Jodi Ettenberg: My Top Longreads of 2011

Jodi Ettenberg is a frequent Longreader, ex-lawyer and founder of Legal Nomads, which documents her travels (and food adventures) around the world.

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2011 was a banner year for long-form journalism and storytelling on the web, and correlatively a time to appreciate people like Mark who have propelled the Longreads movement forward. I love how this site started as a hashtag on a soundbite-filled medium like Twitter, pulling away the noise to highlight the words and weightier pieces that engaged us all. It has never been easier to find something good to read.

And as I travel, I find myself connecting the dots between disparate countries or foods, drawing parallels within the stories I digest as I go. It’s extremely hard to whittle down the many fantastic pieces this year to a short list, but the pieces I’ve picked below are ones that had a significant impact, and are now baked into my memories of the places where they were read.

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1) The Man who Sailed His House (GQ): This piece could have been written matter-of-factly or reported as the news that it was at its base level: a man, lost at sea after Japan’s devastating tsunami, is finally rescued days later. Instead, Michael Paterniti’s beautiful prose turns this astonishing tale into the surreal, raising it above anything else I’ve read about Hiromitsu Shinkawa. Through the patchwork of photos from the tsunami and its vast scale of destruction, the sincere humanity of this story is not something you want to miss. [Read it in: Casablanca, Morocco] 

2) In the New Gangland of El Salvador (New York Review of Books): I’ve been a fan of Alma Guillermoprieto’s ability to tell a heartbreaking story with grace for quite some time, and her longread about El Salvador is no exception. Returning to El Salvador after 30 years, the piece swings between descriptive travelogue and somber reporting, digging into the history of the country’s ferocious gangs and why they are so prevalent. [Read it in: Montreal, Canada]

3) The Possibilian (The New Yorker): I first discovered David Eagleman when I read Sum, 40 short stories about an imaginary afterlife. At times funny, at times sad and each packing a punch in a short two-page read, I’ve been foisting Sum on those learning English as the creativity and short chapters make it an ideal learning book. So it was fascinating to learn more about Eagleman and his own brush with death, how he has collected hundreds of stories like his, and how “they almost all share the same quality: in life-threatening situations, time seems to slow down.” In Burkhard Bilger’s wonderful profile of the quirky neuroscientist, not only do we get insight into how and why Eagleman writes the way he does, but we learn about the philosophies behind his prose and how his own history naturally braids in, pushing him further to take risks beyond most of our comfort levels. [Read it in: Chiang Mai, Thailand]

4) Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert (The Awl)I have Wikipedia bookmarked on both mobile and laptops, and it’s an argument-solver, fact-checker (with a pinch of salt) and using the random article generator, a great way to learn about new things you had no idea existed.  In her Awl piece, the talented Maria Bustillos discussed the pros and cons of the service, noting that “Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic.” Instead of being told how it is, you’re given the facts to make your own editorial decision. Great read. [Read it in: Bangkok, Thailand]

5) Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of an Octopus (Orion Magazine): One of the more unusual and vaguely discomfiting pieces of the year (“Am I really sympathizing with the brain of an octopus? Yes, yes I am”), Sy Montgomery’s loving investigation of animal we often eat but rarely personify was a wonder to read. Whether talking about the study of octopus intellect, the description of octopus behaviour or Montgomery’s awe as he spends time with a 40-pound giant Pacific octopus, I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never look at octopuses the same way again. [Read it in: Istanbul, Turkey]

Bonus reads (hard to pick only five!)

1) Breaking Caste (The Globe and Mail): Veteran journalist Stephanie Nolen reports on Sudha Varghese, the remarkable woman who built a school for the Dalit girls (India’s Untouchable caste), giving them new hope. Nolen’s writing style and obvious research make the piece that much more interesting to read and her background section on Varghese’s life gives the story an additional human connection. [Read it in: London, England] 

2) When Irish Eyes are Crying (Vanity Fair): With Moneyball‘s marketing campaign in full force and Boomerang on the shelves, Michael Lewis is everywhere these days. However back in March when Vanity Fair published his longread on the Irish financial crisis, his buzz had yet to crescendo. The piece sets out the background and confluence of factors that led to the Irish economic crash, as well as some unpopular opinions on how it could have been avoided. Very interesting read. [Read it in: Mae Hong Son, Thailand]

3) My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant (The New York Times): Brave piece from Jose Antonio Vargas “coming out” as someone who has worked as a journalist and award-winning writer for years, all while hiding that he was not legally permitted to do so in the United States. Living this otherworld reality meant that Vargas went about his days in fear of being found out, something he had spent years trying to avoid. Vargas attributes his decision to share the true story after reading about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act. [Read it in: New York, NY]

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