Best of 2021: Features

The deep dives that left us gasping for air.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. We highlight our favorite stories in our weekly Longreads Top 5, and at year’s end — in what is now a decade-long tradition — we revisit and reflect on the pieces we loved most. Today, we’re celebrating our favorite longform features: stories that blend deep reportage, inventive structure, and deft writing to leave an impact like few others do.

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, Nathan Thrall, New York Review of Books, March 19, 2021

This isn’t just the best feature I read this year. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read, period. Nathan Thrall situates one father’s desperate journey to find out what happened to his son after the boy’s school bus collided with a tractor trailer within the vast, ugly context of Israel’s decades-long effort to make Palestinian lives all but unlivable. In search of basic answers — is his son hurt? is he even alive? — Abed Salama must grapple with the devastatingly mundane consequences of “fragmentation,” Israel’s policy of keeping “Palestinian communities isolated from one another and surrounded by fences, walls, checkpoints, closed gates, roadblocks, trenches, and bypass roads.” Expertly researched and brilliantly told, Thrall’s feature is a masterpiece. —Seyward Darby

Author Nathan Thrall’s pick for the most impactful story of the year:

Carlos Lozada’s Washington Post omnibus review of 21 books, “9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed,” is a piece ​one hopes will stay with American voters and policymakers. “Washington fantasized about remaking the world in its image,” Lozada writes, “only to reveal an ugly image of itself to the world.”

Revolt of the Delivery Workers, Josh Dzieza, New York/The Verge, September 13, 2021

When the pandemic first hit, New York more than anywhere depended on its essential workers: the health care professionals who stood in the path of an epidemiological tsunami, but also the massive community of delivery cyclists who crisscrossed the boroughs to feed the folks privileged enough to shelter in place. The end of lockdown, however, meant a new era of troubles for Postmates and Seamless contractors. Bike thieves snatched away riders’ earning power; apps demanded ever-higher productivity for ever-lower reward; the very people tasked to protect the workers didn’t seem to care. “[They] call it the patrón fantasma, the phantom boss,” Josh Dzieza writes, “always watching and quick to punish you for being late but nowhere to be found when you need $10 to fix your bike or when you get doored and have to go to the hospital.” Something had to break. Something did. Dzieza’s remarkable feature rides along with the riders as they fight for protection and autonomy — lobbying legislators, pestering the NYPD, even running vigilante repo missions for stolen bikes. This isn’t a portrait of sleek, unified collective action; it’s a look at how a workers’ struggle can succeed even when it’s as shaggy and frayed as a winter-ravaged fleece jacket. —Peter Rubin

Author Josh Dzieza on the story he wishes he’d written this year:

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ New Yorker story “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” answered a question I’d wondered about and never really thought to answer: Why, seemingly all of a sudden a couple years ago, did government officials and serious journalists start talking about UFOs with a straight face? The answer runs through Cold War history, a straight-up CIA plot to make aliens a laughable idea, military contractors turned paranormal investigators, and an independent researcher attempting to bring rigor to a topic shrouded in kookiness and taboos. It’s a fascinating story about epistemology and the institutional forces that determine which ideas get treated as matters of serious inquiry and which do not.

The Other Afghan Women, Anand Gopal, The New Yorker, September 6, 2021

Over the summer, Anand Gopal traveled to Afghanistan to speak with dozens of women living in the countryside, where the endless killing of civilians by U.S. forces turned Afghans against the very people who claimed to be helping them. “On average, I found, each family lost ten to twelve civilians in what locals call the American War,” Gopal writes. This is an extraordinary piece on wartime life across Afghanistan’s dangerous rural terrain, seen through the eyes of women like Shakira, a woman in her 40s who grew up in the Sangin Valley. Gopal provides essential context for understanding what decades of violence and corruption have wrought, and he weaves an incredibly reported and beautifully told account of everyday life outside of Afghanistan’s cities. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Author Anand Gopal’s pick for best feature of the year: 

Rozina Ali’s “The ‘Herald Square Bomber’ Who Wasn’t,” for the New York Times Magazine, was a searing look at the men spending decades in prison under terrorism charges despite never having committed an act of violence. Reading Ali’s moving, nuanced profile of Matin Siraj, a bookstore employee who was entrapped by the NYPD, brings home the fact that the roots of the crisis in our democracy go back much further than Trump. It’s one of the most important works of longform storytelling I read this year.

The Lives of Others, Lindsay Jones, The Atavist, March 2021

“Warm” and “intimate” may seem strange adjectives to describe a feature about babies who are switched at birth — but Lindsay Jones paints her story’s Newfoundland setting with such affection that I couldn’t help but feel an affinity with it. Although two children grew up in the wrong families, they were both surrounded by love, living just a bay apart in a homely place where towns are called Heart’s Desire, Leading Tickles, and Dildo. It is this small community that made the story possible, with the children meeting as adults and eventually uncovering the truth about their births. “Such an encounter could only happen in a place like Newfoundland,” Jones writes, “where your neighbors and the wider community, precisely because it’s never that wide, are often intimately familiar; where it’s possible to look at someone and know who their kin are.” As two families navigate difficult times, Jones provides thoughtful insight into a unique, and beautiful, culture. —Carolyn Wells

Author Lindsay Jones’ picks for the most impactful stories of 2021:

I’ve been thinking about Elizabeth Weil’s ProPublica story “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine,” about the mental health of a climate scientist and his family, for months. It stretched the bounds of what I thought was possible in a climate narrative. It was deep documentary journalism written with so much empathy that I carry this family with me still, nearly a full year later. To me, that is impactful. Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker story “The Migrant Workers Who Follow Climate Disasters” also resonates. This story is a one-two punch: It reveals the exploitation and death that migrant workers face while cleaning up after the disasters caused by the ever-increasing effects of climate change.

The Marathon Men Who Can’t Go Home, David Alm, GQ, May 21, 2021

For an elite marathoner from Ethiopia like Tadesse Yae Dabi, the U.S. offered opportunities he’d never have in his home country: the chance to run races, to win life-changing prize money, and to support the loved ones he’d left behind. But with races canceled and the pandemic taking away his main source of income, his options have been limited, while returning (or being deported) to a homeland plagued by civil war and ethnic violence is not an option. David Alm spent six months reporting this story, profiling Tadesse and his three roommates, part of the West Side Runners club in the Bronx — a training group that has kept going mainly due to the kindness and support of Bill Staab, an 81-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer. This club is a lifeline and anchor for the athletes, and Alm’s piece is a moving portrait of hope and perseverance, community and camaraderie. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind, Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic, August 9, 2021

Do you know that feeling, that need to savor every word when you’re reading an exceptional piece of writing? I went into slow motion after the first line of Senior’s tour de force: “When Bobby McIlvaine died on September 11, 2001, his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads.” To write the piece, Senior met with McIlvaine’s mother, father, brother, and girlfriend at the time of his death. In speaking with those closest to McIlvaine, she witnesses very different modes of grief, and how that grief has evolved over time. Through the intensely personal price paid by a single family on and after 9/11, Senior underscores the day’s toll on America at large. —Krista Stevens

Author David Alm on What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind”:

Senior’s story is not just beautifully and deftly told, but is also an empathic, compassionate examination of the magnitude and vagaries of grief. I read this piece on a plane, and when I finished it, I just sat there for several minutes looking at the final sentence. I anticipated precisely such an ending early in the piece, when Senior very subtly intimated it, but its impact was even greater than I expected.

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