splinter group, controls much of the territory where the weapons were found. The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors. The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.”
THE BALTIMORE SUN / Undue Force by Mark Puente
“...more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.”
AEON / Twilight in the Box by
“In 2005, there were an estimated 81,600 prisoners in solitary in the US; this month’s Senate Subcommittee Hearing puts the numbers at about the same. That’s 3.6 per cent of the 2.2 million presently incarcerated, many of whom, like King, were put in there for random acts of non-violent rule-breaking. Some, like him, shuttle in and out of solitary; others remain locked up for decades. Prison authorities in every state are running a massive uncontrolled experiment on all of them. And every day, the products of these trials trickle out on to the streets, with their prospects of rehabilitation professionally, socially, even physiologically diminished.”
The result: working class people who "get sucked into a vortex of debt and despair."

FUSION / Florida City’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ Nabs Thousands of Kids, Finds 5-Year-Olds ‘Suspicious’ by Alice Brennan and Dan Lieberman

“Miami Gardens police records reveal broad policy of stopping and questioning citizens: 8,489 kids and 1,775 senior citizens caught up in city’s version of ‘stop and frisk.’”

FRONTLINE / United States of Secrets

The best overview of mass NSA surveillance on innocents.

THIS AMERICAN LIFE / The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra

“The NY Federal Reserve is supposed to monitor big banks. But when Carmen Segarra was hired, what she witnessed inside the Fed was so alarming that she got a tiny recorder.”

RADIOLAB / 60 Words

“The story of how this has come to be one of the most important, confusing, troubling sentences of the past 12 years.” Pair with Gregory D. Johnsen’s “60 Words And A War Without End: The Untold Story Of The Most Dangerous Sentence In U.S. History,” as well as my own article about Barbara Lee’s lonely dissent.

SLATE / When Men Are Raped by Hanna Rosin

“A new study reveals that men are often the victims of sexual assault, and women are often the perpetrators.”

LOVE+RADIO / Superchat

“A couple months ago, a friend handed Julia a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. One night, bored and maybe a little tipsy, she called it up. This is who she met.”

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS / Diary by Helen DeWitt

“If I can be driven out by any man in the grip of unrequited attachment, if I can be driven out again for seeking legal redress, equality under the law is a fiction: I may need to pay twice for housing and lose a year’s income, maybe more, at any time. At eight stone, I can even the odds only if I can come to the door with a gun and say, ‘Make my day.’”

POST AND COURIER / Till Death Do Us Part by Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes and Natalie Caula Hauff

“More than 300 women were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse. More than three times as many women have died here at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.”