We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in arts and culture.
Drawing a Line in the Sand Over River Rights (Chris Colin, Outside)
Maybe it’s because I was born with an innate sense of communitarian justice. Maybe it’s because, at the age of 9, I was traumatized for several months after a cranky neighbor screamed me out of her yard when I attempted to sate my (natural, innocent, child’s) curiosity by opening her much-larger-than-usual mailbox. Maybe it’s because, as an adult, I now know that the Venn diagram of people who are really into their private property and people who really suck is basically a circle.
Whatever the reason, I found myself gasping and laughing the whole way through Chris Colin’s journey down the Russian River, as he sought to test the limits of California law against a cross-section of the trespassing-averse. It would be like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” except “instead of whiskey,” Colin and three friends would be “fueled by a cocktail of righteousness and florid legalese.”
Yes canoes, thinks Colin, as he docks his canoe under one NO CANOES sign after the next — after all, those signs are technically illegal, since all of California’s river beaches are public up to the “ordinary high-water mark,” a fun fact I now know thanks to this piece. Sure, the fascinating confluence of property owners — aging hippies; aging California working class; new-money tech folk from San Francisco — maybe have a point about the costs of constant docking of the hoi polloi (“broken glass, poop in the bushes, and bad music blaring”). But, wonders Colin, isn’t the real answer to enforce the laws that exist, instead of expecting everyone to obey the self-created shadow laws of property owners, who have mean dogs and sometimes really good aim with golf balls?
This piece was one of the only things I read in 2018 where I both hung on every word and didn’t hate myself at the end — because it was neither vapid celebrity nonsense, nor an enraging new development in the Trump shit-show. Like a canoe trip down the Russian River itself, Colin’s tale was both beautifully escapist and a perfect microcosm of much of what ails us at this particular moment: the glorification of private property versus the preservation of the public good. Yes canoes, everyone. Yes canoes.
All 41 Broadway Theaters, Ranked (Natalie Walker, Vulture)
Do Men Enter Bathtubs on Hands and Knees So Their Balls Hit the Water Last? (Kelly Conaboy, The Cut)
I read lots of great things this year, long and important and inspiring reads about Deborah Eisenberg and cruise-ship entertainers and #MeToo. But I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge a different kind of great writing that the current internet-media economy, for all its flaws, fosters quite well: the deranged overlongread. This is the piece that, with a wildly entertaining lack of self-control, goes way too deep into a question of perhaps questionable impact, taking advantage of the author’s expertise or tireless interest in the subject. It’s a chance for a writer to completely lose her sense of perspective and launch into the kind of writing project that no editor would say yes to in the abstract but which no good editor can say no to once she’s read it. My two favorite examples this year were both published on nymag.com. Natalie Walker’s exhaustive ranking of all 41 Broadway theaters on Vulture is nearly 5,000 words long, but is so densely packed both with jokes and with absurdly detailed knowledge that it never stops being delightful to read. And in a piece on The Cut that is pegged to nothing, absurd on its face, inspired by a BabyCenter message board post, 2,500 words long, and festooned with amateurish drawings, Kelly Conaboy interviews, at my count, 15 different men to answer, once and for all, the question, “Do Men Enter the Bathtub on Their Hands and Knees So Their Balls Hit the Water Last?” It’s the kind of investigation that the internet was made for.
The Untold Stories of Paul McCartney (Chris Heath, GQ)
In Praise of ‘Good As Hell,’ The Song That Believes In You Even When You Don’t (Hanif Abdurraqib, NPR)
I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless, and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life (Heather Havrilesky, The Cut)
I have three pieces for you to read at this closing of the year. They all trade in perception and value.
The first is Chris Heath’s lengthy interview with Paul McCartney for GQ. “The Untold Stories of Paul McCartney” is a litany of the rock legend’s “less manicured” anecdotes — including the as-yet unshared John Lennon circle jerk story. Mostly it’s about a man, largely responsible for redefining popular culture, slowly revealing himself as a bit of a weirdo.
Next is a piece of luminous writing by Hanif Abdurraqib for NPR’s “American Anthem” series. “In Praise of ‘Good As Hell,’ The Song That Believes In You Even When You Don’t” is a flat-out pleasurable read. “Without erasing the unique specifics of the song’s message,” Abdurraqib writes, “there is another message rattling below: Anyone who desires wings can go out and get them.”
Lastly, I commend to you “I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless, and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life,” by Heather Havrilesky in her “Ask Polly” column in The Cut. This to me is pure culture — the culture of perceived value and conferred worth. The piece is in response to a 35-year-old woman who feels as if her picaresque life has been wasted. “Learn to treat yourself the way a loving older parent would,” Havrilesky counsels. “Tell yourself: This reckoning serves a purpose. Your traveling served a purpose. Your moving served a purpose. You’re sitting on a pile of gold that you earned through your own hard work, you just can’t see it yet. You can’t see it because you’re blinded by your shame.” Read this and be refreshed.
Justin Heckert is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina.
‘That had to hurt.’ Lessons learned on the diving board in summer’s final days. (Taylor Telford, The Washington Post)
The diving board in this story is ominous, a tongue. The swimming pool below it “a churning ecosystem of youth.” We are dropped into the summer glow, in with the sunbathers and the divers and the lifeguard, and get to spend a few unforgettable moments inside this day with them, as readers — a world rendered in the third dimension by the sights and sounds and in the movements captured by Taylor Telford. The water dripping off shiny skin, the concrete blazing, people hopping back and forth so their feet don’t burn. This story is wonderful, from the lede to the end, and though it’s a short story that reads like a more ambitious one, it never commits the sin of boring writing: it’s always entertaining, and it demands to be read all the way through. I marvel at the little observations and how she uses them, at what it took to write this and how many people there she must’ve interviewed to make it feel like she didn’t need to interview a soul. That she must’ve stared at people’s faces, toes, hands, the concrete of the pool itself, the counting of steps, the height of the board, the shadows and the sun, the way people were positioned and how they were talking to one another, a great reminder of the type of observation required for this kind of work, and how fun and vivid nonfiction can be.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.
Living With Slenderman (Kathleen Hale, Hazlitt)
I’m one of those cynical pedants who feels especially exasperated by click-baity social media posts that swear that whatever they’re linking to is the best thing you’ll read all year. More often than is probably (definitely) healthy for me, I find myself rolling my eyes and thinking, “it’s April, my friend, and this year has eight whole months left in it!” So it’s probably poetic justice that the piece that wound up being my favourite long-form essay of the year was published way back in January.
I can’t remember how I first stumbled across Kathleen Hale’s “Living With Slenderman.” I’m sure I opened it because I thought it was going to be a lurid read that scratched my true crime itch. Instead, it was a complex narrative about childhood, mental illness, and the carceral system. In her essay, Hale tells the story of Morgan Geyser who, when she was 12, acted with her friend Anissa to try to kill their classmate Bella. The case has generated many sensationalist headlines, especially since the defendants claimed that they had hurt their friend in an effort to appease the internet bogeyman “Slenderman;” many people believed that Morgan and Anissa should serve a maximum prison sentence for such a senseless, horrifying crime. But Hale neatly lays out all the details — from Geyser’s early hallucinations and delusions, to her diagnosis of early-onset schizophrenia, to explanations of why American children can be tried as adults in the courts — in a way that’s both engaging and deeply unsettling.
I came to this essay because I wanted some kind of voyeuristic thrill over something I didn’t really know about and certainly didn’t understand. I keep coming back to this essay because of the layered truths it tells: that stigma against mental illness can be deadly; that revenge is not a recipe for justice; that prisons chew up and spit out literal children and not many people seem very bothered by that fact. I can’t stop re-reading it and don’t imagine that I will be able to any time soon.
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.
For One Last Night, Make It a Blockbuster Night (Justin Heckert, The Ringer)
I didn’t know I needed a gorgeously written feature about Blockbuster nostalgia until this one popped up on my newsfeed. Turns out, I really needed it. All movie-lovers probably needed it. Certainly, all kids from small towns who once combed the store’s white shelves each weekend needed it. Justin Heckert’s superb story for The Ringer about one of the last Blockbusters in Alaska — where the once-hegemonic rental chain went to die — is an elegy for a distinctly 20th century way of consuming culture. Transactional, tactile, conversational, illuminating, and relatable. Rooted in real places, yet also in our imaginations. Situated at the intersection of the fantastic and the mundane. Like my favorite movies, I could rewind this story and read it again, and again, and again.
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