Tag Archives: literary playlist

The Best Longreads of 2012

Originally posted at Longreads.com

I read news when I want to be entertained. I read features when I want to learn something. Here’s nine articles I read this year that changed the way I look at the world, and made me wonder how I seem when it looks back.

“Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker,” James Pogue, Oxford American

It’s been a bad year for truth. From Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer to Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, 2012 felt like a yearlong debate about the role of exaggeration, hyperbole, fact-checking and outright fabrication in the pursuit of an argument. Pogue’s piece, a kind of letter from the extreme-pedant end of the spectrum, illustrates how fidelity to facts can obscure the truth, and how embellishment can reveal it.

“Lost in Space,” Mike Albo, Narrative.ly

Maybe I only feel like I learned something from this essay because I’m in essentially the same position as Albo. I’ve been single for almost 10 years, and I’m realizing that that if I had applied all the hours I’ve wasted on the promiscu-net to something useful, I could have knitted a quilt, learned French, mastered Othello and read all of Wikipedia by now.

If our society has learned anything from the first 20 years of internet access, it’s that looking for what you want isn’t always the best way to get it, and that getting it is a great way to stop wanting it. Albo’s essay couldn’t have been written by any gay man in America because they’re not as good at writing as he is, but I get the feeling it’s been lived by most of them.

“The Innocent Man,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly

and

“The Caging Of America,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

OK, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that America’s prison system is problematic and that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron. But this year brought a new impetus for action, partly due to new numbers (the widely reported stat that 1% of America’s population is incarcerated), legislative action (Obama’s plan to combat prison rape, scorchingly reported in the New York Review of Books) and, qualitatively but no less essentially, longform pieces like Gopnik’s and Colloff’s.

People are always quoting the MLK-via-Obama line “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” and articles like these—one a macro view of the problem, one micro—is what that bend looks like.

“Does Mitt Romney Have a Soul?” Wells Tower, GQ

It’s easy now to forget that this was an election year, and that we spent basically all of it squabbling, speculating and pontificating about its outcome, which we now say we knew all along.

Most election reporting is disposable, either gaffe play-by-plays (“Binders Full of Women: Interactive Timeline”), instantly obsolete hypotheticals (What if Romney picks Christie for VP?) or politically orchestrated profiles (“Obama’s audacious plan to save the middle class from Libyan airstrikes”). If you remember these articles past ctrl+w, it’s only until events catch up, and then they poof out of your consciousness forever.

Towers’s Romney profile is one of the few still worth reading after the election. Nominally a standard “let’s hang out in the campaign bus!” piece, it transcends its premise by capturing the conflicting forces tugging at the hem of the Republican party, and how Romney’s sheer empty-vesselness managed to please, and displease, everyone at once.

“Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” Max Fisher, The Atlantic

Maybe it’s just the ubiquity of its subject, now the most-viewed-ever video on YouTube, but no article stuck with me this year quite like Fisher’s. In a culture that strains to call itself postracial, sharing “Gangnam Style” on Twitter and Facebook was a safe, quiet way to shout ‘look how weird Koreans are!’ and invite your friends to gawk alongside you.

According to Fisher, “Gangnam” isn’t an expression of Korean culture, but a satire of it. Psy was saying the same thing we spectators were, only in a visual language (and, obviously, a verbal one) we couldn’t understand. He was laughing at his culture too, he just had no idea how easy it was to get the rest of the world to join him.

“The Truck Stop Killer,” Vanessa Veselka, GQ

It’s all in the execution, they say, and nothing demonstrated that this year better than Veselka’s harrowing investigation into whether the guy who kidnapped and then released her on the side of the road in 1985 was a serial killer.

She never finds the answer to her question. But who cares! It’s a great piece, super interesting, suspenseful, creepy, introspective in all the right places. We all know that compelling stories don’t always need happy endings. In this case, it doesn’t need one at all.

“The Bloody Patent Battle Over A Healing Machine,” Ken Otterbourg, Fortune

and

“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, New York Times

I admit it: I have no idea how the international economy works. I used to feel about this the way I feel about not being able to describe asexual reproduction, or the Spanish Civil War, or how to grow tomatoes. I can see why somebody’s got to do it, I just can’t see why it’s got to be me.

Since the 2008 crash, though, knowledge of economics has gone from nice to have to can’t miss, and things like competitiveness, productivity and efficiency have taken a place in politics previously reserved for life-and-deathers like sports doping and the Ground Zero Mosque.

Patent trolling and outsourced manufacturing aren’t the only issues facing the US economy, of course, but both these articles demonstrate how businesses, governments and consumers have made the wrong thing too easy, and how the hard thing might not be the way back.

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Literary Playlist: ‘The nameless sorrow one must feel when one exits the club realizing none of those breasts were for you’

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I’ve been traveling for work this week, which means I finally had a chance to catch up on all my queued-up Instapapery.

  • This is the shortest of the bunch, a plea for an integrated approach to HIV in the African-American community.
  • Here’s a copy editor talking about how being professionally correct can ruin the experience of reading. When I was a copy editor, I used to tell people it was like being a bouncer at a strip club.
  • In the same vein, here’s a fact-checker talking about how, just because your facts are correct doesn’t mean you’ve said something true: ‘Essayistic truth is both factual and beyond simple assemblages of facts.’
  • I discovered this Wells Tower guy last week through his Romney takedown, and I’ve been plowing through his other work—sellin’ weed! Hangin’ out with porn stars!—nonstop since.
  • My friend Paloma wrote a great article about our shared professional subject.
  • Here’s a fascinating primer on why it’s so hard to fight diseases on a grand scale these days.
  • Speaking of health, here’s the life story of a very specific, very lucrative medical device and, somewhere in between, a description of why the US healthcare sector is so dysfunctional.
  • I’m hella gonna read this book about why people in totalitarian states don’t resist them.
  • The history of Kraft Mac & Cheese!
  • A profile of the guy who ‘made’ Justin Bieber. It’s a good article and everything, but considering that every other pop act ever has sued their manager, I’m afraid we’re gonna look back in 10 years and see this as a kind of ‘before we really knew’ article.
  • This piece on a Las Vegas megaclub had me alternating between ‘god it’s dire!’ and ‘I want in!’ This may have been intentional on the part of the author.

So anyway, not all of these are perfect, but they are, I can assure you, demonstrably more entertaining than Brussels and The Hague.

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Literary Playlist: ‘I know a better truth than his’

I wish educational institutions had twice as many graduations, just so we’d get more commencement speeches. This one makes you want to become a doctor. And this one makes you feel guilty for not graduating harder.

The internet is basically one big Deadwood

Insecurity is really good at making people funny.

Wait, so the KKK is growing increasingly irrelevant? I can’t imagine why.

Maybe Ayn Rand was right and the IRS should be replaced by golden retrievers and set on fire.

Online classes great and free and might change the world.

Saying that politics are genetic misunderstands politics, genetics and are.

This article’s entire premise about why Facebook will fail and drag the whole Web down with it rests on the observation that companies have been overpaying for advertisements for the last 100 years.

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Literary Playlist: ‘We’re all higher than the lowest things we’ve ever done’

The only thing humans like better than socializing is making up rules about who and how we’re allowed to do it.

‘Two or three hundred years from now people will look back on solitary confinement like we look back on the burning of witches.’

‘My father remembers what he wore at just about every important moment in his life’

The fall and fall of Sears

Restructuring a flailing manufacturing company begins with vacuuming.

New Yorker readers need to be thoroughly reassured that the person entertaining them with parlor tricks is a scholar. 

Speaking of solitary confinement, 47 people live on a rapey little island in the middle of nowhere.

This one-page blog post changed my thinking about human behavior more than any of the pop-economist books that have come out in the last five years combined.

Europe is fucked, part 47,135

Someone needs to write a book about how this came about.

Big Food isn’t the same as Big Tobacco. Except that they sort of are.

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Literary Playlist: ‘We are more than our headscarves and our hymens’

America does austerity bigger than those European pussies.

Just when we all agreed that political candidates don’t matter, Mitt Romney had to come along and fuck everything up.

Chronically underfunded government institutions mean that for anything to happen, you have to wait for a hero to come along.

Latin American presidents want to end the drug war!

‘Facebook is the biggest social phenomenon since the telephone’

While economists and policymakers desperately search for ways to ‘upscale’ poverty alleviation, the academics are increasingly discovering that it can’t be done.

Every generation devises a narrative for why it suffers from depression.

Juveniles shouldn’t be held to the same moral standard for criminal behavior as adults. Unless, of course, a governor decides they should.

Now that the US has de facto lost the ability to raise taxes, states are courting casinos so they can suck on that sin-tax teet.

What it’s like to be a woman in the Middle East.

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Literary Playlist: ‘This was the very last thing I could do for her’

Journalism, by definition, uses the experiences of individuals as fodder for narratives written by others. It’s nice to see a journalist openly collaborating with a source.

With all my recent talk of obesity, it’s important to realize that world includes food challenges beyond eating too much of it.

Fuck the social commentary, more feature articles with gay one-liners please.

Airport security remains the world’s most pressing First World Problem.

Smoothies are a nutritional holocaust.

America: Our national sporting events have built-in barfights.

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Literary Playlist: ‘We have a visa for their country, and yet they are not permitted into ours’

Ex-gay therapy‘ is an oxymoron of a magnitude equal to ‘morning person’

The more I learn about the fundraising-industrial complex, the more smug I feel about spending all my money on myself.

How do you write an epic feature on the history of bodybuilding and not mention the phrase ‘male beauty pageant’?

When you think about it, there’s only one reason romance novels  enjoy a lesser literary status than Westerns, spy novels or sci-fi: Their primary readership contains vaginas.

Seattle’s got 99 problems, but a ditch ain’t one.

It’s about time someone applied cold, hard economic truth to the human struggle to find a good panini.

Maybe we’re all living alone into our 30s because it’s fucking awesome. Did you ever think of that, New Yorker, huh?

KFC is basically a tobacco company.

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Literary Playlist: ‘My Life Was a Pretense The Whole Time’

In the same way that smart people are most compelling when they’re talking about something stupid, comedians are best when they’re serious.

The democratization of any art form brings out the snobs.

In 30 years maybe we’ll be ready to understand the profound damage that  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell inflicted on our soldiers, both gay and straight.

When you think about it, it’s a little bit amazing that the United States has these giant areas of itself where we’ve put Native Americans and forgotten about them.

A number of profoundly unjust systems are still vastly preferable to America’s current prison-industrial system.

In a factory entirely run by robots, do they turn the lights on?

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Literary Playlist: ‘Men are Giants or Pygmies’

If you want to reduce inequality, you need to change how much people make, not just how much they pay in taxes.

As sophisticated as we think we are, we inevitably succumb to the social pressure of ‘How can I help you today?’

Movie trailers are an increasingly relevant art form. Eventually a filmmaker is going to realize that you don’t need dialogue, plot or characters. Just give us flashing images and sound editing, and we’ll do the rest of the work ourselves.

Heartbreaking letter from a man who thinks he’s too ugly to ever be loved. I instinctively distrust people who have never momentarily felt that way.

British people are sub-literate because their primary source of news consists exclusively of middle-school gossip and grandmotherly fear-mongering.

Eventually we’ll all adjust to the new Information Age equilibrium, and we’ll all realize that just because technology allows you to broadcast yourself to the whole world, that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually watching.

Capitalism is a deliberate march toward the specialization and separation of labor. About 10 years ago, it reached pop music.

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Literary Playlist: ‘The Ride Down is Likely to be Unhurried’

Jon Krakauer’s meditation on futility just cements my impression—firmly in my 30s now—that the key to happiness is defining life through a series of arbitrary goals, then achieving them.

In gayness: The fact that the dudes charged with sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas weren’t dating or even sleeping together renders the judgement more, not less, essential. Also, it’s probably not a great idea to charge an individual with another individual’s suicide.

It’s depressing to realize that an idea you disagree with has objectively won.

Is anything on NPR true?!

Buying the correct stuff is probably not a robust recipe for saving the world.

Try to read this article and not spend at least 15 minutes afterward ruminating on the difference between ‘immoral’ and ‘amoral’.

It’s funny how telling a story from start to finish will inevitably give you sympathy for its protagonists, even sleazeball online poker managers.

Internet videos of people saying stupid-slash-infuriating things are generally worth less than you paid for them.

How do we not marvel every single day at the ability of capitalism to turn the things which are killing us into business opportunities?

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