EDITORS' NOTE: Two years ago, we began this newsletter with a simple but ambitious credo: To place the best stuff we read, each week, into your hands every Sunday. And we end 2016 as hopeful and as committed to longform journalism as we were when we launched The Sunday Long Read. This year demanded essential journalism. And the stories reflected here—and in other shimmering compendiums around the web (see “The Rest of the Best” below)—prove that journalists and their editors rose to the immense challenge. In an era defined, very loosely and often toxically, by “fake news,” the pieces you’ll find here today—and every Sunday, in 2017—only reflect the real thing, real facts, real stories, needed now more than ever.
Please accept our sincere thanks for joining us on this adventure. And thank you to our esteemed team of 44 contributing editors, a club of the cool kids, if ever there was one. Through their turns as guest editors—and invaluable, behind-the-scenes recommendations and counsel—they have helped turn the SLR into a Sunday morning missive that celebrates ground-breaking reporting and lyrical story-telling.
After our usual two-week holiday break, we will return to your inboxes on Sunday, January 8. Happy Holidays to all! And thanks!
Don and Jacob
TWO BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS (AKA SECOND EDITORS' NOTE):
1. We are cooking up big things for '17, and we are excited to unveil the first of those things today: a new weekly section, The Sunday Pod, and a new regular contributor, Jody Avirgan, the host of FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast. Each week, he'll bring you one must-listen podcast (The Sunday Long Listen, if you will), but he'll debut this week with a list of five episodes to take with you on your holiday travels. Please give a warm welcome to Jody on Twitter!
2. In other we can't wait to tell you! news, we've signed on to support the 2017 Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University. For nearly 20 years, the conference has helped storytellers strengthen their craft, puzzle out complex ethics of intimate journalism, and create work with the down-to-earth humanity that defines narrative nonfiction. This year's speakers include #SundayLR contributor Kevin Merida, as well as Tracy Kidder, Sonia Nazario, Sheri Fink, Wesley Lowery, Arlie Rusell Hochschild, and Bill Keller. You'll hear more from us about this in the coming months, but for now, spend some of your down time over the next couple weeks perusing their website and planning your travel to Boston!
OUR FAVORITES OF THE WEEK:
Journalism doesn't stop for award season, so we just wanted to highlight a few recent cant-miss stories before we get to our favorites from 2016.
In this bold exploration of race and expectations that went viral after dropping early Tuesday morning, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers an unblinking and damning assessment of what happened to all the hope and promise that Barack Hussein Obama’s election had represented for millions of Americans—and what might happen next.
Armed with practical advice in bold typeface, the long-time Esquire writer Bill Zehme tells the story of his bout with Stage 4 Cancer rectal cancer: how he wanted to fight it alone, how he did it, how he’s doing now. We’re unabashed fans of Zehme—one of our all-time favorites is his wondrous 2002 portrait of a happily retired Johnny Carson—and this lovely piece shows Zehme is in complete command of his enormous prose powers.
For more beautiful writing on the scourge of a disease, check out Luke Mullins' first-person tale from a Cancer ward.
Raymond Loewy, the father of American industrial design, “has probably affected the daily life of more Americans than any man of his time,” Cosmopolitan wrote in 1950. Derek Thompson explores Loewy's vaunted theory, “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable,” or MAYA, the key to American companies’ age-old quest to make products that consumers conclude are cool. “He said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising,” Thompson writes.
The FBI literally phoned in an alert to the Democratic National Committee, back in September 2015, that their computer system was hacked—and an email typo presumably led to the hack. Evoking, at times, a spy novel, this piece’s insider details propel you from its riveting beginning to the end.
Lisbeth Zornig Andersen, the head of Denmark’s Children’s Council, describes what it’s like to become “criminalized for acting with simple human decency.” This piece was tipped to us by retired ESPN senior executive (and SLR contributing editor) John A. Walsh, who calls it “long form gonzo at its socially conscious best.”
At best, Alex Riley writes, vitamins are probably ineffective. But at worst, they could kill you.
...OK, hopefully you haven't opened too many tabs yet, because it's time for the main event...
DON & JACOB'S TOP 10 OF 2016:
Our trickiest challenge always comes now: the end-of-year whittling down of a year of landmark journalism and wondrous narratives. We easily could have selected a “Hot 100” or even a “Top 300” but how would that help you? Oddly, once we settled on filling just 10 slots with our favorites, we rather quickly reached a surprisingly easy consensus. Our criterion was simple: Which pieces did we enjoy the most? And what pieces would we happily re-read on a free Saturday afternoon? Bloomberg has its “Jealousy List.” The Sunday Long Read’s weekly fuel is envy—we share with you the stuff that makes us go, “Wow,” and more than a little jealous but also inspires us to become better reporters and writers.
If you missed any piece on this list, please try to make time for it over the holidays. You won’t be disappointed. Promise.
(The following are presented with their original write-ups, slightly edited.)
With a sensational finale, "The Mastermind" series enters the annals of crime journalism history (it's already being turned into a book and a movie.) When you are done, listen to Evan Ratliff break down his reporting on a special edition of The Longform Podcast.
Make time for Shane Bauer’s breathtaking, four-month undercover report on life working as a prison guard for a private prison. Bauer tellsColumbia Journalism Review, “I did some things I wasn’t proud of.”
In the growing genre of bildungsroman-via-internet, Eli Saslow delivers a masterpiece about the gradual awakening of David Duke's grandson, who had the potential to lead the white nationalist movement. It turns out that just a little acceptance—and an invite to a shabbat dinner—can go a long way.
At the end of every week, we send each other our favorite stories. This time, Lane DeGregory earned both of our top spots, and deservingly so, with her opus on a Florida father who killed his 5-year-old daughter in horrific fashion. Warning signs surrounded the killer nearly from his birth, and yet he never got the help he needed, despite efforts from friends, family, and bystanders. And now, after the system failed to protect Phoebe, those acquaintances are forced to wonder: Could I have done more? If I had acted differently, would an innocent child still be alive?
DeGregory brings the emotional narrative to life with pitch-perfect prose and gripping detail, arousing sadness and anger in equal parts—from both of us.
This 12,000-word look inside TMZ, the hyperkinetic gossip web site, balances substance and sizzle as effortlessly and as entertainingly as any we may read this year. Described by bloggers and Twitter wags as The New Yorker’s “long-awaited” TMZ investigation (rumors Nicholas Schmidle was on the hunt have percolated for months), this story is chock full of revelations, rich details and head-turning quotations–from the precise sums TMZ paid for the Ray Rice elevator videos to the fact TMZ is an acronym for Thirty-Mile Zone, a mid-20th century name for LA’s film colony, to this instantly viral quote from Alec Baldwin about the empire’s founder Harvey Levin: “He’s a festering boil on the anus of American media.”
And if all that isn’t enough, Schmidle shares some of the tactics he used to give TMZ a big dose of its own medicine in this interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly.
What if a President’s biggest foreign policy mistake actually turns out to be his smartest decision? Or, to be more precise, what if a President is sure his most criticized foreign policy call is the one he’s most proud of? President Obama is convinced that his decision to reject the Pentagon’s advice to order an invasion of Syria in 2013, widely seen in Washington as a profound sign of weakness, ranks as his greatest foreign policy success.
Jeffrey Goldberg conducted several candid interviews with Obama about his foreign policy decisions. In revealing much about Obama’s reasoning for resisting the Washington militaristic playbook and the President’s “fatalistic” view of the Middle East, Goldberg also gives us a fascinating glimpse of the way a President defends himself—his critics might say the way a President justifies his most widely second-guessed decisions—and how the President learns to make peace with his hardest choices.
This is a landmark piece of reporting that helps you better understand Obama’s world view, as well as his motives, reasoning and justifications for the way he’s managed America’s foreign policy for seven years. (Be sure to check out Goldberg’s NPR interview and Atlantic editor James Bennet’s reflections on the story-behind-the-story.)
Most kids-and-tech stories seem to decry the loss of attention, the cratering of conversation, the destruction of norms. This is not one of those stories. Instead, tech optimist Clive Thompson details how an open video game from Sweden swept the country, empowered children, and could improve our future. Minecraft introduces youngsters to coding, Thompson writes. It makes civics exciting. It brings the joys and lessons of playing with wood or plastic building blocks into the 21st century. It could revolutionize education. You name it, Minecraft might make it better.
To make this story even better, The New York Times teamed up with "a team of professional Minecraft tinkerers" (because evidently those exist?) to create a world for its readers. But, the paper of record notes, "To play, you’ll need a computer with Minecraft and a child who’s familiar with the game."
A wise, lyrical profile of the artist and architect Madeline Gins, who believed—truly believed—that she could build houses that would help people live forever. Back in 2013, as Gins was trying to beat back cancer, in part, to finish a new commission, she spent four months with Amelia Schonbek, whose luminous portrait of Gins draws you in and doesn’t let go.
As Schonbek explained to me last week, “This is a story about how someone comes to believe she might be immortal, and what happens when she is forced to confront the fact that she might die. It’s also filled with its fair share of cool buildings, preposterous claims, ’60s New York lore, and other fun stuff.”
I’m always measuring my work against the best work of other writers. Too often, I’m reminded there’s so much more I need to try and learn—and, yes, prove. I really love this portrait because in a seemingly effortless way, Amelia Schonbek shows us writers (and readers) how far we can still reach.
The El Chapo-Sean Penn collaboration (to use the politest term possible) has been both fascinating and baffling to watch. Since Penn's Rolling Stone "exclusive" dropped in January, I've pined to get an answer to a simple question: Why did Mexican actress Kate del Castillo broker the clandestine meeting between Penn and El Chapo? With access to del Castillo at her home in Los Angeles, Robert Draper answers that question and many others. He gives us a close-up, detailed narrative that explains why, even now, del Castillo feels sympathy for the world's most notorious drug trafficker.
Nearly everyone in the tech press seemed to share this first-person, literary look at daily life working for the startups that have come to define this decade.
...but wait, there's more! On our website, we've put up a sortable database of our favorite stories from each week, the most popular stories of each week, and all of Jack Shafer's classic reads from 2016. Want to check out the best stories of 2016 from The New Yorker? Or the best Science & Health stories? Or just want to relive the year chronologically (really!?)? We've got you covered!
OK. This piece is a tour de force, a trip through the biography and beliefs of every one of the 16 candidates Trump beat out to get the Republican nomination. It answers the question, “How did Trump win?” It paints a devastating picture of our public life. And it’s funny as hell, an effect achieved merely by stating what people believe, which is, at times, unbelievable. —Rich Cohen
Let's start with the backstory. That's what this whole mindboggling piece is about, after all. Gay Talese first connected with Gerald Foos 36 years ago, when the man from Colorado explained to the writer that he owned a motel for the sole purpose of spying on "all phases of how people conduct their lives, both socially and sexually." Talese witnessed firsthand Foos' extreme voyeurism soon after, and the two stayed connected as Foos continued watching his guests for the next 15 years, cataloguing various misdeeds and one horrible tragedy (that Foos might have caused).
Foos only recently allowed Talese to write his saga (in a book due this summer) and this story has already raised ethical and legal questions about the journalist's decades-long complicity. Despite Talese's qualms about the relationship, he writes, "whenever an envelope from Foos arrived, I opened it." And now here we are, unable to stop reading or talking about "The Voyeur's Motel," so where does that leave us?
One thing is for certain: there will never be another magazine story like this.
Wright Thompson is here to explain The Crack-Up of Tiger Woods, one of American sport’s most confounding mysteries. The story begins with the May 3, 2006 death of Tiger’s best friend, life coach, mentor and father, Earl Woods, and what that loss meant to Tiger and still means a decade later. With fresh reporting and beautifully written insights, Thompson investigates the costs of Tiger’s obsession with the Navy SEALS and his pursuit, often awkwardly, of affairs with women. And then there’s Michael Jordan’s harsh assessment of Tiger’s chances for future “greatness” that you may need to read twice to believe.
Wright, a colleague and good friend, began pursuing this elusive, diabolically difficult story nearly two years ago. In the end, it didn’t matter that Tiger, now 40 years old, declined to speak with Wright or cooperate in any way with this project. Thompson’s piece is a virtuoso master class in how we writers can still figure out a subject who wants nothing to do with you.
Make time for this deeply moving piece of journalism.
With the guidance of a master hacker turned security expert, William Langewiesche leads us on a head-shaking exploration of the Dark Net, “a wilderness where invisible world wars are fought and hackers roam free.”
Amazon has been a brown paper-wrapped godsend to FedEx and UPS. But Amazon has begun making moves that may endanger FedEx’s future. A fabulous piece of business reporting by Devin Leonard; we learned so much about each company.
“Mister Sofee says he has been muscled out of Midtown,” write Andy Newman and Emily S. Rueb. Rarely does a newspaper story pack this kind of irresistible one-two reporting/writing wallop. This instant classic about New York’s ice cream turf wars had me smiling, and shaking my head, from its wonderful lede to its winning kicker.
And I’ll leave you with this warning: Don’t mess with Mr. Softee!
This reads like the best kind of old-school magazine story, voice-y, confident, full of interesting tidbits all told from a unique perspective. Having written two novels centered around Mexican drug cartels, Don Winslow sticks to the facts here in explaining how the legalization of marijuana may have caused our current heroin crisis, and how the joked-about arrests and escapes of El Chapo play into all the chaos.
But his signature writing style stays present throughout, leading to unforgettable lines like, "I'm always amazed that progressive young millennials will picket a grocery chain for not buying fair-trade coffee but will go home and do drugs that are brought to them by the killers, torturers, and sadists of the cartels."
JACK SHAFER'S MOST POPULAR CLASSIC READS:
We should never make too much of what attracts clicks—though only a fool would ignore them or neglect to campaign in Wisconsin in a tightening race. The top five clicked classic reads this year reveal no discernible pattern of preference outside of the fact that two top-ranked stories, Hunter S. Thompson on Muhammad Ali and Marie Brenner on Donald Trump were made topical by the news. All of these pieces are my children, but of the five, the Roger Ebert piece on Lee Marvin, who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery just three miles from my home, and to whose grave I make an annual pilgrimage, is my standout.
Every writer imagines himself a stylist or a literary revolutionary of some sort, even sportswriters and investigative reporters and writers of obits, and these preconceptions often drive them into the sewer ditch of pretension as they attempt to reimagine the form. What remains arresting about the Marvin piece for me is its Beckett-like theatrical simplicity. One location, three subjects, counting the dog (I wonder where LaBoo is these days) and not counting the walk-on by Marvin's teenage son Chris, and a sense that the writer spent about as much time with the subjects as might elapse for a play or a movie. Ebert excels here by observing, alchemizing the dust kicked up by the inebriated and grandstanding Marvin. Granted, a transcript of the encounter would make fine reading. I'd read a story about Lee Marvin sleeping. I've written a sketch about him being dead. But Ebert had the courage to toss out the usual celebrity formula, already stinking of embalming fluid in 1970 when this was published, and to bring a few lens flares, fast cuts, low camera angles, and a Hechtian wall-of-words to his straight-on treatment. The wonderful thing about Lee Marvin is that he didn't give a shit. The wonderful thing about Ebert is that he did. That's one of the reasons this piece endures. —JS
No boxer has ever been better to the writing profession than Muhammad Ali. With all his grandstanding inside and outside of the ring, his legal battles, and his uncompromising political positions, he stirred up so much great material that you'd have to be a dunce to enter his orbit and not exit with a good story. Here, Hunter S. Thompson, a bit of a trickster himself, absorbs and radiates from the Ali legend, which was still in formation. Here's hoping Rolling Stone unlocks and posts Part II for fans of both HST and Ali.
In this piece from a quarter of a century ago, Marie Brenner charts the breakup of the marriage of Donald and Ivana Trump in Technicolor detail. The pair are exposed as exemplars of crassness, poor manners, and bad taste, but it's Donald who really gets the treatment as Brenner flenses his hide to reveal the bully and bastard and emotional zero who resides inside.
We all stretch the truth. David Finkel busts broadcaster Larry King for his life-long habit of making hot taffy out of his autobiography. Finkel works like a patient prosecutor, building the case that King is a compulsive fabulist by using his own words against him. The humiliation is enough to make you throttle back on your own telling of tall tales.
Roger Ebert modestly billed this story as an interview with Lee Marvin, but in case you've forgotten, in a real interview the journalist asks a question and then the subject answers it. Here, Marvin asks nearly all of the questions, and most of them are about where his next beer is going to come from. "Make the call," he says to his browbeaten girlfriend Michelle, imploring her to phone the liquor store for delivery. "Make the call, or I may have to switch to the big stuff." Stitched together with minimal exposition, this feature shows what a writer can accomplish if only he listens.
Podcast is a really inexact term, since it can mean everything from the deeply produced Radiolab to two people talking in their basement. I enjoy listening to it all, though, and will try to recommend across the whole spectrum of… let’s call it digital audio. Below are five of my favorite single episodes from 2016. From here on out, I’ll recommend one episode per week.
The best reporting on the election this year was from Zoe Chace on TAL. The moment when she confronts a state representative about Sharia law encapsulates so much of what’s roiling our politics these days.
We all have very complicated thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell. But this is still riveting listening. I kept thinking to myself “okay, at some point he’s going to soften his take on Bowdoin.” But the “to be fair…” moment never came, and part of me respects that.
Am I above recommending one of my own pieces? No, no I am not. This was my favorite of the documentaries we made this year, if only because it was a fun challenge to recreate a story without any narration.
Jody Avirgan is the host of FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast and is heading up the new “30 for 30” podcast documentary series from ESPN, coming next spring.
This holiday season, I raise my glass to the unattainable: tranquility. I’ve spent a lifetime chasing it-- silence, quiet, solitude, peace. And there is no question that it’s harder to find inside the modern-day vortex – Trump hysteria, Twitter intoxication, testy teenagers, to-do lists that tinkle and trumpet from iPhones and iPads twenty-four hours a day. Oh the noise noise noise noise.
I know I am not alone in this. An overwhelmed friend – Columbia professor by day, solver of all domestic problems by night - once pondered whether to blow off jury duty. “Maybe,” she fantasized, “they will hold me in contempt and I’ll go to jail for a day.” Not quite a spa getaway – but a getaway, nevertheless. Others defect to supermarkets or toilets. Once my kids asked me to draw up a list of other jobs I would have loved; I scrawled bridge tender and lighthouse keeper. Ouch, they said (especially the daughter who equates solitude solely to solitary confinement.)
Don’t get me wrong. I love the whirlwind of my life (most of the time). But this fetish for alone-time has been with me forever. As a child, I found it in trees, where I read “The Secret Garden.” In my early 20s, I found it on subway cars, where silent crowds cushioned me. In my 40s, it was my front porch at twilight. Now I find it on the beach, on a very occasional Sunday morning, where the only soundtrack I hear is the rhythm of the waves.
If I’m fortunate over this holiday season, before the husband and children wake, I’ll achieve a few moments of tranquility, over hot coffee, reading a great book. And, if I’m really lucky, I won’t think, even once, This bliss is bound to end any minute…
Lizette Alvarez is the award-winning Miami bureau chief of The New York Times, mom to Isabel and Sofia and husband of Don Van Natta Jr., co-curator of The SLR and incessant chatterbox and blaster of the flat-screen TV. Send your fan letters to us at editors@SundayLongRead.com and we could feature your favorite thing in a future edition!
Craig Sager, known for the splendor of his suits, was also the best sideline reporter who ever lived. Within an hour of the announcement of his death in Atlanta Thursday afternoon after a valiant fight against leukemia, someone added to Sager’s Wikipedia page next to the date of his death: “Legends never die.” In June, he worked Game 6 of the NBA Finals and in July, he received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYs. My colleague, Brian Windhorst, dropped a great idea on a special ESPN tribute to Sager: Let’s now call the reporter’s sideline interview “the Sager,” because no one will ever do it as well.
Make sure to check out Lee Jenkins' cover story from April too.
The prolific and popular actor Alan Thicke, who played the affable dad on TV’s “Growing Pains,” died of a heart attack Tuesday while playing ice hockey with his son in Burbank, California. When he was cast as the work-from-home-psychiatrist Jason Seaver, the self-deprecating Thick told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m not doing anything Jack Nicholson turned down.”
TIM TORKILDSON'S 2016 IN REVIEW:
The year is slowly passing by us,
filled with war and Zika virus.
The Middle East remains aflame;
Aleppo stands for grief and shame.
Brazil don't want its president;
and South Korea seems hell bent
to oust another Park, alas --
she wasn't quite an honest lass.
And Volkswagen is caught red-handed;
its measurements were not quite candid.
Fake news is all the news that's fit
the reading public to outwit.
Brexit isolates the Brits
(confirming they are awful twits).
North Korea launches rockets.
Big Pharma fills its greedy pockets.
We said goodbye to David Bowie,
Judge Scalia (boy, was he showy!)
Harper Lee and purple Prince
their hair no longer wash and rinse.
Bob Dylan gets a Nobel Prize
but stays surly -- no surprise.
And, of course, the Main Event;
the Donald made his great ascent
to be the nation's leader -- oy!
The path ahead looks corduroy.
We hope the New Year brings relief,
since this year was BEYOND BELIEF!
Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He is currently re-inventing the limerick, one anapest at a time.
THE REST OF THE BEST
Our favorite wrap-ups, mash-ups, and end-of-year lists.
Of course Maria Popova turned a year-end tradition into an opportunity to philosophize. "To look back on any period of reading with the intention of selecting one’s favorite books is a curious two-way time machine," she writes. "One must scoop the memory of a past and filter it through the sieve of an indefinite future in an effort to discern which books have left a mark on one’s conscience deep enough to last a lifetime."
What starts out as an exercise in summarization turns into a whole lot more, from two excellent thinkers at the top of their games. But if that's not your speed, maybe A.V. Club's "20 Worst Films of 2016" is more your style?
Chosen from 2,290,225 photographs, so you know these are good.
THE SU♬DAY SOU♬DTRACK OF 2016
One of our favorite regular features is The Sunday Soundtrack. It’s our chance to become a disc jockey each Sunday morning, spinning one song that was in high-rotation that week or a beloved classic that surprised us with a smile when it popped up on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora or Sirius XM. Here now, curated on a handy Spotify playlist, are all the best songs that graced this space in 2016. Turn it up!
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Senior Editor of Recycling: Jack Shafer Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Lea Goldman, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Peter Kafka, Mina Kimes, Tom Lamont, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Lizzie O'Leary, Anne Helen Petersen, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, 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.