David Dobbs writes articles on science, sports, music, writing, reading, and other culture at Neuron Culture and for the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Atavist, Nature, National Geographic, and other publications. He’s working on a book about the genetics of human strength and frailty. He also twitters and tries to play the violin.
Truly we live, as Steve Silberman said, in a time of longform renaissance. The reading year was notable not just for the rise of many long reads and Longreads, but for the debut of The Atavist and Byliner, two new venues for publishing pieces too long for magazines but too short for books. Both, like Longreads, brought me lots of good reading. And The Atavist, which was first off the blocks, let me publish a story, My Mother’s Lover, for which I had tried but failed to find the right length and form for almost a decade. Cheers to Longreads for helping spearhead this renaissance—and to you, Constant Reader, for doing the reading that in all but the most immediate sense makes the writing possible.
Here are my top 5 longreads of 2011, plus some extras. My filter: a combination of what I thought best and what continued to resonate with me. Writing is hard. I’m moved by the dedication to craft in these pieces.
“Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” by Amy Harmon, New York Times
Harmon pulls off something extraordinarily difficult here: she draws on little more than straight reportorial observation to show a young autistic man moving out into a world that struggles to accommodate him. Neither is quite ready for the other; yet they engage, as they must. Gorgeously structured and an immense reward. (Bonus: She later tells how she put it together.)
Janet Malcolm’s “Art of Nonfiction” interview in Paris Review
Malcolm has written several of the best books I’ve ever read; The Silent Woman haunts me more on every reading. Here she reveals how she did it: a rigorous method wielded by a powerful mind and rarefied sensibility. Equally moving and informative were the Paris Review interview with John McPhee and a Chris Jones conversation with Gay Talese. I am now in love with Talese, though he never calls.
“Study of a lifetime,” by Helen Pearson, Nature
Pearson, Nature’s features editor, shows how fine science writing is done, following a set of researchers researching a set of people and they’re all trying to figure out the same thing: How to make sense of their lives. Lovely stuff, true to complex, incredibly valuable science about complex, richly textured lives.
“Climbers: A team of young cyclists tries to outrun the past,” by Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker
Young Rwandan cyclists try to ride into the future. Some rough road, some fine riding (and writing).
“California and Bust,” by Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair
California as a formerly developed country. Includes deftly rendered bicycle ride with former governor Schwarzenegger. Lewis is writing some of the best stuff out there right now.
Okay that was 5 and then some. But these I couldn’t’ leave out:
“The Apostate,” Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker
The Church of Scientology versus Wright and the New Yorker fact-checking department. Former is overmatched.
“The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist,” by Rich Shapiro, Wired
Riveting and bizarre.
“The Promise,” by Joe Posnanski, at Joe Blogs
Promises made, broken, and kept, variously, by Bruce Springsteen, the United States of America, and Posnanski’s dad. 4 stars easy, 5 if you love Bruce. And who doesn’t?
too many Daves, by David Quigg
Blatant cheating, as this is a blog, and Quigg almost always writes very short posts But he’s reading long stuff, all good, and responding to it beautifully as writer and reader; almost no one gets so much done in so little space. If you harbor even a spark of literary love, he’ll fan it.
Disclosures: The Atavist and Nature published stories of mine this year, and Wired.com (actually a separate outfit from Wired the magazine) hosts my blog.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.