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
“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
“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.