The illustration is called “Liberty’s Flameout,” and it’s by John W. Tomac. “It was the symbol of American values,” Tomac says. “Now it seems that we are turning off the light.”
Above is the cover of next week’s New Yorker, by Eric Drooker. In an interview about the work, Drooker says: “The police shooting of Michael Brown resonates on a personal level with me. An artist friend of mine was killed by a cop in lower Manhattan, back in 1991. He happened to be black, and the police officer was never indicted.”
Fuck, fucker, fuckest; fuckest, fucker, fuck. In all my days, I had found that four-letter word—with its silent “c” and its quartzite “k”—more shocking than a thunderclap. My parents thought it was a rhetorical crime. Mr. Shawn actually seemed philosophical about its presence in the language, but not in his periodical. My young daughters, evidently, were in no sense as burdened as he was. Or as I was. Or as their grandparents were. In the car in their middle-school years, they batted that word between the back and front seats as if they were playing Ping-Pong. Driving, and hearing those words reach a critical mass, I once spontaneously bellowed (in an even-tempered, paternal way), “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck—I can say it, too!”
Well, maybe in a car, but not in The New Yorker, not in 1975, and I didn’t need to be told. I had been writing for the magazine for a dozen years. There were no alternatives like “f—” or “f**k” or “[expletive deleted],” which sounds like so much gravel going down a chute. If the magazine had employed such devices, which it didn’t, I would have shunned them. “F-word” was not an expression in use then and the country would be better off if it had not become one.
-John McPhee, in The New Yorker (now free for everyone), on the history of certain words in the magazine.
Photo: Princeton University
I am never sure how to choose the “best” story as there are too many. But here’s a list of some of the most notable and memorable stories I read in 2012. Pamela Colloff’s two-part series, “The Innocent Man,” which appeared in Texas Monthly, was one of the best crime stories—and, indeed, best pieces of journalism in any category—that I read. Many of my favorite longreads are works of history, and, in that category, I would include two notable pieces published in the magazine that I work for, The New Yorker: they are Robert A. Caro’s “The Transition,” a book excerpt that details, through the eyes of Lyndon Johnson, the terrifying day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy; and Jill Lepore’s “The Lie Factory,” which chronicles the first political consulting firm in the United States, and helps explain everything that is rotten about our politics today.
Finally, I would include a category for the best longreads from the vault—those long ago published pieces that you suddenly discover or rediscover. This year, I read two remarkable pieces in this category. One was James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” which originally appeared in Harper’s, in 1955; it’s the kind of essay that is almost no longer done, and that uses autobiography to tell the story of a nation. The other old piece was David Foster Wallace’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” published in 1994, which begins as a predictable takedown review of Austin’s memoir and then becomes a totally unexpected meditation on the nature of athletic greatness and storytelling.
I’m a sucker for stories about reinvention, disappearence, and people who pretend to be someone they aren’t. The genre has cliches, and can become trite. But it can also be wonderful. And this year, the category brought us some wonderful longreads.
I’m biased, but the story by Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker about the rapper Earl Sweatshirt is, I think, a classic. The character Earl is the reinvention of another boy, whose amazing past and origins Sanneh describes. But then there’s the second disappearence of Earl himself, and then his quandry about whether and how to return to his career. Sanneh is also, stylistically, one of the most original and graceful writers around. Every sentence is a pleasure.
This piece by Flynn about a mobster who reinvents himself in Idaho, seems familiar at first. But then it turns out the central character is much more complex than you might have thought—and he ends up undone by something surprising and redemptive. It’s great.
I’m biased on this one too (I’m a co-founder of The Atavist), but Dobbs’s piece has deservedly been one of the best-selling “e-singles” of the year. It’s an amazing tale of a man discovering that his mother harbored a secret her entire adult life. And then, as Dobbs tries to resolve a mystery of his own family’s past, he gets tangled in the story of another’s.
Joshua Davis is one of the most cinematic magazine writers around; he’s wonderful at introducing groups of characters, crafting scenes, and keeping a narrative moving. This recent piece in Wired about a fiber-optics-executive who recreates himself as a (sort-of) good-guy vigilante is a classic. It’s complicated, but Davis tells the story smoothly and smartly.
I know this is a long “reads” list, but the lines with long “listens” are blurry, and there was a story this fall on This American Life of this type that I just loved: Joshuah Bearman’s “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms.” Like many of the other best stories in this genre, it takes, layer by layer, through a complicated series of reinventions and disguises. Plus it mixes in reality television, a mole, and an heroic journalist.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
An interview with Robin Nagle, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s Anthropologist in Residence who has spent most of her life studying trash:
“In its early days, the department didn’t really function at all. There are some photographs taken for Harper’s Weekly, before and after photos of street corners in New York in 1893 and then in 1895. And the before pictures are pretty astonishing, people were literally shin-high or knee-high in this muck that was a combination of street gunk, horse urine and manure, dead animals, food waste, and furniture crap.
“Put yourself back in the late 19th century and think about the material world that would have surrounded you in your home. When you threw something out, it wouldn’t go anywhere. It would be thrown in the street.”