EDITORS' NOTE: Hello, and Happy Holidays! Believe it or not, 2017 has almost come to an end (we believe it). To celebrate, we've turned our Best of 2017 List over to you, our amazing readers. What follows is your favorite stories of the year—or at least those that most grabbed your attention—based on total clicks in each of our weekly editions (Special thanks to our extraordinary producer, Étienne Lajoie, who did the dirty work of digging through our archives to tabulate the totals).
We've also got your favorite classic reads from Jack Shafer, Jody Avirgan's top podcasts—and a fresh SLR podcast with ESPN senior writer and recent guest editor, Kevin Van Valkenburg—followed by a list of lists: a few of the many best-of journalism lists that we've enjoyed browsing this month. Also don’t miss our Sunday Soundtrack 2017 playlist on Spotify.
This should be plenty to tide you over until we return to celebrate the new year with a new batch of excellent writing on January 7, 2018.
There are so many surprising and moving things about Libby Copeland’s piece—after one of my oldest friends recommended it, I began reading with zero expectations—that I’d like to do the same thing here: Just gently urge you to try to make time for it.
Buckle up for the raucous life-and-times tale of Michael Thevis, who made a fortune in pornography in the 1970s only to spend the last few years of his life in prison. Thevis' family made his personal diaries available to superb longform writer Jeff Maysh, who uses them to super-charge a fast-paced narrative.
As some of you may know, I'm an unabashed Anglophile (being posted in London for The Times from 2003-2005 only made my love for all UK things even more passionate). In all my time there—and in all my years spent elsewhere, before and since—I've never read a better explanation of how the United Kingdom works than this astute tour de force by Andy Beckett. And Beckett's lede ranks among the best opening paragraphs I've ever read.
This piece went viral, and the social media embrace was well-deserved: With glittering prose, Michael Graff describes how he meticulously kept an hour-by-hour spreadsheet, over the course of a month, and all the surprises that emerged from the exercise.
Isn’t Pope Francis an enormously popular pope? This riveting, smartly written piece by Andrew Brown pulls back the curtain on the revolt against the Pope now being mounted by conservatives inside the Catholic Church. A prominent English priest told Brown, “We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private.”
We've been waiting to share this six-part epic since the first installment dropped two weeks ago—that's how good it opens. And Christopher Goffard kept the sense of terror going through each section of this made-for-TV story of a husband who turned out to be far too good to be true. Try to carve out some time for a masterful, unforgettable story.
“He was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker.” Rebecca Solnit, the San Francisco-based historian, activist and author of 20 books, drops a powerful, damning portrait of the 45th President, who she calls “the most mocked man in the world.”
A gripping story about the fast rise—and faster fall—of 38-year-old Evan Morris, a relatively little-known lobbyist and former Clinton White House intern. Morris’ embezzlement scandal “is shaping up to be one of the biggest U.S. investigations into Washington’s influence business since the bribery and corruption case surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff rocked the nation’s capital in the mid-2000s.” Armed with dozens of fascinating details and a final chapter that might take your breath away, Brody Mullins, one of America’s top investigative reporters, has written a riveting story that I bet you won’t soon forget.
"To be successful, feel successful." A snap, right? Well...
This is a heartwarming, moving essay about second chances that begins with a chance meeting over pancakes and ends with… more pancakes served as bookends to an engagement ring. In between, Michael Graff proves again that his honesty, humor and prose are gifts. I’ve already given too much away about this lovely, surprise-filled read.
Alex Belth: In 1977, Johanna van Haarlem finally tracked down the son, Erwin, she had abandoned as a baby 33 years earlier. She immediately travelled to London to meet him. It was the perfect cover. You’ll have to read it to believe it.
Peter King: Not many smarter than Remnick—about anything. The best thing I read all week about the silly televised Cabinet love-fest was this sentence from Remnick: "Even as the members declared, Pyongyang-style, their everlasting gratitude and fealty to the Great Leader, this concocted dumb show of loyalty only served to suggest how unsustainable it all is.'' How embarrassed those in the circle of fake love must have been. Remnick wonders how long it will last. Not long, he thinks.
Chris Cillizza: Men once wore suits and ties to fly. Women wore dresses. It was an occasion. Now you're lucky if the person sitting next to you doesn't take their shoes off mid-flight to cut their toenails. Sarah Lyall takes us inside the horrors of modern commercial air travel with an assignment that surely qualifies her for a raise: 12 flights to 12 different cities on 4 different airlines in 8 days. And all in coach because of course.
The shame of losing the part of a lifetime, at the worst possible moment, is the focus of this beautifully written and revealing portrait of Saturday Night Live veteran Darrell Hammond. When the 61-year-old SNL journeyman found out that his Trump would be replaced by Alec Baldwin's Trump, Hammond cried. After all, he had played the best Trump and was arguably the best impressionist in SNL's 42-year history. And then... "I couldn't believe it," Hammond tells Geoff Edgers. "I was in shock, and I stayed in shock for a long time. Everything wiped out. The brand, me, what I do. Corporate appearances canceled. It was a hell of a shock, and all of it was apparent to me in one breath. That ends me."
Wright Thompson: Speaking of taking our jobs ... this story (a little old but this is our list) is in the classic SI tradition of Bill Nack and Mark Kram and all the writers who really invented and perfected the jobs so many of us do today. Ben Baskin has established himself as the latest in the great longform tradition of Sports Illustrated.
Joe Posnanski: This story is ostensibly about the sham of the clean-eating movement, but really it is about our hunger for finding something pure and authentic in a world that increasingly feels less so. The reason I love Bee's story so much is that even after it becomes clear that "clean eating" is really not very different from all the other quack diets of all time, many people absolutely refuse to back off it. They want clean eating to be the real thing so desperately, want quinoa and kale and the rest to save us all so much, that even when the core ideas of the movement are debunked (I mean, the "Blonde Vegan" starts noticing that her HAIR IS FALLING OUT), they still cling to it with frightening intensity. Everyone is writing about these confusing times, but in many ways I think Bee nails it best in a story about coconut oil and avoiding gluten.
Michael Schur: There was an old Bloom County cartoon, when I was a kid—I loved Bloom County—where Opus the penguin asks Milo to help him find a fad diet, so he could try to get in shape. He flips through a book and finds all sorts of weird eating plans—"the broccoli broth and bean-bath diet"—and after every one, Milo just says, "How about eat less, and exercise?" And Opus keeps looking for the magical diet that will help him avoid eating less and exercising.
What’s my point here? (Besides that I remember a specific Bloom County cartoon I probably read 30 years ago, which is a very cool thing that I should definitely brag about?) My point is: most people should probably use the same diet: “eat moderate amounts of healthy food.” That’s your tl;dr for this excellent piece. (But please do read the whole thing.) (And then go back and read old Bloom County books—they’re great.)
In a week teeming with phenomenal, deadly serious journalism, this tour de force portrait of The Rock seized us by the funny bone and never let go.
From its wondrous opening paragraph, Caity Weaver’s piece is everything an access-fueled celebrity profile should be. It reveals much about Dwayne Johnson and his soaring ambitions through rich details and Johnson’s own over-the-top words. At the same time, Weaver smartly uses a coy, wise-ass humor to let you in on her subject’s 24/7 charm game. “In an age when it’s cooler to hate things than enjoy them,” Weaver writes, “Johnson has carved out an improbable niche for himself, as someone it’s safe to like.”
S.L. Price: Will Leitch is another writer whose journey has been fun to follow. This piece explaining why cultural forces on the left and the right have knocked the NFL on its heels (and perhaps set in motion its downfall) is one of the best essays I’ve read on the subject.
"We didn’t lose her. When you lose something, you can’t find it. I know exactly where my wife is." Chris Ballard's story about how former NBA head coach Monty Williams dealt with his 44-year-old wife's death in a car crash rocked me to my core. Please try to make time for this moving piece about a man's love for a woman—and the power of persistence and forgiveness.
Changing the course of the federal government is like trying to turn an Interdictor Star Destroyer on a dime in hyperspace. In 1981, incoming President Ronald Reagan attempted such a maneuver in his first 100 days and the Times' Steven R. Weisman was there to plot the success of his redirection. If President Bane—I mean President Trump—has not consulted this example of long-form virtuosity, he's slightly nuts.
Oral histories aren't writing, they're transcribing and editing. And when they address a historical topic they excel at filling the reader's mind with the pitter-patter of anecdote that goes down like a bedtime story. Todd Purdum rounded up everybody—who isn't dead—in attendance at John F. Kennedy's inauguration for this tasty look at history. Great transcription. Great editing. And just enough connective tissue in connecting all the tales into one.
Before his fall, Fox News Channel motormouth Bill O'Reilly ruled the cable universe—if attracting a maximum audience of 4 million in a nation of 318 million anoints one as royalty. O'Reilly once boasted that he was the second-most powerful person in the country, TV veteran Barry Nolan writes, which set him searching for the Nile from which the torrents of Bill's narcissism flow. Nolan never gets there, but the journey will delight O'Reilly haters.
It's a sight to behold when a man loses his force field and people can finally see him as he is. Harvey Weinstein just got that treatment and in 1990, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy got it from rising journalistic star Michael Kelly. "The parts of his life collide with each other like bumper cars, the Teddy of the tabloids giving a boozy shove to the senior senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the sordid tragedies of his unprivate private life darkening the face of the public man," Kelly writes, exposing him as a drunk, a lech, and a louse. Kelly died at the age of 46 in Iraq in 2003 while covering the invasion.
In 1998, Swissair's New York to Geneva Flight 111 crashed just off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing all 229 passengers. Paterniti makes the story universal by scrubbing from his account all names. Forgive me but I really don't know how to describe it any better than that. You won't regret the click. For more on the 111 story, see this thoughtful Nieman Storyboard.
This was a great year for podcasting and—if I can offer a little prediction—perhaps the last year before podcasting truly grows up and we see some really big shifts (for better and worse) to the industry in 2018. Here’s a quick list of shows I loved listening to this year, some new and some old standbys.
S-Town - When someone told me “think of it as a novel” everything clicked.
The Daily - If I’m being honest, this and S-Town are the only two new shows this year that felt like they were truly doing something new.
Fresh Air - The Billy Bragg interview on Fresh Air was a meeting of two of the things that have mattered the most to me. Track it down.
Song Exploder - It’s subtle, but there are a few format changes (more Hrishi!) that are taking this to the next level.
Reply All - I confess I didn’t listen that consistently, but Alex Goldman’s turning the table on an internet scammer was the wildest ride of the year.
The Nod - Smart, warm, and most impressively, willing to experiment each week.
I’ve put together a playlist with one episode from each of the above (minus The Rewatchables, which I couldn’t find on RadioPublic; and plus a 30 for 30 episode because I’m a homer). Take a listen, start in, and go from there. And let me know your favorite episode of the year on Twitter?
Thanks to Don and Jacob for letting me do this each week. See you next year!
Jody Avirgan is the host of FiveThirtyEight's politics podcast and is heading up the new "30 for 30" podcast documentary series from ESPN.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, where he writes primarily about football and golf. Prior to joining ESPN, he spent 11 years at the Baltimore Sun. In 2015, he was the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana, where he taught a class on storytelling. He and Don discuss his start in journalism, how he faked his way through an ESPN job interview, the time they've spent co-reporting, and his powerful Sunday Long Read essay.
One of America’s finest daytime drinking bars is in an unlikely spot in North Bay Village, Florida. In Garden & Gun, our friend Wright Thompson writes a beer-soaked love letter to Shuckers, a barroom with a view.
Sure, we’re biased, but we dare you to find a more eclectic collection of tracks than this Spotify playlist of all our picks this year. Expect more cool Sunday-vibe tunes in this space, selected for you by Don, Jacob and our guest editors, in 2018!
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan Producer: Étienne Lajoie
Header Image: Stories 1, 5, 6, and 7
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Matthew Hiltzik, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Chris Jones, Peter Kafka, Paul Kix, Mina Kimes, Peter King, Tom Lamont, Chris Lehmann, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Jacqui Shine, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, John A. Walsh, and Seth Wickersham
You can read more about our staff, and contact us (we'd love to hear from you!) on our website: SundayLongRead.com. Help pick next week's selections by tweeting us your favorite stories with #SundayLR.