New York Times Writer Jenna Wortham: My Top Longreads of 2011

Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter at The New York Times. In her spare time she makes zines and stalks former America’s Next Top Model contestants in Brooklyn. She can be found on Twitter and Tumblr.

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SO many of my favorites have already been called out—Mindy Kaling’s “Flick Chicks,” Dan P. Lee’s “Travis the Menace” and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s everything, plus Doree flagged that amazing Kolker piece and Michelle laid claim to Paul Ford’s staggering essay on IVF. But these are the stories that I sent to my Kindle and the links that recurred with the most frequency in my drafts/Gchats folders on Gmail, so I think it’s safe to say that they are my top picks of 2011.

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• Ashlee Vance, “This Tech Bubble is Different.” (Businessweek, April 14, 2011)

A cutting, high-level look at the current boomlet in the tech biz—the kind that makes you kick yourself till the end for not being smart enough to have pitched it yourself. Ashlee takes a step back from the funding frenzy, sky-high valuations and feverish IPO rumors to examine the current ad-think consuming the tech world. He asks, what if instead of focusing on getting people to click on ads, buy group coupons and digital goods for their virtual farms, our engineers and entrepreneurs were trying to solve big problems in health and science?

• Lev Grossman, “The Boy Who Lived Forever.” (Time, July 7, 2011) 

I adored this piece because it shed light on a very particular corner of the Web—fanfic—without falling into the clichéd trap of portraying the more obscure recesses of the Internet as a place only inhabited by cr33p3rs and neckbeards. Instead, Lev lightly celebrates the creativity of the subculture and the communities and alternative realities people craft around their favorite characters and books.

• Jessica Pressler, “A Holly Golightly for the Stripper-Embezzlement Age.” (New York Magazine, Sept 18, 2011)

I couldn’t get enough of the vivid, and at times lurid, details in this profile of Diane Passage, Ken Starr’s fourth wife. I mean, this phrase alone: “when she laughs, her grapefruit-tree physique bounces merrily,” hooked me, line and sinker. Plus who doesn’t love a sordid glimpse into an underbelly, especially one in New York? The sharp observations and imagery from the first few grafs make you feel like a fly on the wall of a party you didn’t want to go to in the first place but can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.

• David Kushner, “Murder by Text.” (Vanity Fair, November 27, 2011)

A heartbreaking read about the gruesome murder of a 18-year-old girl named Kim Proctor and the two teenaged boys who killed her and then bragged about it on World of Warcraft, which ultimately led to their arrest. Kusher smartly weaves the role of technology and the concept of (im)permanence online into the piece for a compelling narrative.

• Jose Antonio Vargas, “My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant.” (The New York Times, June 22, 2011)

I thought this was one of the most important pieces published this year, along with “The Life of Illegal Immigrant Farmers,” for giving the touchy subject of immigration a living, breathing human face. I read this stunning graf at least a half dozen times:

“And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.”

Honorable Mention:

While I was waiting for my copy of Sullivan’s Pulphead to be delivered, I stumbled across the work of Matt Bell, and immediately devoured two of his Kindle shorts—“A Tree or a Person or a Wall” and “A Long Walk, With Only Chalk to Mark the Way” and could not put them down. For such a stark, minimalist writer, his pieces are so evocative and rich with imagery that its hard not to be sucked into them almost immediately.

I also thought that this year brought out some hilarious and clever writing that touched on the way we consume and use technology and how it’s shaping our interactions, culture and lives.

Here’s a quick n’ dirty rundown of a few faves:

• Katie Heaney, “Reading Between the Texts” (The Hairpin, June 16, 2011)

• Leigh Alexander, “Five Emotions Invented By The Internet” (Thought

Catalog, January 12, 2011)

• Frank Smith, “Will the Real Frank Smith Please Stand Up” (The Morning

News, March 25, 2011)

Clive Thompson, “On Secret Messages in the Digital Age” (Wired

magazine, Jan 31, 2011)

Jonah Lehrer, “How Friends Ruin Memory: The Social Conformity Effect.”

(Wired.com, October 2011)

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