The 25 Most Popular Longreads Exclusives of 2020

The original reporting, personal essays, columns, and collaborations that were our most-read stories of the year.

Our most popular exclusive stories of 2020. If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

1. The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People

Rachel Nuwer | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (7,033 words)

A headline-grabbing murder-for-hire plot helped expose the dark side of exotic animal ownership in the U.S. Is there now enough momentum to reform the industry?

2. Whatever Happened to ______ ?

Anonymous | Longreads | January 2020 | 20 minutes (4,879 words)

Envy over her success led her husband, also a writer, to become violent. She fights every day for her safety — and to avoid being relegated to obscurity like so many writers who are mothers.

3. The Danger of Befriending Celebrities

Michael Musto | Longreads | February 2020 | 8 minutes (2,000 words)

Once upon a time, nightlife journalist Michael Musto didn’t set the strongest boundaries with the boldfaced names he covered.

4. Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness

Laurie Penny | Longreads | June 2020 | 21 minutes (5,360 words)

The soft-focus Britain of Downton Abbey bears little resemblance to the real Britain collapsing under the weight of racism, austerity, and COVID-19. As Brexit plods on, it’s time for an honest reckoning of the history and future of this outsize little island.

5. Deconstructing Disney: The Princess Problem of ‘Frozen II’

Jeanna Kadlec | Longreads | December 2019 | 10 minutes (3,028 words)

Audiences wanted Disney to give Elsa a girlfriend. But the Frozen franchise is at the center of the corporation’s latest princess project, whose nationalist concerns are decidedly here for the gay agenda.

6. Queens of Infamy: Lucrezia Borgia

Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2020 | 33 minutes (8,371 words)

History may have pigeonholed her as Renaissance Italy’s most notorious seductress, but it’s high time we give the Duchess of Ferrara a closer look.

7. What Happens If I Don’t Like Fiona Apple?

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)

It seems like everyone in the world loves “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” So why don’t I? On the isolation of disconnection.

8. The Bigamist’s Daughter

Robin Antalek | Longreads | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,599 words)

Robin Antalek considers the legacy of the man who abandoned her for another family and never looked back.

9. How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,406 words (21 minutes)

A professor embarks on a six-month binge of celebrity-led online courses.

10. Marmalade: A Very British Obsession

Olivia Potts | Longreads | July 2020 | 15 minutes (4,161 words)

Captain Scott took jars to the Antarctic with him, and Edmund Hillary took one up Everest. Marmalade is part of the British national myth. Livvy Potts wants to know why.

11. The Ancient Waterways of Phoenix, Arizona

Bruce Berger | A Desert Harvest | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | March 2019 | 25 minutes (4,980 words)

To understand this sprawling desert city, you have to understand its canals, whose routes Indigenous people dug as far back as A.D. 200.

12. Out There: On Not Finishing

Devin Kelly | Longreads | September, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,304 words)

What happens if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leave us lonely, wrestling with meaning?

13. Shelved: Pink Floyd’s Household Objects

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2020 | 13 minutes (3,433 words)

On Syd Barrett’s time with Pink Floyd and making an album with household objects and found sounds.

14. The God Phone

Leora Smith | Longreads | January 2020 | 18 minutes (4,961 words)

What happens when ordinary people play God to strangers? Leora Smith explores the history of one of the oldest art installations at Burning Man and the conversations that unfold there.

15. The Poke Paradox

Adam Skolnick | Longreads | February 2020 | 22 minutes (6,125 words)

Where culinary bliss meets environmental peril, and how to solve America’s poke problem.

16. Regarding the Pain of Oprah

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 | 8 minutes (2,233 words)

She gets a mansion and she gets a boat and she gets a jet! And you get to suffer and then maybe pull yourself up by your bootstraps, if you’re lucky enough and bare enough of your private pain.

17. The Disease of Deceit

Dvora Meyers | Longreads | January 2020 | 38 minutes (9,656 words)

Friends don’t let friends lie about having cancer.

18. How Four Americans Robbed the Bank of England

Paul Brown | Longreads | June 2020 | 22 minutes (5,961 words)

In Victorian London, a gang of U.S. hustlers attempts a ten-million-dollar heist on the safest bank in the world. Can the detective who inspired Sherlock Holmes catch them?

19. Deconstructing Disney: Motherhood and the Taming of Maleficent

Jeanna Kadlec | Longreads | October 2020 | 3,234 words (12 minutes)

Last week, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, was released on Disney+. Jeanna Kadlec takes this opportunity to explore how Disney has dealt with their most powerful of witches.

20. Shades of Grey

Ashley Stimpson | Longreads | October 2020 | 26 minutes (7,001 words)

In 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to end greyhound racing, a sport they were told was archaic and inhumane. What if they were wrong?

21. The Criminalization of the American Midwife

Jennifer Block | March 2020 | 32 minutes (8,025 words)

New York midwife Elizabeth Catlin faces 95 individual felony counts at her upcoming trial. For what? For doing her job. Politics and patriarchy make the work of many credentialed, experienced midwives illegal — to the detriment of women and underserved communities.

22. The Endgame of the Olympics

Dvora Meyers | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,722 words (23 minutes)

What if the Olympic Games never come back?

23. The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Lockets

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | June 2020 | 19 minutes (4,853 words)

Lockets simultaneously display and hide. But does squirreling our love and grief away in a piece of jewelry keep the memories and emotions present for us, or minimize them?

24. The Price of Dominionist Theology

Eve Ettinger | Longreads | January 2020 | 17 minutes (4,367 words)

After leaving fundamentalism, Eve Ettinger grapples with the loaded theological heritage of evangelical personal finance teachings.

25. An Atlas of the Cosmos

Shannon Stirone | Longreads | October 2020 | 16 minutes (4,288 words)

We’ve mapped Mars, the Moon, the solar system, even our own galaxy. Which means there is only one thing left to understand in this symbolic way and that is the entirety of the cosmos.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.