Andrew Rice is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda. (See recent longreads by Rice.)
Selected according to a complicated (read: entirely arbitrary) judgment of their degree of difficulty and technical execution, and listed in no particular order. Full disclosure: I’ve written for several of the publications cited on this list, but I’ve excluded from consideration any writer with whom I’m personally acquainted.
When it comes to degree of difficulty, delivering an interesting Mitt Romney profile is like nailing a reverse four-and-a-half somersault. But this story succeeded—not the least of which due to its brilliant packaging, which included a now-infamous cover photo of Romney with cash coming out of his suit pockets and the accompanying headline: “Mitt Romney and the 1% Economy.” Written without the (perhaps dubious) benefit of an interview with Romney, the story nonetheless managed to summon up the Republican candidate’s history of creative destruction, and tied that to the big story of the moment, the Occupy Wall Street protests. If Romney ends up becoming the Republican nominee, as still seems likely, the themes of Wallace-Wells’ profile will likely define the coming political year.
Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit argues, MacFarquhar writes, that “personal identity is not what matters.” But a profile is, by definition, an evocation of a person’s identity. How do you fulfill the requirements of the form on Parfit’s own, rather forbidding, terms? MacFarquhar didn’t make use of any scenes, or quotes of the traditional “he said” variety, conveying Parfit as a sort of disembodied intelligence. By all rights, this experiment should have been about as interesting to read as, well, a philosophy textbook. But the power of Parfit’s ideas about the nature of consciousness and ethics—and MacFarquhar’s skill at conveying them colloquially—made the piece sing to me.
Are you interested in reading about a shadowy industry that attempts to predict and profit from gigantic, multibillion-dollar disasters? Great—me too. Now that I’ve got you interested, I will disclose that this article is actually about the reinsurance industry. This is the bait-and-switch trick that Greeley pulls off admirably in this piece. This was the cover story for Businessweek’s 9-11 anniversary issue, and aided by some very good cover art—something the magazine has been justly praised for lately—the piece managed to tell its readers a story that touched on the past while telling them something new.
A detective story masquerading as a celebrity profile—or maybe it’s the other way around?—this was in an issue that kind of hung around on my endtable for a few months before I got around to sticking it into my bag for a long plane flight. Then it completely sucked me into its world. I won’t even pretend that I’m young enough to care about the rap collective Odd Future, or the fate of its missing member Earl Sweatshirt, but the outcome of this story, which I won’t spoil, offered an (ahem) oddly plaintive reminder that so many of our musical idols are, after all, just kids.
This was my absolute favorite story of the year. Journalism from Africa often conveys the continent in broadly collective terms: tribes rival with one another, rebels fight the government, the downtrodden suffer or rise up. Bearak, who used to be stationed in the Times’ Johannesburg bureau, took one of those distressing mass phenomena that fill the inside pages of every day’s newspaper—an outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa’s township slums—and gave the story a terrible specificity. I particularly admired the way Bearak dissected the chance intersections and misunderstandings that led to a lynching, and dispassionately explained the cosmological worldview of the victim’s family about his death. In the end, Bearak resists the natural tendency to isolate a single villain and hold that person up to condemnation, despite the murky evidence, because that’s what the mob did, albeit in an incomparably more brutal fashion.
Bonus: Longreads Logrolling List
I’m lucky enough to be friends with a bunch of really talented writers, and it seems a shame to exclude them simply on the grounds of our acquaintance. So, here’s a list of really great articles written this year by people that I happen to know and like. You can take these endorsements with a grain of salt, of course, but I urge you to click and judge for yourself.
The best account, so far, of the most stunning news event of this year.
I was fascinated by this lurid miscarriage of justice. This story went way beyond the tabloid narrative of the persecuted innocent abroad.
A rising Democratic star finds his life derailed when he gets enmeshed in a bizarre political dirty tricks plot.
The real, profitable and Canadian (!) company behind those lubricious Ashley Madison TV ads.
These two stories made me ache with jealousy.
The Gulf oil spill turned out to be less overwhelmingly catastrophic than some doomsayers predicted, but it still left behind some troubling lessons. This is the story of a disaster that happened beneath the surface, and in conveying that narrative with great depth and nuance, the story pulls off a truly difficult feat.
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