Ross Andersen: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Ross Andersen is freelancer living in Washington, D.C. He has recently written about technology for The Atlantic, and is now working on an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He can also be found on Twitter at @andersen.

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“The Mother of Possibility,” by Sven Birkerts, Lapham’s Quarterly

Procrastination being my favorite vice —and the impetus behind many a plunge into Longreads.com— it is perhaps not coincidental that this essay, an elegant defense of idleness, is my favorite of the year. Reading Birkerts may mean forgoing more pressing tasks, but he at least has the decency to make you feel like a visionary for doing so:

“Idleness … It is the soul’s first habitat, the original self ambushed—cross-sectioned—in its state of nature, before it has been stirred to make a plan, to direct itself toward something. We open our eyes in the morning and for an instant—more if we indulge ourselves—we are completely idle, ourselves. And then we launch toward purpose; and once we get under way, many of us have little truck with that first unmustered self, unless in occasional dreamy asides as we look away from our tasks, let the mind slip from its rails to indulge a reverie or a memory. All such thoughts to the past, to childhood, are a truancy from productivity. But there is an undeniable pull at times, as if to a truth neglected.”

“Evolve,” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Orion

Orion, billed as America’s finest environmental magazine, is a strange place to find a moving paean to technology, but that’s exactly what Shellenberger and Nordhaus have written here: a brief, albeit sweeping, history of the relationship between man the toolmaker and his environment.

“After the project was approved, the head of World Wildlife Fund Italy said, “Today the city’s destiny rests on a pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gamble.” In truth, the grandeur that is Venice has always rested—quite literally—on a series of pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gambles. Her buildings rest upon pylons made of ancient larch and oak trees ripped from inland forests a thousand years ago. Over time, the pylons were petrified by the saltwater, infill was added, and cathedrals were constructed. Little by little, technology helped transform a town of humble fisherfolk into the city we know today.”

“Why We Shouldn’t Treat Rap as Poetry,” by Willy Staley, The Awl

Because what’s not to like about a close look at the understudied phenomenon of ghostwriting in Hip-Hop? I’d almost forgotten about this piece until this superb tweet by John Pavlus reminded me of it.

“The Next Future,” by Michael Crowley, Lapham’s Quarterly

I badgered my Google Reader clique (R.I.P.) relentlessly with this essay, a sprawling take on science fiction, prediction and futurism—first by sharing it twice, and second by commenting on both shares with selected excerpts from the piece, so that it would show up at the top of Reader’s (since departed) Comment View. One such excerpt:

“And when read now, forty years from when I first began to write it, what is immediately evident about my future is that it could have been thought up at no time except the time in which I did think it up, and has gone away as that time has gone. No matter its contents, no matter how it is imagined, any future lies not ahead in the stream of time but at an angle to it, a right angle probably. When we have moved on down the stream, that future stays anchored to where it was produced, spinning out infinitely and perpendicularly from there.”

“Windsor Knot,” by Jonathan Freedland, New York Review of Books

Sure, Christopher Hitchens’ takedown of the Royal Wedding was a more satisfyingly vicious read (“By some mystic alchemy, the breeding imperatives for a dynasty become the stuff of romance, even fairy tale.”) but it missed the complexity of Freedland’s piece, which opens with a withering run of digs at the crown, before finishing on a grace note about the Queen’s place in British culture.

“Fear and Self-Loathing in Las Vegas,” by Zach Baron, The Daily

As the author notes, Vegas, particularly Hunter S. Thompson’s Vegas, is without peer as clichéd essay subject. Nonetheless, Baron manages a dazzling walk along the meta-tightrope he has stretched between himself and the strip’s gaudy towers. He manages to generate fresh insights about the culture of the city, while serving up a penetrating, and at times unflattering, look at the impulse behind Thompson’s original project and his own. Oh and all this before Baron goes undercover at DEFCON, an annual hacker convention at which journalists are notoriously unwelcome. 

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