Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism

My personal picks for must-read nonfiction from 2013.

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

Serge Saint

ORANGE COAST / Center of the Universe by Jay Roberts

"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."
THE NEW YORKER / Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy
"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."
n+1 / What Do You Desire? by Emily Witt
"While I certainly worried about what I had seen, I could not find it in myself to feel that level of indignation. I ate my ice cream sandwich and went to sleep."
THE SUN / The Love of My Life by Cheryl Strayed
"I was bereft, in agony, destroyed over her death. To experience sexual joy, it seemed, would have been to negate that reality."
MTV HIVE / The Only Black Guy at the Indie-Rock Show by Martin Douglas
"It wasn’t my parents’ music. It was something that was happening right now, and regardless of the color lines placed between it and me, it was something that I was a part of."
AEON / My Mom by Mary HK Choi
"She pulls rank all the time and once judo-flipped me onto my back in a grocery store to remind me where things stood."
THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR / One Road by Donald Hall
"Driving through postwar Yugoslavia was nearly impossible, but a young poet and his new wife struggled through the desolate landscape to Athens."
GAWKER / Our Kind of Ridiculous by Kiese Laymon
"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."
THE NEW YORK TIMES / The View from the Victim Room by Courtney Queeney
"In this court, your ex is referred to as the Respondent. I was there because my ex beat me."  

"...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."

TEXAS MONTHLY / The Other Side of the Story by Jenny Kutner
"When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it's more complicated than that."
"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."
THE AWL / I Am an Object of Internet Ridicule by C.D. Hermelin
"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.'"
"We didn’t laugh and clap, probably because we were all wondering if there is a point to being alive."

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."
NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / They're Taking Over by Tim Flannery
"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?"
GRANTLAND / Out in the Great Alone by Brian Phillips
"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."
THE NEW YORK TIMES / Who Would Kill a Monk Seal? by Jon Mooallem
"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."
MOTHER JONES /  America's Real Criminal Element: Lead by Kevin Drum
"What molecule could be responsible for a steep and sudden decline in violent crime? Well, here's one possibility: Pb(CH2CH3)4."
THE SEATTLE TIMES / Sea Change by Craig Welch
"...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."

"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

Gone Apey/Flickr

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.”

LUCKY PEACH / Dick Soup by Fuchsia Dunlop
"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."

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."

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."
"So why, after almost five decades of science that is vaguely inconclusive or inaccurate at worst, or definitively affirmative of MSG’s safety at best, does the ingredient remain divisive?"
GQ / Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi by Adam Johnson
"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."

Made in America

Erik Daniel Drost

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 POSTAfter 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?"

THE BELIEVER / Wanted: Macho Men with Mustaches by Nicole Pasulka
The rise of The Village People.

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 CarsHouse RulesTaking NamesThe 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

"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."
NEW YORK / Them and Them by Benjamin Wallace-Wells

"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."

When is it okay to accept welfare?      
WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE / Hiding in N. Virginia, a Daughter of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding
Sins of a father.

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 TIMESPros 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."

ESPN THE MAGAZINE / When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly by Wright Thompson
"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."
THE PARIS REVIEW / On the Road Again by Robert Moor
"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."
N+1 / Mavericks by Alice Gregory
"There is no place more beautiful than where I am right now, and nobody cooler than the people who surf here."
GRANTLAND / The End and Don King by Jay Caspian Kang
"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."
THE WASHINGTON POST / Cycling's Road Forward by Rick Maese
"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."
THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR / Playing at Violence by Pacifique Irankunda
"Having grown up amid the horrors of Burundi’s civil war, a young man is bewildered by the American lust for warlike video games."
"...after talking it out, the idea started to sound less crazy. This could be his post-Olympics something big, and an experience that would set him apart as a speaker."
ESPN THE MAGAZINE / The Ugly Truth About Peyton Manning by Seth Wickersham 

An athlete excels in the twilight of his career.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDIn 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."

GQ / Enemy Inside the Wire​ by Matthieu Aikins
"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 NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE / The Global Elite's Favorite Strongman by Jeffrey Gettleman
"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 NEW YORKER / The Shadow Commander by Dexter Filkins
"The Shadow Commander Qassem Suleimani is the Iranian operative who has been reshaping the Middle East. Now he’s directing Assad’s war in Syria."
LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS / Boys and Girls by Andrew O'Hagan
"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."
LOS ANGELES TIMES / A Soldier's Wife by Christopher Goffard
"Her husband came home, and the war came with him."
THE WEEKLY STANDARD / The Last 24 Notes by Matt Labash
The bugler who saved taps at military funerals.
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / Arendt & Eichmann: The New Truth and The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator by Mark Lilla
"He wants to convince his interviewer and the viewer that all his actions, including the most troubling, were intended to beat the Nazis at their own game."
MOSAIC / You Only Live Twice by Michel Gurfinkiel
"Vibrant Jewish communities were reborn in Europe after the Holocaust. Is there a future for them in the 21st century?"
WASHINGTON POST / Afghan Soldiers Enter a Taliban Nest by Kevin Sieff

"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

NEW YORK / Suds for Drugs by Ben Paynter
"Shoppers have surprisingly strong feelings about laundry detergent." So strong, in fact, that affection for Tide caused it to be used as a currency in black market transactions.
SLATE / War Games: Google vs. Apple by Matthew Yglesias and Farhad Manjoo 
"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?"
THE NEW YORK TIMES / The Dream Boat by Luke Mogelson
"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."
GIZMODO / Beats by Dre by Sam Biddle
"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."
PRICEONOMICS / What It's Like to Fail by David Raether

"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."

THE NEW REPUBLIC / Subu Must Die by Graeme Wood
"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."
MENTAL FLOSS / 100 Years on a Dirty Dog by Gary Belsky
The history of Greyhound.
"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."
The grocery store rush on the first of the month.

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

"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."
IDLE WORDS / Pursuing the Platypus by Maciej Ceglowski
"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."  
THE NEW ATLANTIS / Do Elephants Have Souls? by Caitrin Nicol
"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."
"...what spectacular abilities might lie dormant in the rest of us?"
ESQUIRE / There's a Whole New Way of Killing Cancer by Tom Junod and Mark Warren

"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

"The dead are no longer welcome at their own funerals."
THE NEW YORK TIMESThe Marvels in Your Mouth by Mary Roach
" 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."     
PACIFIC STANDARD / We Aren't the World by Ethan Waters
"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."
RADIO LAB / The most innovative work in journalism is being done on this show. Choosing among podcast episodes is nearly impossible, but once you listen to The Man Behind the ManeuverAre You Sure, Poop TrainCut and Run,  The Speedy Beet, or Blame, you may well find yourself going through the whole archive.

Arts, Letters and Entertainment

SLATE / Save the Movie! by Peter Suderman
"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."
THE NEW YORKER A Pickpocket's Tale by Adam Green

"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 VERGESeduced 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."

THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR / Kodachrome Eden by James Santel
"This is how National Geographic negotiated the ’60s: by ascribing dissent to the creative energy inherent to America."
MEDIUM / From the Abundance of the Heart by Alan Jacobs
"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."

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 YORKER / Taken by Sarah Stillman 
"Under civil forfeiture law, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes. Is that all we’re losing?"
OC WEEKLY / Corrective Solutions Checkmate by Denise Grollmus
"Prosecutors nationwide team up with the San Clemente debt collector to terrorize consumers."
THE HERALD TRIBUNE / The Stolen Ones by David McSwane
"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."
GQ / Confessions of a Drone Warrior by Matthew Power
"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 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 brutal gang-rape on a bus highlighted the routine abuse of Indian women – and how the nation's surge to superpower status has left millions behind struggling on the margins."
"He was a genius at installing secret compartments in cars. If they were used to smuggle drugs without his knowledge, he figured that wasn’t his problem. He was wrong." 
MOTHER JONESSchizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin. by Mac McClelland
"It's insanity to kill your father with a kitchen knife. It's also insanity to close hospitals, fire therapists, and leave families to face mental illness on their own."


VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW / Voice and Hammer by Jeff Sharlet
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.” 
ROLLING STONE / Jahar's World by Janet Reitman 
"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."
THE WILSON QUARTERLY / Still God Helps You by Melissa Pritchard
The extraordinary story of a man who escaped modern slavery.
THE NEW YORKER / Death of a Revolutionary by Susan Faludi

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."

SMITHSONIANEverything 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

"In the 1970s, Ronald Reagan villainized a Chicago woman for bilking the government. Her other sins—including possible kidnappings and murders—were far worse."
"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."
THE NEW YORK TIMES / The Crime of His Childhood by Wendell Jamieson

"40 years after an acid attack, a life well-lived."

NEW YORK / My Life as a Young Thug by Mike Tyson
"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."

GQ / A Very Dangerous Boy by Amy Wallace

"The fate of a violent and damaged child who murdered his neo-Nazi father a few years ago, when he was just 10 years old."
TAMPA BAY TIMES / The Divorce from Hell by Leonora LaPeter Anton
"He seemed a man who liked to be in control, and here in divorce court he had no control at all."
"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."
LOS ANGELES TIMESThe Hidden Man by Christopher Goffard

"America saw Stephen Hill's face for 15 seconds. It took him a lifetime to show it."

* * *

Honorable Mention

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 GriefMurder 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.