Longreads Best of 2020: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

Here’s every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.


January

‘I Believe in Love’: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Final Year, In Her Own Words

Elizabeth Wurtzel | GEN | January 8, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,830 words)

Memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel was working on this, her final personal essay, when she passed away on January 7th, 2020 from metastatic breast cancer. In the piece she reveals that as her health was declining, her marriage was unraveling, and that she was still wrestling with new information her mother finally revealed a couple of years ago: that her biological father was not the same man as the father she grew up with. With an introduction and end note from her editor and friend, Garance Franke-Ruta.

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Shadow of a Doubt

Emily Bazelon | The New York Times Magazine | January 16, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,800 words)

In 2011, Michael Shannon was wrongly convicted of murder, even though two jurors voted to acquit him—a result of a Louisiana law rooted in discrimination. For defendants like Shannon and the holdout jurors who believed in their innocence, it has left a bitter legacy.

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The Prison Inside Prison

Michael Barajas | Texas Observer | January 21, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,335 words)

Decades with no personal contact, no way back into the general prison population, cut off from the possibility of parole — solitary confinement is an ongoing experiment in cruelty on human subjects.

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Adventures in Publishing Outside the Gates

Wendy C. Ortiz | Gay Magazine | January 29, 2020 | 14 minutes (3,521 words)

When Latinx author Wendy C. Ortiz shopped her memoir, Excavation, about the inappropriate sexual relationship her eighth grade English teacher initiated with her, mainstream publishers wouldn’t give her the time of day. She published it with tiny Future Tense Books, and the book gained a strong following. Among her readers was white author Kate Elizabeth Russell, whose novel, My Dark Vanessa — for which she received a seven-figure deal and a blurb from Stephen King —  is remarkably similar. In this essay, Ortiz takes the white-dominated publishing industry to task for its longstanding discrimination against, and erasure of, writers of color.


February

The Money Behind Trump’s Money

David Enrich | The New York Times Magazine | February 4, 2020 | 27 minutes (6,900 words)

The inside story of the president and Deutsche Bank, his lender of last resort.

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‘The intelligence coup of the century’

Greg Miller | The Washington Post | February 11, 2020 | 35 minutes (8,928 words)

The CIA, in a secret partnership with West Germany, used Crypto AG to sell encryption services to gullible governments and then promptly read all their clandestine communications.

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The End of Miss America

Lyz Lenz | Jezebel | February 20, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,814 words)

If only the actual Miss America were as gorgeous and erudite as this essay about the decrepitude of a stagnant pageant in a changing world.

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You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus

James Hamblin | The Atlantic | February 24, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,045 words)

You might not know you have it, though.


March

Shell Is Looking Forward

Malcolm Harris | New York Magazine | March 3, 2020 | 21 minutes (5,271 words)

The fossil-fuel companies expect to profit from climate change. I went to a private planning meeting and took notes.

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The Storykiller and His Sentence: Rebecca Solnit on Harvey Weinstein

Rebecca Solnit | LitHub | March 12, 2020 | 11 minutes (2,765 words)

Rebecca Solnit considers Harvey Weinstein’s 23-year prison sentence through the lens of storytelling, and who gets to do it now that at least two men who were “in charge of stories” — Weinstein and Woody Allen — have lost so much of their power, and women are now finding their voices.

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The Wing Is a Women’s Utopia. Unless You Work There.

Amanda Hess | The New York Times Magazine | March 17, 2020 | 20 minutes (5,140 words)

Surprise: women’s empowerment harnessed to American-style capitalism delivers more inequality, and an Instagram wall can’t fix it.

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What I Learned When My Husband Got Sick with Coronavirus

Jessica Lustig | The New York Times Magazine | March 24, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,227 words)

“You shouldn’t stay here,” he says, but he gets more frightened as night comes, dreading the long hours of fever and soaking sweats and shivering and terrible aches. “This thing grinds you like a mortar,” he says.


April

If I Wrote a Coronavirus Episode

Maria Elena Fernandez | Vulture | April 2, 2020 | 27 minutes (6,812 words)

“Tina Fey, Mike Schur, and 35 more TV writers on what their characters would do in a pandemic.”

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The Last Train Trip Before Everything Changed

Lauren Markham | LitHub | April 6, 2020 | 10 minutes (2,529 words)

On solitude, snow, and finding reasons to write.

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The Devastating Decline of a Brilliant Young Coder

Sandra Upson | Wired | April 14, 2020 | 28 minutes (7,112 words)

“Lee Holloway programmed internet security firm Cloudflare into being. But then he became apathetic, distant, and unpredictable — for a long time, no one could make sense of it.”

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My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?

Gabrielle Hamilton | New York Times Magazine | April 23, 2020 | 23 minutes (5,831 words)

“Forced to shutter Prune, I’ve been revisiting my original dreams for it — and wondering if there will still be a place for it in the New York of the future.”


May

Inside the Nightmare Voyage of the Diamond Princess

Doug Bock Clark | GQ | April 30, 2020 | 34 minutes (8,638 words)

“At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, one ill-fated cruise ship became a symbol for the panic and confusion that would soon engulf the globe. Doug Bock Clark uncovers what two harrowing weeks trapped aboard the ‘Diamond Princess’ felt like — for unsuspecting tourists, for frightened crew members, even for the captain himself.”

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Inside the Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup

Shawn Yuan | Wired | May 1, 2020 | 14 minutes (3,696 words)

“The dawn of a pandemic — as seen through the news and social media posts that vanished from China’s internet.”

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Putin Is Well On His Way to Stealing the Next Election

Franklin Foer | The Atlantic | May 11, 2020 | 30 minutes (7,634 words)

Russia wants to eradicate democracy, and they’re doing a fine job of it, by pitting people against one another, sowing discord, misinformation, chaos, and doubt about election integrity. The problem, that plays right into the hands of the Russians, is that the United States is already too divided to do much about it.

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We Can’t Comprehend This Much Sorrow

Teju Cole | The New York Times Magazine | May 18, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,411 words)

“History’s first draft is almost always wrong — but we still have to try and write it.”

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The Evidence Against Her

Justine van der Leun | GEN | May 27, 2020 | 44 minutes (11,071 words)

He raped and tortured her for years. He had a gun; he “showed her diagrams of the human brain… the place that would allow her to live but without speech or memory. ‘Wouldn’t that be convenient, he said.'” She shot him, to save herself and her kids. And according to the prosecutor, jury, and judge, she’s a premeditated murderer who deserves her 20-year prison sentence.


June

The American Nightmare

Ibram X. Kendi | The Atlantic | June 1, 2020 | 10 minutes (2,595 words)

“Either there is something superior or inferior about the races, something dangerous and deathly about black people, and black people are the American nightmare; or there is something wrong with society, something dangerous and deathly about racist policy, and black people are experiencing the American nightmare.” One is a racist myth; the other, antiracist truth.

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Why Minneapolis Was the Breaking Point

Wesley Lowery | The Atlantic | June 10, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,880 words)

“Black men and women are still dying across the country. The power that is American policing has conceded nothing.” Wesley Lowery writes about what he’s learned about police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the breaking point we’ve reached.

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“Somebody’s Gotta Help Me”

Lucas Waldron, Nadia Sussman, Thalia Beaty, Ryan Gabrielson
ProPublica | June 16, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,543 words)

“But abuse by law enforcement inside jails remains largely out of sight and harder to document.” Phillip Garcia was in psychiatric crisis. In jail and in the hospital, guards responded with violent force and restrained him for almost 20 hours, until he died.

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Twelve Minutes and a Life

Mitchell S. Jackson | Runner’s World | June 18, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,150 words)

White people are allowed to go jogging. When Ahmaud Marquez Arbery did, he got lynched. “That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America. Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites.”


July

The Cursed Platoon

Greg Jaffe | The Washington Post | July 2, 2020 | 40 minutes (10,000 words)

“Clint Lorance had been in charge of his platoon for only three days when he ordered his men to kill three Afghans stopped on a dirt road. A second-degree murder conviction and pardon followed. Today, Lorance is hailed as a hero by President Trump. His troops have suffered a very different fate.”

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Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani

Aaron Gell | Marker | July 8, 2020 | 43 minutes (10,868 words)

“Astrology, private equity, a $1.1 billion gender discrimination lawsuit, and a precariously built bangle behemoth.”

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How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit the Pandemic

Jane Mayer | The New Yorker | July 13, 2020 | 34 minutes (8,530 words)

“The secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the president’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

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Where Will Everyone Go?

Abrahm Lustgarten | ProPublica | July 23, 2020 | 38 minutes (9,536 words)

As temperatures and sea levels rise, populations flee from regions that are no longer livable, and the United States and other nations choose to build walls and keep migrants out, where will the world’s climate refugees go?

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Barack Obama’s Eulogy for John Lewis

Barack Obama | The Atlantic | July 30, 2020 | 14 minutes (3,641 words)

“He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals.”


August

Flimsy plastic knives, a single microwave, and empty popcorn bags: How 50 inmates inside a Michigan prison prepared a feast to celebrate the life of George Floyd

Tana Ganeva | The Counter | August 6, 2020 | 13 minutes (3,397 words)

Michael Thompson found a way to mark George Floyd’s death inside prison: a meal shared with other inmates to honor him. “After they returned their cells, each man sat in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And then they began to eat.”

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Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast

Seema Jilani | New York Review of Books | August 18, 2020 | 11 minutes (2,757 words)

Pediatrician Seema Jilani recounts the immediate aftermath of the Beirut explosion: “As I emerged from the car, the air was still whirring with debris. Everything was eerily silent. But it wasn’t. I just couldn’t hear anything. My ears were ringing. The street scene in front of me, almost two blocks from my apartment and walking distance from the epicenter of the blast, was a silent horror film.”

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The Life Breonna Taylor Lived, in the Words of Her Mother

Ta-Nehisi Coates | Vanity Fair | August 24, 2020 | 26 minutes (6,720 words)

“She started walking early—like at nine months, so she was just a little person early. I always say she had an old soul. She liked listening to the blues with my mother. She would sing me the blues. It was hilarious. She used to sing ‘Last Two Dollars.’ That was her song.”


September

Breonna Taylor’s Life Was Changing. Then the Police Came to Her Door.

Rukmini Callimachi | The New York Times | September 3, 2020 | 26 minutes (6,500 words)

Two months before she was killed in her home in Louisville, Breonna Taylor tweeted triumphantly, “2020 deff gonna be my year WATCH!”

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The New Reconstruction

Adam Serwer | The Atlantic | September 8, 2020 | 30 minutes (7,613 words)

“There has never been an anti-racist majority in American history; there may be one today in the racially and socioeconomically diverse coalition of voters radicalized by the abrupt transition from the hope of the Obama era to the cruelty of the Trump age. All political coalitions are eventually torn apart by their contradictions, but America has never seen a coalition quite like this.”

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Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration

Abrahm Lustgarten | ProPublica | September 15, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,133 words)

“Wildfires rage in the West. Hurricanes batter the East. Droughts and floods wreak damage throughout the nation. Life has become increasingly untenable in the hardest-hit areas, but if the people there move, where will everyone go?”

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The Election That Could Break America

Barton Gellman | The Atlantic | September 23, 2020 | 38 minutes (9,621 words)

“If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?”


October

“Civil War Is Here, Right Now”

Mike Giglio | The Atlantic | October 1, 2020 | 27 minutes (6,950 words)

“A Pro-Trump militant group has recruited thousands of police, soldiers, and veterans. An Atlantic investigation reveals who they are and what they might do on Election Day.”

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Only One of Their Children Survived Sandy Hook. Now School Posed a New Threat: The Virus.

John Woodrow Cox | The Washington Post | October 7, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,762 words)

“After losing their 6-year-old daughter in a mass shooting, can Isaiah Marquez-Greene’s parents bear to let him return to high school during a pandemic?”

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The True Story of the Antifa Invasion of Forks, Washington

Lauren Smiley | Wired | October 8, 2020 | 36 minutes (9,000 words)

A false report on Twitter about violent leftist activists traveling by bus exploded into a call to arms. Then a bus, carrying a family and two dogs, rolled into a remote Northwestern town best known as the setting for the Twilight series. Chaos ensued.

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Dying Inside

Peter Eisler, Linda So, Jason Szep, Grant Smith, Ned Parker | Reuters | October 16, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,936 words)

Nearly 5,000 inmates have died in U.S. jails without getting their day in court. Reuters investigates the fatalities in America’s biggest jails.

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What to Do About Ahav?

Hannah Dreier | The Washington Post | October 24, 2020 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)

“A mother’s fight to save a Black, mentally ill 11-year-old boy in a time of a pandemic and rising racial unrest.”


November

Why Trump Can’t Afford to Lose

Jane Mayer | The New Yorker | November 1, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,220 words)

“The President has survived one impeachment, twenty-six accusations of sexual misconduct, and an estimated four thousand lawsuits. That run of good luck may well end, perhaps brutally, if Joe Biden wins.”

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The El Paso Experiment

Melissa del Bosque | The Intercept | November 1, 2020 | 27 minutes (6,900 words)

“A public defender’s lonely fight against family separation.”

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The Last Children of Down Syndrome

Sarah Zhang | The Atlantic | November 18, 2020 | 31 minutes (7,888 words)

In 2019, only 18 babies in Denmark were born with Down syndrome. Prenatal testing is changing who gets born and who doesn’t.

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‘It’s a National Tragedy’: What a Devastating Covid-19 Outbreak at a California Slaughterhouse Reveals About the Federal Government’s Failed Pandemic Response

Nick Roberts, Rosa Amanda Tuirán | The Counter | November 24, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,691 words)

“In the face of an unprecedented public health crisis, the federal agency responsible for workplace safety has essentially allowed meatpackers to regulate themselves—leading to chaos, confusion, and fear in facilities across the country.”


December

The Inside Story of Michigan’s Fake Voter Fraud Scandal

Tim Alberta | Politico | November 24, 2020 | 29 minutes (7,400 words)

“How a state that was never in doubt became a ‘national embarrassment’ and a symbol of the Republican Party’s fealty to Donald Trump.”

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Visible Men: Black Fathers Talk About Losing Sons to Police Brutality

Mosi Secret | GQ | December 10, 2020 | 28 minutes (7,072 words)

“We asked the fathers and father figures of Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Daniel Prude, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake to reflect on the violence that forever altered their families’ lives—and what it means to raise a Black man in America.”

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Tethered to the Machine

Lizzie Presser | ProPublica | December 15, 2020 | 31 minutes (7,785 words)

“For years, JaMarcus Crews tried to get a new kidney, but corporate healthcare stood in the way. He needed dialysis to stay alive. He couldn’t miss a session, not even during a pandemic.”

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