Matt Pearce: My Top 5 Longreads

Matt Pearce is a contributing writer for The Los Angeles Times, The New Inquiry, and The Pitch. He’s based in Kansas City and recently covered the Egyptian elections and uprisings on Tahrir Square.

•••

1. Paul Ford – “The Epiphanator” – New York magazine

I think this year we’ve reached this saturation point where a critical mass people have finally accepted the deep role social media plays in the way we live our lives, a progress I’ve measured largely through 1. former New York Times head honcho Bill Keller’s decreasingly humiliating comments about Twitter and 2. this brilliantly droll smoker by Paul Ford, who writes about social media’s arrival the way some people write about coming to terms with their mortality. I don’t think the tone in Ford’s essay would have been possible even last year, which is what makes it so definitive of the moment, and it has that David Foster Wallace quality of articulating deep feelings about a phenomenon I didn’t quite realize I’d felt and certainly never could have expressed so wonderfully.

2. Édouard Levé – “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” – The Paris Review

Levé was a photographer, but right before he committed suicide in 2007, he wrote a book called, um, “Suicide.” His prose here, distracted and fissiparous, reads like a kind of literary pointillism: Each individual fleck doesn’t make much sense on its own, but by the end the mass agglomerates into something dark and quite beautiful. It’s like tossing through a box of unsorted and unmarked photographs to deduce the life of the man who shot them — and damn, what a life it must’ve been.

3. Alex French and Howie Kahn – “The Greatest Paper That Ever Died” – Grantland

I’m still not sure what to make of Grantland, but I liked it a lot more after I read this oral history of The National, which was an national sports daily with huge ambitions whose collapse read like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella set in contemporary New York. In a lot of ways, The National is Grantland’s forebear, and so if Grantland doesn’t work out, the least we could hope for would be an autopsy as funny as this one.

4. Jon Lee Anderson – “King of Kings” – New Yorker

Over the summer, I reported on a Libyan-American trapped in Libya during the civil war. He’d grown up there, and after he escaped, we became friends. On the day Qaddafi died, I texted him to see if he’d heard — he lived in a van because he didn’t have any money, and nor did he have a TV — and I didn’t hear back. While walking through a park later, he told me that when he got my text about Qaddafi, he sat down and didn’t move for several hours. It’s tough to explain how deeply Qaddafi had engrained himself into Libyan psyches, creating a distortion field where it was impossible to imagine existence without him. While walking, I told him about the New Yorker and how it writes these comprehensive takes on a subject that often become the final word, and I told him we could expect something from the New Yorker on Qaddafi. And shortly later, there it came: A brilliant postmortem by Jon Lee Anderson to explain the man-cum-phenomenon. My friend had trouble finishing it because it hit so close to home, and that’s what great journalism should do.

5. Tim Rogers – “Who Killed Videogames? (A Ghost Story)” – Insert Credit

This monster on the deep unhappiness behind the contemporary gaming experience came at me from out of nowhere a few months ago, and it hasn’t left me since. I still have questions about it, actually: How much is real? How much is fiction? In the end, the particulars didn’t matter so much as the dark way Rogers captures the Pavlovian sickness behind games created by companies like Zynga, whose games thrive by creating an itch in users rather than aiming for real joy.

•••

Honorable mention: 

Kim Zetter – “How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History” – Wired

One of these days, after The Big One hits, we’re going to wish we’d stuck more narrative writers on the tech beat to explain the malevolent 1s and 0s secretly undermining our lives online and, increasingly, our relationship with the world at large. There will always be the Nicholas Schmidles to write the Osama bin Laden takedown (which might’ve been on this list if not for transparency qualms), but the day is soon coming where our most important national security enforcers write code instead of rappelling out of helicopters — if they aren’t already. Zetter’s piece is a brilliant argument that that day has already come. (Bonus points for Wired’s visual presentation of the story.)

•••

See more lists from our Top 5 Longreads of 2011 >

Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.