Howard Riefs: My Top Longreads of 2011

Howard Riefs is a prolific Longreader and a communications consultant in Chicago. 

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It was another strong year for long-form content and journalism. There was no shortage of attention-grabbing longreads in traditional media, online-only outlets, alt-weeklies and literary journals—both in the U.S. and abroad, and written as profiles, personal essays, historical accounts and op-eds. And many take residence in Instapaper and Read It Later apps, including mine. My top five for the year:

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1. “Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home,” Michael Kruse, St. Petersburg Times, July 22

A stirring and richly reported narrative of a Florida woman who vanished from her neighborhood and society.

“The neighbors said that they seldom saw her but that for more than a year they hadn’t seen her at all. One called her ‘a little strange.’ Another said she ‘just disappeared.’ The How could a woman die a block from the beach, surrounded by her neighbors, and not be found for almost 16 months? How could a woman go missing inside her own home?”

2. “The Bomb That Didn’t Go Off,” Charles P. Pierce, Esquire, July 21

The overwhelming majority of terrorism in the United States has always been homegrown, even while fear is diverted elsewhere in the wake of 9/11. Pierce provides an engrossing narrative of a bomb that was planted along a parade route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Spokane, Wash., this year. It didn’t go off. (Update: The man who planted the bomb was recently sentenced to the maximum 32 years in prison.)

“There’s a spot by the Spokane River where they would have built the memorial, and what would it have looked like, the memorial to the victims of the bag on the bench? Would it be lovely and muted, the way the grounds of what used to be the Murrah Building are today in Oklahoma City, with their bronze chairs and the water gently lapping at the sides of the reflecting pool? Maybe they’d buy one of the pawnshops downtown for the museum. Maybe there would be an exhibit of children’s shoes there, like the display case in the Oklahoma City museum that’s full of watches frozen at 9:02, the time at which the bomb they didn’t find went off.”

3. “Getting Bin Laden,” Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker, Aug. 8

The definitive account of the top news event of the year.

“Three SEALs shuttled past Khalid’s body and blew open another metal cage, which obstructed the staircase leading to the third floor. Bounding up the unlit stairs, they scanned the railed landing. On the top stair, the lead SEAL swivelled right; with his night-vision goggles, he discerned that a tall, rangy man with a fist-length beard was peeking out from behind a bedroom door, ten feet away…

“A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, ‘For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.’ After a pause, he added, ’Geronimo E.K.I.A.’—‘enemy killed in action.’

“Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, ‘We got him.’ ”

4. “Writing Advice from George Saunders,” Patrick Dacey, BOMB Magazine, April 26

Acclaimed writer Saunders discusses the writing process, storytelling technique (“Any monkey in a story had better be a dead monkey”) and whether a man can ever really experience true happiness without an icicle impaling him through the head. Former student Patrick Dacey effectively guides the multi-part Q&A.

“I vaguely remember seeing something, when I was very young (maybe 3 or 4), about Hemingway’s death on TV. My memory is: a photo of him in that safari jacket, and the announcer sort of intoning all the cool things he’d done (‘Africa! Cuba! Friends with movie stars!’). So I got this idea of a writer as someone who went out and did all these adventurous things, jotted down a few notes afterward, then got all this acclaim, world-wide attention etc., etc.—with the emphasis on the ‘adventuring’ and not so much on the ‘jotting down.’ ”

5. “Little Girl Found,” Patti Waldmeir, Financial Times, Aug. 12

Waldmeir, the adoptive mother of two abandoned children, discovered an abandoned baby behind a Dunkin’ Donuts in Shanghai one winter night. In this personal essay she tracks the baby from hospital to police station to orphanage, with side trips into reflection on her daughters’ stories.

“This child’s mother had chosen the spot carefully: only steps from one of the best hotels in Shanghai, beside a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise patronised mostly by foreigners. I had been meeting my friend John there for a quick doughnut fix, and it was he who heard the baby’s cries as he chained his bicycle to the alleyway gate. ‘There’s a baby outside!’ John exclaimed as he slid into the seat beside me, still blustery from the cold. ‘What do you mean, there’s a baby outside?’ I asked in alarm, bolting out of the door to see what he was talking about.”

It’s difficult to stop at only five. A few bonus reads:

“Anthrax Redux: Did the Feds Nab the Wrong Guy?” Noah Shachtman, Wired, March 24

“Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” Maria Bustillos, The Awl, April 5

“The Greatest Paper That Ever Died,” Alex French and Howie Kahn, Grantland, June 8

“Karen Wagner’s Life,” John Spong, Texas Monthly, Sept. 2011

“The Shame of College Sports,” Taylor Branch, The Atlantic, Oct. 2011

“Steve Jobs Was Always Kind to Me (or Regrets of an Asshole),” Brian Lam, The Wirecutter, Oct. 5

“Punched Out: Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer,” John Branch, New York Times, Dec. 3-5

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