Help pick next week's reads by tweeting suggestions with the hashtag #SundayLR.
Here is our favorite work from 2015. Out of the 988 stories we shared this year, these are the 64 pieces that were so remarkable and memorable that we wish we had reported and written each of them. This is your aggregators’ Envy List. Don't worry, we know you can't read all of this now, so you can view this e-mail as a webpage hereif you'd like to bookmark or share (or if your pesky e-mail client truncates this list-to-end-all-lists), but please make it to the bottom at some point for an (exclusive!) surprise. And congrats to all the great writers and editors whose talents help make this the golden age of longform journalism.
We’ll return on Sunday, January 10, 2016. Until then, enjoy the holiday season, and we wish you much happiness and success in the coming year.
In an amazing year for longform journalism, it took a lot to earn our top spot. Fortunately, this epic story had it all: hackers, the War on Drugs, organized crime, massive bureaucracy, jam circles, even a data center named after a Norse god and a climactic scene in a public library.
For the uninitiated, Silk Road was an online black market that operated on the so-called Dark web for over two years. It’s founder and heralded leader? An Austin-based former used book salesman with a libertarian bent. Over 20,000 words, Joshuah Bearman meticulously tracks that man’s transformation into criminal mastermind and the several federal agents who somehow broke through to discover his true identity. As Bearman writes, this story “is the dark mirror of The Social Network, a wild technological success story taken to its logically extreme conclusion.” It’s the story of every startup, except with a lot more drugs. But what makes it our favorite is the way Bearman treats his characters.
Everyone is small in this story. There are no geniuses, no heroes, and no Death Stars, to be culturally relevant. Everyone, from the website’s ringleader to the men who took him down are merely men, though they are not always who they seem to be, as Bearman’s last-minute twist proves. -JF
It’s long overdue—72 years, to be exact: The Really Big One, an earthquake so monstrous that it will likely qualify as “the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.” You probably have not heard about the Cascadia subsection that runs northward, like a razor’s edge, from northern California straight to Vancouver. If the earthquake hits the high end of the expected 8.0 to 9.2 Richter scale range, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimate nearly 13,000 people will die.
In one of the more terrifying narratives you’ll read this or any year, Kathryn Schultz writes, “By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska, says, ‘Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.’” -DVN
A damaged but remarkably resilient six-year-old boy named Strider is cared for in rural Maine by his impoverished grandparents who “had long lived at the edge, or just beyond it.” Strider copes with unfathomable physical trauma (at the age of 2, he was severely beaten by his mother’s boyfriend), upheaval, fears and even a longing for his mother who hasn’t asked about him in a year. Sarah Schweitzer’s deceptively simple prose makes sparing use of quotations. Her detailed narrative, resonant with Strider’s fears, nightmares and moments of joy, is so meticulously crafted that you feel immersed in the young boy’s inner world. The piece pivots between moments of heart-smashing sadness and sky-scraping hopes.
This story is a towering, remarkable achievement. Don’t be surprised if it wins the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. -DVN
Eli Saslow moved us time and time again with stories from across the country this year, but this one hung with us the longest. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home, a family of seven was taken in by the small town of Auburn, Nebraska, where a city councilman told them, “You’ll be taken care of here.” Yeah…no. A decade later, the Williamses have gathered more police reports, doctor’s bills, and collection notices than they have good will, and these days, they feel as trapped as ever. -JF
This just came out this week, but there is no recency bias involved in including it here on our year-end list. The horrifying story of a serial rapist is told alongside a story of a doubted victim to masterful effect. -JF
To put it simply, this was the best written story of 2015, starting with the first line: “Thurston Von Moneybags (not his real name) was scammed once by a girl in Houston.” It only gets better from there. In investigating the love-for-money economy budding on sites like SeekingArrangement, Taffy Brodesser-Akner not only entertained us, she made us think about what it means to “get what you want in this world.” -JF
“No one ever told me the truth about dying,” Matthew Teague writes. “Not once. When it happened to my beloved, I lost my footing in more than one way.”
Teague’s beloved is Nicole, his 34-year-old wife who is dying of cancer. Teague’s friend, Dane, moves in for a couple weeks to help out and just be there. Then, out of necessity and love, Dane ends up not leaving, even after Nicole dies.
This is a sparely written, deeply engrossing story about the truest kind of friendship, the kind that can help pull a man through hellfire. It’s also one of my favorite stories of the year. -DVN
This real-life ghost story is way better than the B-list movie trailer you might be imagining. Will Hunt and Matt Wolfe start their story slowly, but I promise you'll be hooked by the end of the introduction. And from there, the writers craft a story involving law, history, and someone nicknamed "The Master of Disaster" while you hope that the Milliken family can escape the house that haunts them before it is too late. -JF
The conceit of this piece is interesting on its own: "Carlos and Roby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they’re released from prison and guiding them through a changed world" and Jon Mooallem's execution takes it to the next level. If the tagline, "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll learn something" is ever true, it's true for this story. -JF
One morning in June 1998, an elite, physically fit Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy named Jonathan Aujay went for a run in the Antelope Valley, a rugged area about 60 miles northeast of downtown LA. He had told his wife he’d be home by nightfall. He was never seen again. The questions — was it murder? suicide? an accident? a purposeful disappearance? — continue to baffle and bedevil his family, friends and colleagues.
Claire Martin, one of our top longform writers, animates this who/what/why-dunit with wide-net shoe-leather reporting and an avalanche of rich details (the nearly perfect lede overflows with them). Combining those tools with clear, hard prose, Martin makes you care about the fate of a complicated 38-year-old man, on the brink of a divorce but a doting father to his 5-year-old daughter, a proud SWAT/K-9 unit sheriff’s deputy who had threatened to kill himself one month before vanishing into the wild, more than 17 years ago. -DVN
It’s not easy categorizing or even describing this remarkable story. It seems to pivot from memoir, to investigation, to explanatory reporting, and then back to memoir. And then it seamlessly weaves them all together. What is not difficult to describe is my feeling of sorrow as I read. I predict you’ll also be moved by Michael Paterniti’s unsparing story of the car-crash death of a close hometown friend, on Thanksgiving Eve 30-plus years ago, and what the tragedy meant then, and now. -DVN
A first-rate profile doesn’t just tell you a few cool, new things about some famous or infamous person — it reveals those things, without you really noticing, because the story reads like the opposite of work. You know what I mean — a portrait that’s so sneaky-good, you read it to the end without ever stopping to think, Hey, I’m learning all this cool, new stuff. But in Joel Lovell’s outstanding piece, you may stop reading once or twice to mull over all the cool, new things you’re learning about this famous person you don’t know anything about.
This profile of the real Stephen Colbert — the one now hosting a new network TV show as himself, a very different person from the Stephen Colbert we’ve watched all these years on TV — is one of my favorites of 2015. -DVN
From 2003 to 2005, I lived in London and, on more than one frosty evening, I enjoyed a jar or two inside Camden’s Golden Lion pub, just down the road from our place in Hampstead. Even if I didn’t have such fond memories of the old place, Tom Lamont’s wonderfully detailed saga about the Golden Lion’s near-death — and how it explains why pubs all over Britain are vanishing at an alarming rate — would have reeled me in. This is the best kind of story that tells you all sorts of new, interesting things but reads like something approaching literature. -DVN
This story begins with the origins of the mid-life, odd-couple friendship of a prominent Amarillo, Texas, plastic surgeon and a failed pharmaceutical salesman who liked to “tell tall tales.” You’ll want to find out how their bizarre “bromance” ended, after the plastic surgeon was jilted by a former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, with another prominent man’s murder. Skip Hollandsworth has written a fast-paced, Texas-sized why-done-it worthy of the finest Coen Brothers thriller, made even more curious by the benefit of intimate (and a few coded) text messages, gleaned through court records, exchanged by the main players. -DVN
When Maureen Dowd embarked on this groundbreaking story about the dismal environment for working women in Hollywood, she called an industry power player to discuss the issue. His advice for Dowd: “Call some chicks.”
Boy, did she. Armed with devastatingly blunt interviews of more than 100 women and men in Hollywood, Dowd has authored the definitive piece on a subject that has finally landed in the spotlight, after the Sony hack revealed the huge gulf in male/female pay and Manohla Dargis, co-chief film critic for The New York Times, wrote a three-part series on the plight of women directors that labeled the disparity “immoral, maybe illegal.”
We all know Dowd can write; she won a 1999 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her whip-smart columns on all that stuff that led up to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. And she’s the author of several fabulous books, including “Are Men Necessary?” What too few people know about Dowd — I know it because she’s been a close friend since 1997 — is that she also possesses great investigative reporting skills.
Dowd shows how and why Hollywood turned its back on its grand tradition of women trailblazers in the first half of the 20th century. It began, oddly enough, with the 1975 summer blockbuster “Jaws.” And now, forty years later, Liz Meriwether, the 34-year-old creator of Fox’s “New Girl,” tells Dowd that before that terrific show was greenlit, executives had told her, “I don’t understand how this character can be smart and sexy.”
There haven’t been many stories brimming with more white-hot outrage and better damn-the-torpedoes quotes — nearly all on the record, by the way — this year. -DVN
When I lived in London from 2003 to 2005, I was fascinated by the snooker championships on the BBC, despite never having played the game nor ever fully comprehending its intricacies. I’d come to know enough to appreciate the game’s invisible lines and the players’ confounding runs of made shots; it often looked as if the players, too, couldn’t quite understand their sweet good luck. At 39, Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan is the world’s best snooker player. He’s mystified by why he manages to control the white ball (but sometimes can’t). He’s also struggling to figure out what the game has done for him, and to him. Brilliance packs the power to confuse/baffle/torment you. This much he knows: “I have told my son he ain’t fucking playing snooker, because I love him too much.”
In one of my favorite profiles of 2015, Sam Knight makes you care about O’Sullivan’s annoyance with having to wear snooker’s crown (among other things — not the least of which was his father going to prison for murder). The piece is rich with telling details, revealing, often funny quotes and a perfect final paragraph. Be sure to watch the video, narrated by Knight, when O’Sullivan clinically cleared the table during the final match of the 2012 World Championships. -DVN
A man was convicted and sentenced to death for a double-homicide, in Chicago, in August 1982. But another man, in 1999, confessed to the crimes. Neither man is now in prison. The fallout has framed debates, furthered agendas and launched a political war. Matthew Shaer gives us a deeply reported, beautifully written and breathtaking piece of work, 10 months in the making. -DVN
With staccato present-tense prose that will rock you to your core, Stephanie Wittels Wachs shares the hell of the past four months, since the moment she received the call that her only brother, 30-year-old comedian, actor, writer and @humblebrag-creator Harris Wittels, had died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles.
“You are supposed to be coming home next weekend,” she writes. “You are supposed to be coming home alive.”
“The New Normal” is heartbreaking, profound, brutal and honest. We didn't read a more beautiful meditation on living with terrible grief this year. -DVN
We were amazed to read about an online community obsessed with playing the Frequent Flyer game well enough to earn the holy grail of free flights for life, but what vaulted this story to this list was Ben Wofford's incredible ability to switch the tone of his tale about that community's hero from "Wow, that's crazy" to "Wow, that's sad" before you even know it. -JF
In 15 chapters published from Sept. 15 to Sept. 29, Steven Brill delivered a landmark piece of journalism about “arguably the most important industry in the country right now in terms of its effect on the economy and its effect on our lives.”
Against the wishes of the FDA, Johnson & Johnson sold Risperdal, an anti-psychotic drug for dementia patients. The fines and damages paid by J&J, Brill reports, barely put a dent in their giant profits from peddling the banned drug. This 55,000-word series is meticulously reported and researched, fortified by scores of documents culled from FOIA requests and court documents and supplemented by artwork, timelines and other reader-friendly aides. And it’s written like a taut thriller. -DVN
Fortune pulls away from a crowded field of distinguished journalism with an outstanding three-part investigation into the Sony hacking scandal. Veteran investigative reporter Peter Elkind’s six-month investigation produces many beguiling surprises, jaw-dropping anecdotes and plenty of blame and embarrassment to go around. Perhaps Elkind’s biggest surprise is that the cyberattack was hardly sophisticated, as Sony executives had claimed, and could have pretty easily been detected.
The leaked Sony emails made many members of Hollywood’s elite uncomfortable late last year (and bolstered interest in the limp film, “The Interview”). The corporation’s handling of the crisis easily qualifies as the business story of the year and, perhaps, the decade. It takes some fine detective work (and a break or two) to come up with fresh disclosures in such a widely covered story. Elkind has pulled off that feat with an electric narrative that grabs you and won’t let go. -DVN
This story is not so much about Amazon in particular as it is about "the future of low-wage work," which Dave Jamieson paints with a scary light using a horrible story: 29-year-old Jeff Lockhart said goodbye to his wife and kids before heading back to his temp warehouse job, never to return. -JF
Chip Brown is not the first journalist to write a compelling narrative about Kate Matrosova‘s tragic hike into New Hampshire’s White Mountains on February 15. But I found Brown’s piece, suffused with subtle ironies, revealing details and heart-wrenching quotations, to be the most moving. At 32, Matrosova was one of those unstoppable life forces, conquering, with apparent ease, every physical and mental task blocking her pathway to success. On that cold winter morning, her husband, somehow, worried about her. A friend of Matrosova’s at Berkeley said, “I know people say, ‘There she was quantifying risk in her profession. Why didn’t she quantify the risk in the mountains?’ But she is the only person I know who could try to do what she did. And I know she is not a person who would ever say, ‘Let me defy death.’” Be sure to read until the end, where you’ll find what may be the saddest kicker I’ve read this year. -DVN
“The overachievers at Goldman Sachs aren’t all the same,” writes Max Abelson. That’s for sure. Perhaps it’s not such a long leap from selling funnel cakes in Texas to selling complicated derivatives for Wall Street’s most profitable securities firm. Goldman rewards “the dogged pursuit of opportunity,” and no one embodied that chase more than Julissa Arce, an undocumented immigrant who began as a Goldman summer intern in 2004 and would soon be promoted to vice president pulling down $300,000 to $400,000 a year. But she had a secret: she wasn’t a United States citizen. “I thought if I had a bunch of money, I would be accepted,” Arce said.
In his sparkling debut for TheNew York Times Magazine, Wesley Morris smartly explores the tectonic cultural identity shifts of 2015, from “The Intern” to “Key & Peele.” This was the best story of 2015 about 2015 in any category. -DVN
Hours after this story hit the web, I consumed every word. And the more I thought about the story, the more I became convinced it ranks among the year’s best profiles. Naturally the piece works in part because of how carefree and accessible Adele is, but Brian Hiatt deserves most of the credit. He never gets in the way, ushering us into this deeply private, almost reluctant mega-star’s world at a time when it seems as if everyone is repeat-playing her new hit single, “Hello.” Timing is important in many aspects of life, but especially when it comes to magazine profiles’ publication schedules. And from the moment the piece begins in south London — with Adele, behind the wheel of her Mini-Cooper, playfully telling Hiatt, “Oh, fuck off” — you just know this profile is going to be special. -DVN
This story is a work of genius about a genius, sound designer Skip Lievsay. Now, if you think “designer” is too honorific of a title to smash next to something as ubiquitous as “sound,” you clearly have not read Jordan Kisner’s profile yet.
Kisner takes the reader inside Lievsay’s studio to show how sounds are stripped out of each movie scene, altered, and delicately replaced; to explain how a sound mixer is the “midwife” to the movie director; and to sort out what exactly a “sound castle” is.
The final sentences of Kisner’s paragraphs are so good you want to reread the section just to hear the punchline again, but you also want to keep going to see what’s next. I won’t spoil all the goodies, but at one point Kisner writes “[Lievsay’s] job is to make you feel things without ever knowing he was there.” In this story, Kisner has done that too. And now, you will never hear movies the same way again. -JF
The best thing to come out of the production of yet another Steve Jobs biopic was probably this behind-the-scenes tick-tock of how a blockbuster movie comes together, wth cameos from David Fincher and Leonardo DiCaprio. -JF
It isn’t often I read fat paragraphs of a story to anyone who would listen, including the barista at the South Miami Starbucks. But I did just that with Benjamin Wallace’s hilarious, definitive profile of America’s Curmudgeon Laureate, Larry David, who, get this, is headed to Broadway to star in a play he wrote (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!). The story Richard Lewis tells about his psychiatric-help group chasing Larry David down Second Avenue might be my favorite anecdote in any story I’ve read over the past year. And the perfect final paragraph isn’t just about nothing — it also feels ripped from a Seinfeld script. -DVN
With a mix of personal stories and expert opinions, Alex Morris smoothly introduced us to a fascinating, sometimes-heartbreaking issue: how wives learn to live with (or without) husbands that have undergone sex changes. According to one sex therapist in the piece, it's the wife that often has a harder time handling the transition, and Morris explains why in a way we will not forget. -JF
At its best, the Twitter community is smart, funny and quick to share and celebrate excellence. At its worst, Twitter morphs into an angry mob that jumps on a person’s 140-character, misguided — or, in some cases, deeply offensive — tweet and uses it to stir up fury and exact revenge. In a fascinating piece that explores public shaming punishments from 19th century mobs to today’s lightning-quick tech-brand on social media, Jon Ronson describes how a dumb tweet cost Justine Sacco, the former director of corporate communications at IAC, everything. -DVN
What we love about this story is how well the stirring tale of two Boston bombing survivors stands in for how the entire city has dealt with the aftermath of the Marathon attacks. They fight against their fate, struggle to deal with a new reality, and are ultimately forced to accept the impacts of the damage done. -JF
The first few sentences strap you in for a blistering narrative detailing the crack-up of one of Seattle’s most celebrated chefs who became a bank robber and then died in a spray of bullets. Allecia Vermillion’s story hums with energy, details, compassion and a dash of mystery. Don’t be surprised if this article is turned into a major motion picture by Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese or Jon Favreau. -DVN
An accountant named James T. Hammes, accused of embezzling $8.7 million (and possibly murdering his first wife), goes on the lam. He doesn’t run but hikes, on the Appalachian Trail… for six years. On the AT, he’s known as “Bismarck,” and anyone who crosses his path recalls an amiable, helpful hiker.
William Browning has produced a detailed, beautifully told story about the kind of chummy community that blossoms on a mountain trail — and how you never really know someone. “Better than a movie, ought to be a book, should be both,” the piece’s editor, Glenn Stout, tweeted.
To that, I’ll add: One of this year’s finest high-octane stories, with a firecracker of a kicker. -DVN
Cheryl Stearns had an audacious goal: 20,000 sky dives, landed with pinpoint precision. No woman had ever done 20,000. Michael N. Graff’s narrative of Stearns’ tragic quest is so beautifully rendered and pulses with so many memorable details that it has the feel and pacing of literature. -DVN
In Putnam County, Georgia, everybody knows Sheriff Howard Sills, and he knows everybody. And everybody knows the very quotable sheriff owns the stubborn smarts to crack every kind of case, even one involving a “nuisance beaver.”
Joe Kovac Jr. rides shotgun with the sheriff as it dawns on him that a double-homicide on Lake Oconee may be the one case he cannot solve. Right away, the sheriff knows in his gut that the perpetrator(s) were “not local talent.” Then, dead-ends and dumb questions from the “TV buzzards.” With echoes of Tommy Lee Jones’ no-nonsense but overmatched sheriff in “No Country for Old Men,” Kovac writes a stylish, irresistible profile/whodunit that will have you laughing and wishing your county had a Sheriff Sills just a phone call away. -DVN
Since we began this newsletter, we have included every story Rachel Aviv has written. This might be her best.
You will sit up straight reading one of the most gripping opening scenes I’ve come across this year, and you won’t be able to relax until you get to the end of this perfectly told tale of Nelson Kargbo, who appeared to escape the horrors he saw as a child soldier in Sierra Leone when he was granted the opportunity to chase a better life in Minnesota. Instead, he encountered America’s woeful criminal justice and mental health systems (“system” probably gives them too much credit). -JF
Does it get any better than a spy story? Don't answer that until you've read this great one, from Isreal, a cinematic roller-coaster about a storied Mossad operative who may have lied to his country for years. -JF
This is a comprehensive, deeply disturbing portrait of the United States government’s drone program, described by Jeremy Scahill as President Obama’s “weapon of choice” in the ongoing “war on terrorism.” A whistleblower from the intelligence community provided a secret cache of documents to The Intercept, whose reporters and researchers spent months reviewing the material.
Among the many revelations, the eight-part series has new information about how assassinations depend on unreliable intelligence, new details about air strikes missing their intended targets in Afghanistan and fresh insights into the “kill chain” designed to authorize the targets.
“The series is intended to serve as a long-overdue public examination of the methods and outcomes of America’s assassination program,” The Intercept editors write. “The campaign, carried out by two presidents through four presidential terms, has been shrouded in excessive secrecy. The public has a right to see these documents not only to engage in an informed debate about the future of U.S. wars, both overt and covert, but also to understand the circumstances under which the U.S. government arrogates to itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial and appeal.” -DVN
This one opens: “It took some convincing, but the man we’ll call Abu Khaled finally came to tell his story.” What follows, an inside account of life and politics inside the organization, was our favorite dive into ISIS this year. -JF
When I read those words in a tweet, I scoffed, reflexively, Impossible.
But I clicked and, oh boy, was I wrong. There’s much to admire about this raucously reported, finely written piece, but this space aspires to be a spoiler-free zone. I’ll just say two things: Jason McGahan delivers an all-true story about the too-brief life of Harry Devert, whose murder will never be solved. And you should really try to make time to read this one. -DVN
Anna Stubblefield, a tenured professor at Rutgers, told the family of a severely disabled man that she knew how to help him communicate with the outside world. Then, she says, they fell in love. Their relationship ended with Stubblefield standing criminal trial.
One of the year’s most bizarrely intriguing stories, rigorously reported and well-told by Daniel Engber.
I’ve read several stories similar to this one in recent years: the awful consequences that occur when the police arrest a woman for allegedly falsely reporting a rape. For a number of reasons, this story is the most harrowing. For one thing, police told 19-year-old Lara McLeod to report she was raped, then decided she was lying and arrested her. And for McLeod, the ordeal’s costs included her mental health, her reputation and, perhaps, her baby nephew’s life.
In spare prose, Katie J.M. Baker has written a story you likely won’t forget. -DVN
How do you defend “the worst of the worst?” The task of sitting at the Federal courtroom’s defense table with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fell to veteran defense attorney Judy Clarke. Lucky for us, this portrait of her, by Patrick Radden Keefe, is the one we’ll remember. Other writers have profiled Clarke, but no one has given us a better inside perspective on the challenges of representing a monster than Keefe, one of the finest magazine writers in America.
Rachel Aviv is the only writer with two stories on our Best-of list, and deservingly so. She wrote this truly haunting story back in July, diving into a Louisiana parish that is putting black men to death and revealing the costs of that policy. -JF
Hard to read and impossible to describe, this wandering meditation is unforgettable. Lacy M. Johnson opens her essay in a classroom for pediatric cancer victims, full of textbooks and technologies the students will never get to enjoy. She then uses the wisdom she has gained teaching poetry in those rooms while bouncing back and forth between that scene and execution chambers to discuss the values of pain and the meanings of mercy. No essays matched this one for emotion or intelligent provocation, much less the combination of the two. -JF
The finest stories lure readers into a world they likely won’t forget. You likely won’t forget this beautifully written, personal essay by Mark Lukach about his young wife’s plunge into depression and psychosis and how, through the combined power of will and love, they are trying, together, to persevere. Many sentences rocked me, but none more than the last one. -DVN
This essay is about so many things — the myriad ways we pander (to get published or win nods from parents on Parents’ Weekends), how easily we slip from view and then struggle to re-emerge — that it’s difficult to describe and even harder to categorize. Here’s a thing that’s easy to say about it: Claire Vaye Watkins is a supremely talented author whose hard truths expressed here are intended to serve as a wake-up call and a compass. Here’s another thing: “It’s not a trend. We are here now. We’re not going anywhere.” And another thing: “Let’s us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible.”
At its heart, this story revolves around an unlikely pairing: a 23-year-old writer in need of a job and a 21-year-old named Scooter in need of full-time assistance. Each gets much more than that (and more than they bargained for) in this heartwarming essay that also helps explain the issues our society faces as half a million people diagnosed with autism grow up. -JF
With a funny table of contents, an engrossing introduction, and 14,000 more words on the history and meaning of selfies dating back to the 1860s, Rachel Syme enlightened us on the social-political meanings of seemingly hollow snaps. -JF
Nine years after he was kidnapped while walking to his car in West Philly, Bradford Pearson, now a Dallas-based writer and editor, contacts his kidnappers, confronts them and learns a few things. They learn a few things, too. This is a sensational piece of reporting and writing — raw, blunt, beautiful. -DVN
Thirty years ago, Mike Tyson launched his boxing career in Catskill, NY. Tim Layden, then a young, hungry reporter for The Schnectady Gazette and The Albany Times Union, was by Tyson’s side, carefully chronicling Iron Mike’s first professional bouts. Without acknowledging it, Tyson and Layden shared a hunger to get out of upstate New York. Tyson goes “from Knockout Curiosity to heavyweight champion to the precipice of Full-Blown Freak Show,” while Layden reaches his profession’s pinnacle at Sports Illustrated, where he’s worked with distinction for 21 years.
Old-school journalists will nod at the lyrically told moments: trying to get a reluctant source to chat (Tyson’s no-comment was delivered via a playful punch to Layden’s gut); winning a seat among the inner-circle of wise, grizzled scribes (Layden secretly dumped his beer into a toilet to keep up appearances); being the fresh-faced hotshot who “gets all the reps.” I’ve long admired Layden’s work about every conceivable sporting subject, but never before has he written something so personal and so powerful. -DVN
Over twelve short chapters, Louisa Thomas draws out the distinctions between Floyd Mayweather in the ring and Floyd Mayweather outside of it before asking what we are to do when the image of a champion and an abuser collide. -JF
Foregoing any direct quotations—a bold, high-wire choice—Moehringer paraphrases what Rodriguez says while taking us along the disgraced athlete’s jagged path back to pinstripes and, perhaps, redemption. Without ever hearing Rodriguez’ own voice, we see him mourn the death of his father, nervously attend a college course, find peace at a bookstore café, meet recent college graduates that he put through school. But are those actions sincere? Are those motions authentic? Or, perhaps, are they done and felt, in part, to try to win over a writer and his readers? How can someone’s words be deemed worthless inside quotation marks but are worthy of being paraphrased?
Three times, I read this piece, liking Moehringer’s choices more each time I read it, despite the lingering questions. Most of the writing dazzles. And I learned so much about A-Rod’s sad, lonely inner life. Usually, that’s more than enough for a piece to soar. But I still can’t help wondering whether Moehringer’s artistic choice ended up shortchanging readers.
In the end, I was wowed by this endlessly fascinating portrait of Alex Rodriguez that will be remembered as one of the most revealing—and, like its subject, one of the more confounding—profiles of this year or any year. -DVN
If you spent half as much time as I did failing to avoid accusations, speculations, and veritable hot takes about Tom Brady, the NFL, and 'Deflategate' this year, you owe it to yourself to read this exhaustively reported and clearly written behind-the-scenes explanation of why the scandal played out exactly the way it did. Neither side comes out of it looking good.
This is a must-read, even if Don doesn't have the ego to select it himself... -JF
A fitting story from the Memorial Day Weekend edition of Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim recounts the life stories of two Olympic divers who, like many other divers of their era, took up the life-changing task of flying bombers during World War II. -JF
With his unparalleled effortless writing style, S.L. Price, one of America’s top sportswriters, kicked off a great year in sportswriting with this stellar piece, in which he burrows into the fascinating football mind of John Elway. The Duke of Denver has nothing left to achieve except winning a Super Bowl ring as the general manager of the Denver Broncos. -DVN
Lee Jenkins’ smart, perceptive profile of Steve Kerr, the smart, perceptive head coach of the NBA's Golden State Warriors, was our favorite of last year's basketball season. -DVN
LEDE OF THE YEAR:
The postman only rang once. Curtis Green was at home, greeting the morning with 64 ounces of Coca-Cola and powdered mini doughnuts. Fingers frosted synthetic white, he was startled to hear someone at the door. It was 11 am, and surprise visits were uncommon at his modest house in Spanish Fork, Utah, a high-desert hamlet in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. Green ambled over, adjusting his camouflage fanny pack. At 47 his body was already failing him: He was overweight, with four herniated discs, a bum knee, and gleaming white dental implants. To get around he sometimes borrowed his wife’s pink cane. Green waddled to the door, his two Chihuahuas, Max and Sammy, following attentively.
He peeked through the front window and caught a glimpse of the postman hurrying off. The guy was wearing a US Postal Service jacket, but with sneakers and jeans. Weird, Green thought. Also odd was a van Green noticed across the street, one he’d never seen before: white, with no logos or rear windows.
Green opened the door. It was winter, a day of high clouds and low sun. A pale haze washed out the white-tipped Spanish Fork Peak rising above the valley. Green looked down. On the porch sat a Priority box—about Bible-sized. His little dogs watched him pick up the mystery package. It was heavy, had no return address, and bore a postmark from Maryland.
Green considered the package and then took it into his kitchen, where he tore it open with scissors, sending up a plume of white powder that covered his face and numbed his tongue. Just then the front door burst open, knocked off its hinges by a SWAT team wielding a battering ram. Quickly the house was flooded by cops in riot gear and black masks, weapons at the ready. There was Green, covered in cocaine and flanked by two Chihuahuas. “On the floor!” someone yelled. Green dropped the package where he stood. When he tried to comfort his pups, a dozen guns took aim: “Keep your hands where we can see them!”
Officers cuffed Green on the floor while fending off Max, the older Chihuahua, who bared his tiny fangs and bit at their shoelaces. Splayed out on the carpet, Green was eye level with dozens of boots: A large tactical team—SWAT and DEA agents—fanned out through the house. He could hear things crashing, some officers yelling, others whispering to each other. He looked at the busted door and thought, Man, that thing was unlocked. On the living room wall hung family photos—his wife, Tonya, their two daughters, and a grandson—smiling brightly above Green, lying amid $27,000 worth of premium flake. (The package was stamped with a red dragon, the symbol for high-quality Peruvian.) Over the whole scene was a needlepoint that said: if i had known you were coming, i would have cleaned up! Excited by the company, little Max stopped shaking just long enough to crap right in the living room.
No. 1: “The science part is fun and I love doing it. But the gap between what we know and what we should do about it is getting bigger and bigger, and the action really needs to turn to responding. Otherwise, we’re going to be hammered. I’ve been through one of these massive earthquakes in the most seismically prepared nation on earth. If that was Portland ... Let’s just say I would rather not be here.”
-Chris Goldfinger in The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz No. 2: “Look at me ... I'm going to be used for my body. I might as well get something from it.”
-Kitten in The Real Life of a Sugar Daddy by Taffy Brodesser-Akner No. 3: “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
Here are your top 5 most-clicked Classics selected this year by Jack Shafer, Politico's sharp-shooting media critic. We're thrilled Jack will continue to introduce us to many more must-read classic pieces in 2016.
In 1966, John Sack followed infantry Company M all the way from Army basic training in Fort Dix, N.J., to its first battle in Vietnam, a trip that took only 55 days. According to Carol Polsgrove's history of Esquire, Sack knew what he had early on. Clutching his notebooks, he would say, "It's gold, it's gold." Esquire founding editor Arnold Gingrich compared the piece to The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by Ernest Hemingway, while Dan Wakefield invoked the name of George Orwell for its treatment of men at war. At 33,000 words, it is the longest piece ever published by the magazine. If you've never read it, get started. If you haven't read it recently, read it again. The cover, designed by George Lois, still shocks.
Ty Cobb, the greatest baseball player to ever suit up for a game, was also a vicious alcoholic and gun-crazy psycho. Sportswriter Al Stump, co-author of Cobb's autobiography, captures the legend's last days in this still controversial account. "To get along with me," Cobb told Stump, "don't increase my tension."
If the spirit moves you--and it should--take off your clothes to read this piece about Gay Talese researching Thy Neighbor's Wife, his book about sex in America. It's the least you can do as Latham shed his clothes to report it as he accompanies the author to a nudist health spa. Talese took his research seriously, working two shifts as a massage parlor manager ("It is obviously better to be masturbated by massage girls than to masturbate yourself," Talese testifies) and submerging himself for six months in Sandstone, a nudist sex commune in Los Angeles. Call it nude journalism.
Nobody is going to read an investigative piece about the destruction of society's most vulnerable, Boo once said, unless the writer finds a ways to convey their basic humanity to the reader. Her series, which does that from the opening paragraphs, still speaks with authority 15 years after it was published. I still keep a copy of it on my phone and taste from it every couple of months to remind myself of how to report, how to organize, how to write, and how to give a goddamn. It really is a work for the ages.
Who made Jeb Bush and George W. Bush and shaped George H.W. Bush? Barbara Bush, the keen and scheming matriarch of what is shaping up to become the greatest family dynasty in American politics. Williams, who died in 2005, hits escape velocity in the very first sentence—"Even Barbara Bush's stepmother is afraid of her"—and maintains speed for the duration. Wise, funny, and vicious, this is one of my favorite profiles of all time.
The Last Laugh of 2015
Like @Longreads just did beautifully, we were also thinking of recruiting a dozen or two writer/editor/professional readers to choose their favorite, overlooked piece of 2015. But we have day jobs and we're pretty wiped out and, truth be told, we haven't begun to think about Christmas shopping.
So we did the next best (lazier) thing. We recruited The Awl's co-founder and our old pal Choire Sicha to pick his five favorite things. We're sure you'll agree this is our best Last Laugh that hilariously ushers out of an overstuffed, hyper-intensive year of long reads and long feels. See you in 2016!
The Five Best Longfeels of 2015 #SundayLR Exclusive Choire Sicha
Who will rank the meta-lists of year-end lists? We're at a dizzying moment in the content industry here, people, knee-deep in best-of lists and best-of arguments. The money is FLOWING and the piles of words are coming right along behind it!
The brutal truth of 2015 is that the big-money landrush into The Content Industry means there are more pieces of long writing than the writers who read long writing can read. Be honest, how many times did you read Harper's this year? Name five BuzzFeed BuzzReads! How many Adrian Chen pieces are getting nominated for a National Magazine Award? Did you even open the London Review of Books? And more long EVERYTHING. The podcast Serial is back, and HBO is plotting our demise in a landslide of content, and everything's coming up Los Angeles, who'll maybe finally be the winner in the great hundred-year east-coast-west-coast content war. Well, at least, Jonah Peretti is moving there.
For now, absolutely everyone deserves a year-end award. Literally everyone! You all did a great job. But in particular:
No. 5:This funny Longreads list of best essays and criticism This list includes very few men, very few of the Big Expected Pieces, and either accidentally or intentionally repositions the idea of an essay and criticism category as something more refreshing and new than we might have thought it was. Also I'm on it. :) It's nice just to be nominated!!!
No. 4: Spotify Playlists This was the year that content was forced to flower in every field, and Spotify has been rolling out playlists to address every lifestyle aspect you might imagine you could aspire to embody. They go deep! There's Epic Party, and Party Anthems, Instant Party Pump Up; there's a playlist called "Your Favorite Coffeehouse" and also a playlist called "Urban Coffeehouse." (They LOVE to use "urban" meaning BLACK, just like everyone in advertising does. For white things that are based in cities, you have to say COSMOPOLITAN. Or else it means… black.) There's Intense Gaming right there next to Urban Hangout. (BLACK.) There is indie this and indie that, there's Intense Studying and Study Time Starts Now. There's an array of white noise in a playlist even. (No black noise though, hey.) Well? We wanted this! We wanted everything. Once we had to seek out music that we felt supplemented our identities. Now it comes packaged. No young person will ever be cool again.
I'm listening to a playlist called "12' Classics," which brought me some nice 80s longform music, but then dumped in some Jamiroquai. I spent my life HATING Jamiroquai! And now here I am, an old man listening to garbage that I hate on an app, too lazy to even fast-forward.
No. 3: The End of Personal Taste It's all going that way, with the podcasts and the medias and the whatnots. You don't want just one little podcast, do you? No, here! Pack your DVRs with TV shows and your Pocket with articles. What do the people want? Apparently, AN ENDLESS FIREHOSE OF CONTENT. I mean, LONGTENT. So let us give them Apple News, which is… an RSS reader with worse functionalisty and an annoying interface and, I imagine, approximately zero users. Let us give them Facebook Instant, so that each Facebook scroller can tap on a story for 3 seconds and depart… for other places on Facebook. For the last couple years, the web ran on aspirational sharing: "I want people to know that I'm the kind of person who shares this manner of thing." But now your work is done. You did too good, now they'll eat your lunch. The sharers want to be the shared! (The sharees? Something! "It's all share-iah law, baby!" —a great-terrible headline from the 2006-era New York Observer if it were still being published today.)
It's all part of the coming Cascade. The future isn't longform. It's ENDLESS form. It just comes on by, and you're ankle deep in the content river.
No. 2:Plex. It makes no sense and I can't explain how to install it, because I'm old, but basically you can make a shared folder on your computer or device of choice and then friend a bunch of people and share the contents of whatever videos you might happen to have in that shared folder with each other. LONG WATCHES! The past and future of the web is always… well, is it piracy if you're just sharing? You're just streaming things that your friends own, man! It's cool. You're not making a COPY. Remember libraries? Oh, and have you exceeded your ten New York Times stories this month yet?
My winner and still champion long thing of 2015 was published in January, and there's a reason that Hollywood doesn't put out its Oscar movies in Q1. Nobody remembers anything for any reasonable amount of time! I certainly don't. But Irina Aleksander delivered one of those rare and strange "look inside" stories that maddened, delighted, mystified and rankled. Every day I ask myself: what is Brad the model doing right now? The answer, I usually figure: slowly chewing a dry cube of chicken breast while massaging his scalp. Me too, man.