Best of 2021: Reported Essays

The pieces that moved us the most this year.

Staff curation is at the core of our work. All year long, we highlight the top longform stories on the web in our weekly Longreads Top 5, so our end-of-year series is always a busy yet delightful time to revisit and celebrate the pieces that resonated with us the most.

On Tuesday, we shared our favorite personal essays of the year; today, we continue with our picks for the best reported essays, featuring stories about love and loss in the age of AI, death and the environment, the George Floyd rebellion and a time of racial reckoning, and ecological disaster. Enjoy — and thanks so much for reading this year.

The Jessica Simulation, Jason Fagone, San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 2021

Back in 2013, I watched a haunting episode of the Charlie Brooker series Black Mirror called “Be Right Back,” in which a computer chat program uses a deceased person’s digital footprint to imitate them, allowing their loved ones to communicate with them after they die. Eight years on, and, terrifyingly, this is no longer science fiction — as Jason Fagone masterfully reports in this essay, introducing us to the bot version of the late Jessica Pereira. When she tragically died at just 23, Jessica left behind her fiance Joshua, who, struggling to manage his grief, eventually sought comfort in an artificial intelligence system that did “something they weren’t designed to do: conduct chat-like conversations with humans.” Fagone cleverly interweaves Joshua’s real transcripts with the Jessica bot into the story, as he details their love, her death, and Joshua’s eight years of grief. While I found this essay disturbing — it provides a glimpse into a future that I find uncomfortable — it is still fascinating. Fagone’s storytelling method also demonstrated something powerful: I got far closer to knowing the real Jessica through his reporting of the memories of her friends and family, rather than from the Jessica bot. As Jessica’s mother says, “I know it’s not her.” —Carolyn Wells

To Be a Field of Poppies, Lisa Wells, Harper’s Magazine, October 2021

In this beautiful piece, Lisa Wells takes up a classic question: Where do we go when we die? But she is concerned with ethics rather than faith — indeed, she doesn’t once use the word “heaven.” By profiling the natural organic reduction industry, also known as the business of composting dead bodies, Wells considers where human remains should go in the age of climate change. Her essay is a meditation on intention and guilt; grief and fear; life and loss. Above all, it is about our species’ fraught relationship with the planet, and the potential for repair that our literal bodies might hold. —Seyward Darby

Reader Chris Sweeney on “To Be a Field of Poppies”:

I think often about the idea of a “good death” and how to ensure I have one when the time comes, and this reported essay gave me some new aspects to chew over. It also, I think, did a good job of highlighting to readers the importance of thinking about death, and what we want out of it, without being morose or mawkish.

Magic Actions, Tobi Haslett, n+1, May 7, 2021

“Police trials are rare,” wrote Tobi Haslett, shortly after Derek Chauvin had been convicted of multiple murder and manslaughter charges in the killing of George Floyd. “So is national uprising.” So begins an incendiary account of how, after Floyd’s death, “something massive came hurtling into view and exploded against the surface of daily life in the US.” Over the course of his essay, Haslett gathers a half-century of racial-justice protest in his arms, from MLK’s late-career embrace of worker revolt to the growing drumbeat of abolitionist thought that undergirded last summer’s national rebellion. But this is no sterile, scholarly disquisition; it’s dotted throughout with political critique, artistic context, and the chaos and violence of personal experience. In a year that saw no shortage of brilliant broadsides against the enormity of American racism, you’d be hard-pressed to find another that covers so much ground without ever seeming to flag. —Peter Rubin

Death Takes the Lagoon, Ariel Saramandi, Granta, February 8, 2021

Ariel Saramandi’s piece was one of the first I read this year. The egregious neglect and the needless, horrific long-term toll she recounts are things I’ll never forget. “Death Takes the Lagoon” describes an ecological disaster unfolding in painfully slow motion after the cargo ship MV Wakashio runs aground off the coast of Mauritius. When the government fails to take decisive action to contain the ensuing oil spill, citizens band together, making homemade booms around the clock to soak up the toxic mess. As they congregate near the site of the spill, their effort is deemed “an illegal gathering” by an embarrassed Mauritian government — one known for imprisoning citizens for “annoyances” which include even the mildest protest and government criticism. “Against all international recommendations, despite our outcry and outrage, the government sank half of the Wakashio in great haste on August 24. Two days later, melon-headed whales washed up around the south-eastern coast. Dead, mutilated, glossy bodies. Fishermen say the ship was sunk in a whale breeding ground, that some of the corpses they found were of pregnant females.” —Krista Stevens

Another essay from Granta, recommended by author Anand Gopal:

Ben Mauk’s “The Steepest Places: In the Cordillera Central,” about a volcano in the Philippines, opens with an equation — the best, or at least most interesting — lede I’ve seen in a long time:

A sine curve equation that describes Mayon, a volcano in the Philippines whose slopes form the most regular cone in the natural world.

is the sine curve that describes Mayon, the stratovolcano whose slopes form the most regular cone in the natural world. (Let c = 8.6 millimeters.) It was somewhere to our south, at the tip of the long ribbon of Luzon, glowing at night with a bulb of magma in its mouth.

Seeing in the Dark, Breai Mason-Campbell, Pipe Wrench, April/May 2021

The centerpiece of Pipe Wrench’s inaugural spring issue, a sermon by Breai Mason-Campbell on race, accountability, and change, is a real stunner (and the fact that this was Mason-Campbell’s first-ever published piece makes it all the more impressive). She writes about the layers of Black grief, likening it to a nesting doll, and also reflects on how the pandemic and the racial reckoning of summer 2020 had introduced white people to collective suffering. But the attention span of white people is short, and justice is seasonal, activated in choice moments via performative social posts and GoFundMe donations. Damning and passionate and timely, Mason-Campbell’s stirring and powerful words challenge Nice White Folks — and anyone who has the privilege of returning to “business as usual” in times of crisis — to act. To use the armor they’ve built up over the course of the pandemic. To make different choices. To not retreat back into their homes after a moment passes. Because, she writes, “the price for your return to normal is my life.” —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Explore our Best of 2021 collection