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
ORANGE COAST / Center of the Universe by Jay Roberts
"...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."
Man vs. Nature
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."
"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
SMITHSONIAN / Can Starbucks Do for the Croissant What it Did for Coffee? by Corby Kummer
"A rising tide of pastry knowledge is very, very good for me,” he says. “It’s good for all living creatures.”
OUTSIDE / Chef Blaine Wetzel's Quest to Become the Ultimate Locavore by Rowan Jacobsen
"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.”
THE WASHINGTON POST / Too Much of Too Little by Eli Saslow
"Is it enough for the government to help people buy food, or should it go further by also telling them what to eat?"
THE NEW YORK TIMES / The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food by Michael Moss
"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."
Made in America
GAWKER / On Smarm by Tom Scocca
"Smarm, whether political or literary, insists that the audience accept the priors it has been given. Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended."
THE TELEGRAPH / Hugh Laurie's Los Angeles by Hugh Laurie
"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."
TEXAS MONTHLY / "Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money” by Bryan Mealer
"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."
WASHINGTON POST / After Newtown Shooting, Mourning Parents Enter Into the Lonely Quiet by Eli Saslow
"The room went quiet as she began reading the names. Daniel Barden. Seven. Dylan Hockley. Six. Ana Marquez-Greene. Six. Six. Six. Six. Seven. Six. How long could one minute last?"
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 VERGE / For Amusement Only: The Life and Death of the American Arcade by Laura June
"During his long, popular tenure as mayor of New York City, he shut down brothels, rounded up slot machines, arrested gangsters on any charge he could find, and he banned pinball."
THE AWL / Why Is America Turning to Shit? by Yasmin Nair
"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."
GAWKER / My Life With the Thrill-Clit Cult by Nitasha Tiku
"Genital stimulation in a professional context seemed transgressive, even for hippie-hedonist San Francisco."
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES / South L.A. student finds a different world at Cal by Kurt Streeter
"The immigrant community and the growing population of Hasidim had eyed each other with increasing wariness. Then the Orthodox took over the public schools and proceeded to gut them."
THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR / Survival Skills at a School in L.A. by Anne P. Beatty
"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."
Sports & Leisure
VICE / Cold Water in Texas by Kerry Howley
"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."
DEADSPIN / The One-Legged Wrestler Who Conquered His Sport, Then Left It Behind by David Merrill
"An absence isn't a weakness if you make it someone else's problem."
GRANTLAND / The Nastiest Injury in Sports by Neal Gabler
"...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."
RIVERFRONT TIMES / Pros and Cons: Ex-inmates Redefine Handball at Forest Park by Jessica Lussenhop
"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."
An athlete excels in the twilight of his career.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED / In The Fields Of The Lord by Mark Oppenheimer
The meek shall inherit the earth–but they're unlikely to take home the Lombardi trophy this week. How Christian athletes reconcile the culture of football with the teachings of their faith.
War & Peace
THE GAZETTE / Other Than Honorable by Dave Philipps
"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."
"This time, the Afghan army, fledgling but ambitious, would be on its own — the first non-Taliban combatants to enter the valley in over two years."
THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE / A Game of Shark and Minnow by Jeff Himmelman
"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."
NATIONAL AFFAIRS / Paul Keating's Remembrance Day Address
"Commemorating these events should make us even more wary of grand ambitions and grand alliances of the kind that fractured Europe and darkened the twentieth century."
THE GUARDIAN / The Dwarves of Auschwitz by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
"I was saved by the grace of the devil."
Supply & Demand
"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."
THE AWL / A Cultural History of Love's Baby Soft by Jessanne Collins
"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."
Science and Beyond
AEON / Small Things by Philip Ball
"The discovery of a microscopic world shook the foundations of theology and created modern demons."
THE NEW YORKER / The Intelligent Plant by Michael Pollan
"As both a lapsed molecular biologist and a lapsed Christian looking to establish a new faith, he needed something he had never had before. He needed patients. He needed someone like Stephanie Lee."
AEON / Humanity's Deep Future by Ross Andersen
"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."
ORION / The Science of Citizenship by Belle Boggs
"How is it possible that no one has ever told him how a cell works before?"
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / The Doctor Who Made a Revolution by Helen Epstein
"...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."
AEON / Mortal Remains by Thomas Lynch
Arts, Letters and Entertainment
"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."
THE VERGE / Seduced by ‘perfect’ pitch: how Auto-Tune conquered pop music by Lessley Anderson
"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.”
THE BELIEVER / If He Hollers Let Him Go by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
"Searching for Dave Chappelle ten years after he left his own show."
THE NEW YORK TIMES / Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie by Stephen Rodrick
KENYON REVIEW / The Ghost Writes Back by Amy Boesky
"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."
Bill of Wrongs
OXFORD AMERICAN / Fog Count by Leslie Jameson
"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."
MEDIUM / How Britain Exported Next Generation Surveillance by James Bridle
"Despite having a population of just 15,000 and a relatively low crime rate, the town was encircled in 2011 by ANPR cameras that record every vehicle that enters and leaves, 24 hours a day."
NEW YORK / The NYPD Division of Un-American Activities by Matt Apuzzo & Adam Goldman
"After 9/11, the NYPD built in effect its own CIA—and its Demographics Unit delved deeper into the lives of citizens than did the NSA."
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / In the Violent Favelas of Brazil by Suketu Mehta
"There is a de facto sharing of power between the legitimate organs of the state and the gangs, the militias. Many people will die as the exact contours of this power-sharing are negotiated."
THE GUARDIAN / How India's Other Half Lives by Jason Burke
The life of a pioneering feminist.
THE NEW REPUBLIC / The Feminists of Zion by Allison Kaplan Sommer and Dahlia Lithwick
"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."
SMITHSONIAN / Everything Was Fake but Her Wealth by Karen Abbott
"Ida Wood, who lived for decades as a recluse in a New York City hotel, nearly took her secrets to the grave."
SLATE / The Welfare Queen by Josh Levin
"40 years after an acid attack, a life well-lived."
GQ / A Very Dangerous Boy by Amy Wallace
"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.
*All articles published at The Atlantic are available in our digital archives. For starters, try The Secret Life of Grief, Murder by Craigslist, and Electronic Dance Music's Love Affair With Ecstasy, which are just a few of my favorites from 2013–unless you're looking for older fare, or much older fare, which is also available.