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.
“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.”
“This was just my life: I lived it and sometimes had sex with people. Sometimes I wanted to commit to people, or them to me, but in the past two years no such interests had fallen into alignment. I had started on this behaviour more or less by accident, still thinking that I would find someone I loved and begin a relationship. Now I sought out sex even when it would lead nowhere. I thought of it as an important way to connect with friends. I saw good sex and bad sex as equally valuable. But there were still some problems, I said. I still didn’t feel as free as I wanted to. Sometimes I couldn’t cross the barriers that keep people from expressing their desires. Rejection didn’t hurt any less, although it didn’t hurt more, and I knew better now how to work through it, mostly by having sex with other people.”
"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.”
"...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."
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“...in 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 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.”
"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.”
"The Sparta facility was named by IndustryWeek 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“A new group of settlers is arriving on 24th Street, known to some as El Corazón de la Misión, the heart of the Mission. Wealthier than previous residents, they are choosing the Mission’s bustling cultural mosaic over the city’s stodgier, old-money neighborhoods. Over eight months interviewing residents and merchants whose lives revolve around the block, The Chronicle observed a situation more nuanced than the past narrative of rich newcomers forcing out longtime residents.”
“An armored convoy would be spotted by Guzmán’s lookouts well before it arrived at its destination. And if a Blackhawk helicopter was dispatched to attack his outpost he would hear it thundering across the valley from miles out, leaving plenty of time to flee.”
“It’s not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It’s not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It’s not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It’s not possible to lead the world’s forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it’s certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.”
“The sophistication with which neighborhood groups wield San Francisco’s arcane land-use and zoning regulations for activist purposes is one of the very unique things about the city’s politics. But the city’s political leadership doesn’t want to change it, because it fears backlash from powerful neighborhood groups, which actually deliver votes. Also, parts of the progressive community do not believe in supply and demand.”
“One of the few people willing to give interviews in the hours and days after the explosion—willing, in fact, to give them over and over again—was a young man named Bryce Reed. He served as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in West, which gave him the authority to speak from the very center of the tragedy.”
“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.”
“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.”
“...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.”
“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 young man’s thick leather coat was useless as the shipwrecked men floated in the freezing water. Turkish authorities had quarantined the ship for weeks, refusing to accept Jews on their soil and forcing the passengers to wait onboard while the ship’s engine was repaired. It was unlikely that anyone from shore would come to their rescue.”
"Stories of schools struggling with what to do with misbehaving kids. There's no general agreement about what teachers should do to discipline kids. And there's new evidence that some of the most popular punishments actually may harm kids."
"Inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top-secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers. But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper.”
“Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain.”
“The Villages may be the fastest growing city in America. It’s a notorious boomtown for boomers who want to spend their golden years with access to 11 a.m. happy hours, thousands of activities, and no-strings-attached sex, all lorded over by one elusive billionaire.”
"Hundreds of families have moved to Colorado in hopes of healing their sick children—conventional medicine has failed. They’re turning to a liquid form of marijuana that has helped some, but not all. This is the story of 12-year-old Preston and his mother, Ana.”
“We think of certain events as life-altering. Getting married or emigrating to a new country, say. But you can always get divorced, and you can almost always move back. Taylor is weighing a life decision from which there would be no turning back.”
“Congress had more pride than greed, and the unexpected gift rankled: not only was it that of a reviled Brit, but a Brit who dared demand he be acknowledged in perpetuity. Moreover, it was earmarked for a purpose Americans never would have chosen themselves.”
“Robert Kennedy, who was closer to his brother and knew more about his many enraged detractors than anyone else, told a friend that the Mafia was principally responsible for what happened November 22.”
“Given how successful autocorrect is, how indispensable it has become, why do we stay so fixated on the errors? It's not just because they represent unsolicited intrusions of nonsense into our glassy corporate memoranda. It goes beyond that...”
"For whatever reason, I felt compelled to go looking for the origins of the fancy toast trend. How does such a thing get started? What determines how far it goes? I wanted to know. Maybe I thought it would help me understand the rise of all the seemingly trivial, evanescent things that start in San Francisco and then go supernova across the country—the kinds of products I am usually late to discover and slow to figure out. I’m not sure what I expected to turn up. Certainly nothing too impressive. But what I found was more surprising and sublime than I could have possibly imagined."
“Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing.”
“It's hard to start a conversation with a stranger—especially when that stranger is, well, different. He doesn't share your customs, celebrate your holidays, watch your TV shows, or even speak your language. Plus he has a blowhole. In this episode, we try to make contact with some of the strangest strangers on our little planet: dolphins. Producer Lynn Levy eavesdrops on some human-dolphin conversations, from a studio apartment in the Virgin Islands to a research vessel in the Bermuda Triangle.”
“Every year, more than 500 Americans will be struck by lightning—and roughly 90 percent will survive. Though they remain among the living, their minds and bodies will be instantly, fundamentally altered in ways that still leave scientists scratching their heads.”
“During daylight, we go about our lives. Walt rides his bike to school... Cornelia manages the house, the bills, the overloaded schedules of the kids. I am editing and writing for The Journal, putting on my suit and subwaying to the bureau. No one knows we’re all living double lives. At night, we become animated characters.”
“I’m standing between two stacks of what looks like industrial shelving that are three times taller than I am. The spaces between the shelves are lightly webbed with thin metal bars. Behind the bars are thousands of 31-day-old broiler chickens.”
"It seemed natural that a 40-year-old athlete might want to retire, but I couldn’t believe he could do it without anyone writing the sort of admiring, curtain-closing piece on his career that I thought he deserved. Could the world’s greatest juggler really slip into anonymity with hardly anyone noticing?"
"For 30 years, a phantom haunted the woods of Maine. Unseen and unknown, he lived in secret, creeping into homes in the dead of night and surviving on what he could steal. To the spooked locals, he became a legend—or maybe a myth. They wondered how he could possibly be real. Until one day last year, the hermit came out of the forest."
“About a year after they had started working with him, they persuaded Mr. Clark’s mother to hand over guardianship of her son.Their goal was to remove their star player from an unstable environment, giving him an opportunity to flourish.”
“He is considered one of the most influential figures in comedy — despite a body of work consisting of just 37 pitch-black songs and a career that stopped abruptly when the counterculture he helped spawn eclipsed him. You can ask him why he quit, but good luck getting an answer.
"I believe that hunters are being sincere when they say they harbor no ill will toward the animals they shoot. Not being a hunter myself, I subscribe to an admittedly sissyish philosophy whereby I only wish brain-piercing bullets upon creatures I dislike. I’ve truthfully promised Jeff Rann that I’m not here to write an anti-hunting screed, merely to chronicle the hunt coolly and transparently. But I’m a little worried that some unprofessional, bleeding-heart sympathies might fog my lens when the elephant gets his bullet. So I’m trying to muster up some prophylactic loathing for the animals out here. I want to be properly psyched when the elephant goes down."
“... because of the naive convention of collapsing the space between the nonfiction narrator and the implied author, authorial persona is in some ways more important for the nonfiction writer.” Pair with Kerry Howley’s fantastic Thrown, as beautifully written and innovative a nonfiction book as was published last year.
“I’ve just asked him if he was involved in the creation of Bitcoin. The 57-year-old man’s almost imperceptible eye movement is his only way of telling me that he was not, and that I’ve spent the last week caught in the same futile windmill-tilting that has ensnared so many other reporters trying to solve the puzzle of Bitcoin’s mysterious creator.”
“In 265 years, 69 men have been promoted to yokozuna. Just 69 since George Washington was a teenager. 2 Only the holders of sumo’s highest rank are allowed to make entrances like this. Officially, the purpose of the elaborate dohyo-iri is to chase away demons. (And this is something you should register about sumo, a sport with TV contracts and millions in revenue and fan blogs and athletes in yogurt commercials — that it’s simultaneously a sport in which demon-frightening can be something’s official purpose.) But the ceremony is territorial on a human level, too. It’s a message delivered to adversaries, a way of saying This ring is mine, a way of saying Be prepared for what happens if you’re crazy enough to enter it.”
“During the last years of the Cold War, a teenager with only about 50 hours of flying experience rented a Cessna and departed on a two week trip. His goal was to fly over the Iron Curtain and land in Moscow.”
“If Yemen weren't in permanent crisis, the city would be awash in archaeologists, one of whom might even settle the question of how long people have lived here. Like Damascus or Jericho, Sana’a has a credible claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. But what truly makes this place unique isn't its age, but its astonishing buildings. Old Sana’a looks like a gingerbread tribute to Manhattan.”
“Southern elephant seals max out at approximately 6,600 pounds. In other words, the four humans and several dozen animals of the Islands of Refreshment went through around 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of oil-laden elephant seal meat and blubber per week. Which, though presumably sustaining, doesn’t sound particularly refreshing.”
"Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone. There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.”
“The setting sounded like a frontiersman’s idyll, a renegade preserve run on marijuana profit. Driving up from San Francisco, I saw that Dan wasn’t overstating it. Public Humboldt makes a powerful impression on the viewer, private Humboldt even more so. Some of the vistas on Ethan’s farm look staged, like compilations of mountain sceneries, all very pretty, lined up in panoramic excess.”
“In falconry, perhaps more than in any other of the alliances we force on animals, it is the human that must bend his life around the hawk. The bird transforms only subtly, and only insofar as the human is transformed in its own eyes.”
“In the hands of a less accomplished historian, Japan’s Great Zoo Massacre might be a simple tragedy, an evil perpetrated by warmongers against defenceless creatures… But Ian Jared Miller’s close reading unlocks its potential for understanding the cross-currents of Japanese politics and society as the war situation went from bad to worse.”
“I want to take these pieces of moss, cleaned, dried and simmered in juniper broth, and sprinkle them with dried berries, forest plant, juniper oil, cep oil, thyme oil—anything delicious from the woods.”
NPR / Demolishedby David Eads and Helga Salinas with photos by Patricia Evans
“Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.”
“As women’s colleges challenged the conventions of womanhood, they drew a disproportionate number of students who identified as lesbian or bisexual. Today a small but increasing number of students at those schools do not identify as women, raising the question of what it means to be a “women’s college.” Trans students are pushing their schools to play down the women-centric message... At many schools, they have also taken leadership positions long filled by women: resident advisers on dorm floors, heads of student groups and members of college government. At Wellesley, one transmasculine student was a dorm president. At Mills College, a women’s school in California, even the president of student government identifies as male.”
“Any woman who is raped, on campus or off, deserves a fair and thorough investigation of her claim, and those found guilty should be punished. But the new rules—rules often put in place hastily and in response to the idea of a rape epidemic on campus—have left some young men saying they are the ones who have been victimized. They are starting to push back. In the past three years, men found responsible for sexual assault on campus have filed more than three dozen cases against schools. They argue that their due process rights have been violated and say they have been victims of gender discrimination. Their complaints are starting to cost universities.”
“...even as online feminism has proved itself a real force for change, many of the most avid digital feminists will tell you that it’s become toxic. Indeed, there’s a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.
“The gay wing at Men’s Central Jail is an exceptionally rare, if not unique, subculture, the only environment of its kind in a major U.S. city. Nothing like it exists in America’s 21 largest urban jails.”
“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.”
"I could tell you I got an abortion one February or heart surgery that March—like they were separate cases, unrelated scripts—but neither one of these accounts would be complete without the other. One procedure made me bleed and the other was nearly bloodless; one was my choice and the other wasn’t; both made me feel the incredible frailty and capacity of my own body; both left me prostrate under the hands of men, and dependent on the care of a man I was just beginning to love."
"These laws make parents responsible for what they did not do. Typically, people cannot be prosecuted for failing to thwart a murder; they had to have actually helped carry it out. But child abuse is an exception, and the logic behind these laws is simple: Parents and caregivers bear a solemn duty to protect their children."
“The villagers became convinced he was possessed by evil spirits, and were about to chain him upside down to a tree to be ‘healed’ by the local soothsayer. He only narrowly avoided this treatment by agreeing to leave the village. It was a terrible price to pay.”
Did I miss an exceptional piece of journalism published in 2014? Email oversights to firstname.lastname@example.org