In a year when Uber and the idea of having your own private driver entered popular culture, when Uber’s cofounder launched BlackJet, an Uber for private air travel, this is a fascinating look at their cultural predecessor—a time when American Airlines sold…
David Roth is a co-founder of, writer for and editor at the sports website The Classical. He writes columns for Sports On Earth and Vice, co-writes The Daily Fix blog-column for the Wall Street Journal online, and writes for The Awl, GQ and other places when there’s time and when they’ll have him. He’s on Twitter, a lot, @david_j_roth.
I don’t keep track, although I probably should, but I’m fairly certain that I read more words in 2012 than I have in any of the previous years of my life. Some of this is because I think that’s the best thing to do when presented with words and most of it is because I’ve read so much stuff for The Classical, which I started with some other people a little over a year ago; a really healthy (or unhealthy, depending) percentage of the words I’ve read have been for that site, and I’ve read a lot of them as an editor. I suppose I should recuse myself from mentioning any of these pieces, and I’ll do so after acknowledging that the majority of my favorite new writers of 2012 were people I worked with on essays written for The Classical. That’s all the plugging-of-site I can do without getting embarrassed.
Best Crime Story
The New Yorker is The New Yorker, and generally seems to operating at a level a tick or two above virtually any other magazine. I am always amazed at the way it turns itself into an ultra-fatuous luxury publication, all drollery about shopping and famous people’s kids and whatever, for a couple of issues a year, but the depth of the talent on that invisible masthead, and the quality of the work that all those people do, is astonishing. The stories that have stuck with me the most from the magazine over the past year, and which are thus pretty much the best thing I read in a magazine over that period, both have to do with crime. One is Sarah Stillman’s piece on the unconscionably irresponsible misuse and exploitation of wildly unprepared (and very much in danger) informants by law enforcement. The other is Nadya Labi’s story on the bleak, wild life of Detroit hit-man Vincent Smothers. (The latter is, sadly, only available to subscribers in the magazine’s online archive.)
There are several larger critiques embedded within each piece—the drug war and its warping effect on a wide array of priorities, in both cases—all of which emerge organically and forcefully through the simple forward movement of the stories. There isn’t necessarily a dazzling sentence or an image or anything similarly flashy that still sizzles in the memory months or even days after reading, but the stories stick all the same. So, yeah: two great New Yorker stories, in a year that had a great many.
Best Political/Media/Political Media Story
There was, certainly, a great deal of good political writing done during the endless election season. I don’t remember any of it, and what I remember I don’t remember particularly fondly, but given the number of words written—all those anonymous strategists and undermine-y underlings speaking tartly off-the-record; the reverent profiles and irreverent takedowns; the trends and themes and memes and so on—it would be surprising if some long piece or two in there wasn’t especially good. Much better and more illuminating, at least to me, was Alex Pareene’s essay for The Baffler on the pervasive and mostly pernicious influence of the repellent and vexingly influential Politico seemed to distill all the things that were infuriating, facile and otherwise wrong about the way we read the election, day by day. It was also a lot of fun to read. Which, about that:
Best Stylistic Trend
There’s no fixed way to write anything, of course. There’s a way that some types of pieces generally sound—a profile reads like this, a review reads like that—and many magazines have a house intonation and perspective, if not necessarily a house style. What I’ve enjoyed most about the essays I’ve most enjoyed over the last year, though, is the way in which they reflect an emerging style of colloquial, unpretentious, deceptively erudite writing that’s flourishing on the web. This is there in Pareene’s essay on Politico or John Lanchester’s consideration (it’s adapted from a speech) of Karl Marx at 193 years of age in the London Review of Books. It’s also in Adrian Chen’s dazzling piece for Gawker on Reddit, its troll culture and the man who was its foremost embodiment, or in the writing of Maria Bustillos at The Awl—start with her thumbnail history of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty and its weird afterlife, or on the deathless and wearying discursive concern with irony.
Of those, only the latter two live entirely on the web. They’re not about similar things, or written for similar publications or audiences, or really even written in ways that outwardly have much in common. But there’s an energy and vitality to all of them, a sense that the people writing respect their obligation to tell the stories they’ve chosen, but also that they’re intensely into those stories. There are some good jokes and striking sentences and a great deal of elegant (or infuriating) and illusion-free (or opinionated) thought in all of them, but there is not show-offery or grandiosity or stuffiness. They’re stories told and arguments made by people who seem impassioned and informed, and told in the voices—different-sounding, as they should be—of people alive in and engaged with the world and the ideas loose in it, and conversant with both in the fast, open way of the web. I don’t know, maybe it’s just good writing.
Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.
I read news when I want to be entertained. I read features when I want to learn something. Here’s nine articles I read this year that changed the way I look at the world, and made me wonder how I seem when it looks back.
It’s been a bad year for truth. From Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer to Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, 2012 felt like a yearlong debate about the role of exaggeration, hyperbole, fact-checking and outright fabrication in the pursuit of an argument. Pogue’s piece, a kind of letter from the extreme-pedant end of the spectrum, illustrates how fidelity to facts can obscure the truth, and how embellishment can reveal it.
Maybe I only feel like I learned something from this essay because I’m in essentially the same position as Albo. I’ve been single for almost 10 years, and I’m realizing that if I had applied all the hours I’ve wasted on the promiscu-net to something useful, I could have knitted a quilt, learned French, mastered Othello and read all of Wikipedia by now.
If our society has learned anything from the first 20 years of internet access, it’s that looking for what you want isn’t always the best way to get it, and that getting it is a great way to stop wanting it. Albo’s essay couldn’t have been written by any gay man in America because they’re not as good at writing as he is, but I get the feeling it’s been lived by most of them.
OK, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that America’s prison system is problematic and that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron. But this year brought a new impetus for action, partly due to new numbers (the widely reported stat that 1% of America’s population is incarcerated), legislative action (Obama’s plan to combat prison rape, scorchingly reported in the New York Review of Books) and, qualitatively but no less essentially, longform pieces like Gopnik’s and Colloff’s.
People are always quoting the MLK-via-Obama line “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” and articles like these—one a macro view of the problem, one micro—is what that bend looks like.
It’s easy now to forget that this was an election year, and that we spent basically all of it squabbling, speculating and pontificating about its outcome, which we now say we knew all along.
Most election reporting is disposable, either gaffe play-by-plays (“Binders Full of Women: Interactive Timeline”), instantly obsolete hypotheticals (What if Romney picks Christie for VP?) or politically orchestrated profiles (“Obama’s audacious plan to save the middle class from Libyan airstrikes”). If you remember these articles past ctrl+w, it’s only until events catch up, and then they poof out of your consciousness forever.
Towers’s Romney profile is one of the few still worth reading after the election. Nominally a standard “let’s hang out in the campaign bus!” piece, it transcends its premise by capturing the conflicting forces tugging at the hem of the Republican party, and how Romney’s sheer empty-vesselness managed to please, and displease, everyone at once.
Maybe it’s just the ubiquity of its subject, now the most-viewed-ever video on YouTube, but no article stuck with me this year quite like Fisher’s. In a culture that strains to call itself postracial, sharing “Gangnam Style” on Twitter and Facebook was a safe, quiet way to shout ‘look how weird Koreans are!’ and invite your friends to gawk alongside you.
According to Fisher, “Gangnam” isn’t an expression of Korean culture, but a satire of it. Psy was saying the same thing we spectators were, only in a visual language (and, obviously, a verbal one) we couldn’t understand. He was laughing at his culture too, he just had no idea how easy it was to get the rest of the world to join him.
It’s all in the execution, they say, and nothing demonstrated that this year better than Veselka’s harrowing investigation into whether the guy who kidnapped and then released her on the side of the road in 1985 was a serial killer.
She never finds the answer to her question. But who cares! It’s a great piece, super interesting, suspenseful, creepy, introspective in all the right places. We all know that compelling stories don’t always need happy endings. In this case, it doesn’t need one at all.
I admit it: I have no idea how the international economy works. I used to feel about this the way I feel about not being able to describe asexual reproduction, or the Spanish Civil War, or how to grow tomatoes. I can see why somebody’s got to do it, I just can’t see why it’s got to be me.
Since the 2008 crash, though, knowledge of economics has gone from nice to have to can’t miss, and things like competitiveness, productivity and efficiency have taken a place in politics previously reserved for life-and-deathers like sports doping and the Ground Zero Mosque.
Patent trolling and outsourced manufacturing aren’t the only issues facing the US economy, of course, but both these articles demonstrate how businesses, governments and consumers have made the wrong thing too easy, and how the hard thing might not be the way back.
Nicholas Jackson is the digital editorial director for Outside magazine. A former associate editor at The Atlantic, he has also worked for Slate,Texas Monthly, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and other publications.
Best Argument for the Magazine
”The Innocent Man, Part One” (Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly)
”The Innocent Man, Part Two” (Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly)
I was going to give this two-parter from the always-great Pamela Colloff (seriously, go back through her 15-year archive at Texas Monthly for compelling narratives on everything from quinceañeras to school prayer to a piece on David Koresh and the 1993 Branch Davidian raid that should serve as a model for all future oral history projects) the award for best crime story, but it’s so much more than that. The tale of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years wrongfully imprisoned for brutally murdering his wife, has been told before, in newspapers and on television. But it has never been told like this. Over two installments across two issues—who does that anymore?—Colloff slowly reveals the cold details and intimate vignettes that only months of hard reporting can uncover, keeping the reader hanging on to each sentence. You already know how this story ends; you’ve read it before. And that might make you wonder—but only for a split second—why it was assigned and pursued. For the handful of big magazines left, this is as compelling an argument you can make for continued existence: only with hundreds of interviews, weeks of travel, and many late nights can you craft something this complete and this strong. It’s a space most publications can’t play in; it’s prohibitively expensive—and a gamble—to invest the necessary resources. You may be able to tell Morton’s story in book form, but you wouldn’t have the tightness and intensity (just try putting this one down) that Colloff’s story has, even at something like 30,000 words. And you wouldn’t want to lose her for a year or two anyway; we’re all anxiously awaiting her next piece.
Best Crime Story of the Year
”The Truck Stop Killer” (Vanessa Veselka, GQ)
Who is Vanessa Veselka? A self-described “teenage runaway, expatriate, union organizer, and student of paleontology,” she’s relatively new to the magazine world. (Her first novel, Zazen, came out just last year—and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction.) But she’s spent years building up a lifetime of experiences that, while many of us may not be able to directly relate to (and would never hope to), we all want to hear about. This, her first piece for GQ, takes you back to the summer of 1985, when Veselka hitched a ride with a stranger who may have been Robert Ben Rhoades, the sadistic killer who has admitted to killing three people, including a 14-year-old girl in Illinois, and is currently serving life sentences.
Best Profile of the Year
”The Honor System” (Chris Jones, Esquire)
Chris Jones, who made a stink on Twitter (he’s infamous for making stinks of all kinds on Twitter) when his excellent profile of Roger Ebert wasn’t named a finalist for a National Magazine Award a couple of years ago, must really be bummed to learn that the American Society of Magazine Editors, the awards’ governing body, has killed the category entirely this year. I’ve had some public clashes with the guy—he can turn your mood cloudy with 140 characters or less—but on this I do commiserate, because “The Honor System,” his profile of Teller (you know him as the silent one from Vegas superstar magic duo Penn & Teller), would have finally brought home that statue of which he was robbed. And rightfully so. This story, which revolves around Teller’s attempts—legal and otherwise—to put an end to trick theft, a commonplace practice (who knew?) in that community, will leave you believing in magic.
Best Reason to Never Skip a Service Package Again
”Daddy: My Father’s Last Words” (Mark Warren, Esquire)
Magazines are filled with service content: How to do this, when to do that. Readers love it, no matter what they tell you. That’s why every single month Cosmopolitan is able to convince its readers that there are 100 new things you must know about how to please your man. And why Men’s Health’s website isn’t really much about health at all, but about lists and checklists and charts (most of them having to do with sex). Esquire’s Father’s Day package was packed with similarly light content: how to plan for a visit from your now-adult kids, what to get dad on that special day, etc. But tucked between those graphics and croutons (the term some of the lady mags use to refer to those bite-size bits of content) was a knock-you-on-your-ass piece from the magazine’s long-time executive editor, Mark Warren, on the long and trying relationship he had (we all have) with dad.
Best Technology Story of the Year
”When the Nerds Go Marching In” (Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic)
He’s been called the first social media president and he’s even done an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. You know all about Barack Obama’s Internet prowess from the 2008 campaign: his ability to get young people to follow his every word on Twitter and donate in small amounts—but by the millions—to his election fund. The presence of Chris Hughes, a former Mark Zuckerberg roommate and a founder of Facebook, during that first cycle solidified this position for Obama. (That he was running against a 72-year-old white dude from Arizona didn’t hurt). But there’s a whole lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. In “When the Nerds Go Marching In,” Madrigal, a senior editor and lead technology writer for The Atlantic, pulls back the curtain, introducing you to Harper Reed, Dylan Richard, and Mark Trammell, Obama’s dream team of engineers, and makes you wish you would have sat at the smart table every once in a while in high school.
Best Story About Child Development of the Year
”What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” (Ruth Padawer, The New York Times Magazine)
Best Story I Thought I Would Never Like
”What Does a Conductor Do?” (Justin Davidson, New York)
If, like me, you’ve never really appreciated classical music (and statistics show that you are, in fact, like me—at least when it comes to Mozart), you’ll probably never feel compelled to click on that little link up there. But I have an obsession with Adam Moss’ New York magazine, which is certainly the best weekly currently being produced today, and I dogear my way through a stack that slowly grows as new issues arrive until I’ve read every story and every page. That’s how I came to read classical music and architecture critic Justin Davidson’s first-person feature story on stepping up to the podium to lead an orchestra on his own. You may not have the same compulsions I do—this is where we differ—but trust me on this one.
Best Adventure Story of the Year
”Four Confirmed Dead in Two Days on Everest” (Grayson Schaffer, Outside)
Earlier this year, we sent senior editor Grayson Schaffer to Everest Base Camp for a climbing season that turned out to be one of the deadliest in history. For six weeks, he reported from 17,000 feet while body after body fell (10, by the time the season came to a close) as a record number of climbers attempted to summit the world’s tallest peak. Everest, over the years, has become something of a sideshow, with sham outfitters promising to take anyone with a fat checkbook to the top, regardless of experience or ability. But it remains a powerful symbol, and as long as we desire a challenge (or just an escape from day to day drudgery), it’ll continue to lure people in.
Best New Writer Discovery of the Year
”Riccardo Tisci: Designer of the Year” (Molly Young, GQ)
A little bit of post-read Googling (and messages from a couple of Twitter followers) quickly alerted me to the fact that Molly Young, with past pieces in New York, Elle, and The Believer, among others, isn’t all that new to the game. But I had somehow never recognized her byline before. After reading her profile of Riccardo Tisci, the Italian fashion designer who currently serves as the creative director of Givenchy (“Across from me a nucleus of attendants has formed around Amar’e Stoudemire, thanks less to his fame (there are better celebrities here) than to his height, which gives him a reassuring lighthouse quality.”), I’ll make sure to never miss it again.
Best Trainwreck of the Year
”In Conversation: Tina Brown” (Michael Kinsley, New York)
I was going to select a piece from Newsweek for this honor, given that this is the last year the publication will technically qualify (it’ll morph into a new product, Newsweek Global, when it transitions to online-only next year), but it hasn’t published anything this year that could crack my top 10. What does, though, is the interview between Newsweek’s top editor, Tina Brown, and Michael Kinsley that ran in New York. It’s not great in any traditional sense—after every page you’re left wondering when Kinsley will ask this question or that question, and he never does—but it’s compelling from the first question to the last because of the oversize roles both subjects have played in our modern media.
One of my two favorite short stories published in 2012 is “Member/Guest” by David Gilbert, which appeared in The New Yorker the week of November 12, but since that story is not available online without a subscription, I present five other amazing stories published by The New Yorker this year. I’ve been a subscriber to the magazine for as long as I can remember, but I’m glad to see more of the fiction available online for free. Some of those free stories are by masters of the form—including George Saunders, Antonya Nelson, and Alice Munro*, who wrote my other favorite story of the year, “Amundsen.” When I open The New Yorker to find a new Munro story, my heart skips a beat. It’s like having an old friend show up for an unexpected visit.
1. “Amundsen,” by Alice Munro in The New Yorker
2. “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” by George Saunders
3. “Literally,” by Antonya Nelson
4. “The Proxy Marriage,” by Maile Meloy
5. “Fischer vs. Spassky,” by Lara Vapnyar
*no one who knows me should be surprised to see an Alice Munro story among my picks
Photo credit: Rebecca Zeller
Jamie Mottram is the Director of Content Development for USA Today Sports Media Group and a proud supporter of Longreads.
I work in sports media and read and think about sports A LOT. So the task of boiling the year in sportswriting down to some kind of best-of list is daunting indeed, and I won’t do it. Nor am I going to name my favorite sportswriter or piece of sportswriting in general, because I’m sure to overlook someone or something and probably offend my employer (USA Today Sports Media Group!), and I’m unwilling to do that.
But I will tell you my favorite athlete in 2012 was Robert Griffin III, who is suddenly playing quarterback at an extraterrestrial level for my favorite team, the Redskins. Of all the words spilled over RGIII’s emergence, none struck a chord in me like those in Charles P. Pierce’s piece for Grantland, “The Head and the Heart.” It touches on the phenomenon of this young athlete, the burden of great expectations met by even greater talent and the horrific brain injures caused by pro football. The last line will linger for a long, long time.
My favorite team in 2012 was the Orioles. The longtime doormat of Major League Baseball’s AL East, they somehow pieced together a playoff run for the ages, banding together like grown-up Bad News Bears before falling to the mighty Yankees in October. Before all of that, though, Tom Scocca wrote “‘Motherfuckin’ Shit! Take Your Ass Home!’ Or, Why the Baltimore Orioles Matter” for Deadspin, predicting it all, sort of. I thought then that it was a beautiful sentiment wonderfully expressed but also kind of sad to hold out for a team so hopeless. I was wrong, though, because anything can happen, and eventually does.
Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.
In the essay “Freedom Is Overrated,” the theologian and scholar Sancrucensis contrasts the humanism of Jonathan Franzen with that of David Foster Wallace. A transcendentally beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on self and other.
I’ve enjoyed a number of essays from The American Conservative this year, but my favorite may have been Mike Lofgren’s “Revolt Of The Rich”. It’s a blistering reproof of our moneyed classes and their disconnect from the historic aspirations of our country.
The tagline of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, is “Biased and Balanced.” An earlier incarnation of the Dish bore another, equally good: “Of No Party Or Clique.” I consider Sullivan an indispensable companion, not least because his views so often diverge from my own. I can’t choose just one entry from his heady, rapid-fire mix of opinion, reporting, photographs, jokes, poems, ideas. But Sullivan’s great heart, his compassion and intellect, are a salutary test of my own convictions most every day.
The scholar Aaron Bady exposes the fatal weaknesses in the arguments of those promoting “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, in a resoundingly persuasive and passionate essay in Inside Higher Ed. Absolutely crucial reading for anyone remotely interested in the academy.
Mike Konczal, known on Twitter as @rortybomb, led a breathtaking debate on debt relief at the Boston Review that blew my wiglet sky-high. In the lead essay, Konczal makes an ironclad case that a strong social safety net, including debt relief, is crucial to the economic health of the country. Splendid, limpidly clear, beautifully reasoned.
It’s scarcely too much to say that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson single-handedly rescued my sanity from the maelstrom of this year’s election. I pretty much hop on Twitter and start banging out exclamation points every time she posts, but her recent column on the public confrontation of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by a gay Princeton University student will serve as well as any to demonstrate her unwavering clear-mindedness, her sensitivity, fairness and brilliance.
Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.
Picking these stories activated an obsessive part of my brain and I’m already regretting throwing the “best” around without spending a few months reading all of the Longreads of 2012. But there’s always 2013!
Best Farmer/Vampire Story
This story really needs to be read to be believed. First of all, hats off to the writer, Abigail Tucker, for introducing and then eliminating the possibility of a serial killer in the first ten lines. And then the chilling line: “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?” What follows is a window into East Coast agrarian life in the 1800s, a time when supernatural folklore took hold as demographic changes drained the land of people. (Also, you guys, VAMPIRES.)
Best Public Safety Story
Silos. You don’t really think about them, right? Thanks to this fantastic bit of reporting from The New York Times, you won’t be able to forget them. When federal officials noticed that a strangely high percentage of “grain entrapment” deaths, basically corn avalanches, were those of teenage boys, regulators moved to ban child labor on the farm. This caused a great controversy because child farm labor is the only kind exempted from labor regulations—many protested that it was a denial of age-old tradition. The forces that collided over this issue are fascinating, and heartbreaking.
Best Tech Criminal Story
From The Verge, this in-depth look at the subculture of a particular kind of online scam stayed with me all year. The reporter dug in, and got the perspectives of both those peddling a strange kind of snake oil (marketing, basically) and the poor souls who spend thousands of dollars on worthless products. I still can’t totally wrap my mind around what these Scamworld folks are selling—the ability to market yourself online?—but in a way, it doesn’t matter. They are selling what con artists always sell: themselves.
Best Immersion Journalism Story
Immersion pieces can be tricky—oftentimes, the writer spends most of the copy patting himself on the back for the bravery to, say, pretend to be homeless for a week or read the Bible in sequential order. But Mac McClelland really nails the balance here, as she spends a month showing us something we never see: the elves who package our online shopping goods, for little wage and under bad conditions. After this story came out, when I saw the headlines that Amazon was trying to do same-day shipping, my heart sunk.
Best Call-to-Action Essay
Okay, this story (or whatever it is—a combination of op-ed and essay) is far from perfect. But the issues raised by Wen Stephenson—a former editor for the Atlantic and longtime journalist—about how the media deals with (and doesn’t deal with) climate change are big. Very big. The bottom line is that unless journalists treat the environmental changes happening right now on our planet as a crisis, not a debate, the public is not getting adequately informed. We may not be all doomed yet but the odds are swiftly tilting against our favor.
Best Takedown of an Old, Established Writer by a Young, Hungry Writer in an Awkward Press Junket Setting
Sarah Nicole Prickett, “How to Get Under Aaron Sorkin’s Skin (and also, how to high-five properly),” Toronto Globe and Mail
“Aaron Sorkin knows the weight of last words, and his last words to me, as we walk-and-talk out of the HBO press room, are: ‘Write something nice.’ He says this in the ‘Smile, honey’ tone of much less successful jerks.”
Those words launch Prickett into a funny, cutting attack on the pretentions and assumptions of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Through her eyes, the creator of A Few Good Men and The Social Network is guilty of an insufferable nostalgia for white male power, and she uses a press junket interview for Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom to diss the iconic writer in a way that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Liveliest Profile of a Sprawling Corporation and its Straight-Laced Chief Executive
Jennifer Reingold, “Bob Iger: Disney’s Fun King,” Fortune
Big companies and their CEOs are tough to report on. Disney, led by the profoundly un-flamboyant Bob Iger and guarded by its disciplined phalanx of PR professionals, may be one of the toughest. That’s why Reingold’s story is so masterful—it explains Iger in way that’s vivid, thoughtful, and rigorous, giving us a sophisticated picture of him and his plans for the company. I wish Reingold would profile News Corp., Viacom, and every other American company, for that matter.
Investigative Story Responsible for Spurring Most Unintended “Holy Shit!” Uttterances
David Barstow, “Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart After Top-Level Struggle,” The New York Times
For me, this story’s surprises came in waves. First, there was the shock at how systematically and rampantly Wal-Mart bribed its way into Mexican retail. Next, there was awe at how Barstow nailed every crucial aspects of the ensuing cover-up. This is investigative reporting at its best—even-handed and rigorous, with no room for perpetrators’ excuses or squirming.
Best Confirmation that Super PACS and Karl Rove are Just as Creepy as We Thought They Were
Sheelah Kolhatkar, “Inside Karl Rove’s Billionaire Fundraiser,” Bloomberg Businessweek
You probably remember the media firestorm that followed this story, which quoted Karl Rove joking about killing Todd Akin (“If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts!”). The glimpse of the inner workings of Super PACs that follows in Kolhatkar’s fly-on-the-wall account is fascinating reading, even months after the election.
Best Confirmation of, Admit It, What We All Were Kind of Wondering While Watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony
Sam Alipour, “Will You Still Medal in the Morning?” ESPN Magazine
Those hot-bodied Olympians are having lots and lots of sex! Alipour illustrates hook-up culture in the Olympic Village with kickass reporting (big-name athletes go on the record, and are surprisingly candid) and just the right tone: The story is lighthearted and detailed without being prurient or icky, a tough order for a gossipy sex piece.
Clearest Portrait of a Misunderstood and Deadly American Subculture
Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Guns R’ Us,” GQ
Following the Tucson, Arizona shooting, Laskas set out to understand gun culture by working at a gun store in Yuma and profiling its clerks—the last line of defense between us and mass murderers. I love the way she leaves politics aside and zeroes in on her subjects’ humanity. The story appears in Laskas’s new book, Hidden America, a collection of her GQ stories about the many professional subcultures that make the U.S. work, from oil drillers to coal miners to migrant fruit pickers. Read it, read it, read it.
Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012
Best Innocence Story
“The Innocent Man” (Pam Colloff, Texas Monthly)
What if you were convicted of murdering your wife, and you didn’t do it? What if, after decades in prison, you learned that the prosecution had held proof of your innocence but never let it see the light of day? Lone Star State treasure Pam Colloff once again uses restraint to powerful advantage as she indicts Texas justice.
The last time he had seen her was on the morning of August 13, 1986, the day after his thirty-second birthday. He had glanced at her as she lay in bed, asleep, before he left for work around five-thirty. He returned home that afternoon to find the house cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. Six weeks later, he was arrested for her murder. He had no criminal record, no history of violence, and no obvious motive, but the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, failing to pursue other leads, had zeroed in on him from the start. Although no physical evidence tied him to the crime, he was charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors argued that he had become so enraged with Christine for not wanting to have sex with him on the night of his birthday that he had bludgeoned her to death. When the guilty verdict was read, Michael’s legs buckled beneath him. District attorney Ken Anderson told reporters afterward, “Life in prison is a lot better than he deserves.”
Best Southern Gothic Nonfiction
“Vietnam vet’s 300-pound emotional support pet — a pig — divides Largo neighborhood” (Will Hobson, Tampa Bay Times)
In just over 1200 words, Will Hobson stages a community drama with all the comedy and horror of a Flannery O’Connor story. Meet Bernie Lodico and his neighbors. You won’t forget them.
“It is our understanding that you have a pot belly pig living in your back yard,” wrote park manager Cliff Wicks on Sept. 26. “This is not allowed. Please place the pig somewhere else.”
Lodico replied with a letter from a psychiatrist at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. Lodico, 59, was a Marine who served in Vietnam. The pig is his “emotional support animal,” the letter explained, a pet protected by federal law.
Best Campaign Season Story
“Fear of a Black President” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic)
I can’t come up with another journalist whose insight and ability to think so motivate me to read his work. I know other Longreaders have picked and will pick this piece from two months before the election, but it really has to be included.
Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed.
Best ‘The World Is Not Simple’ Story
“Everyone Is an Immigrant” (Eliza Griswold, Poetry)
In the language of the poet and the conflict journalist that she is, Griswold ponders the business of refugees on the island of Lampedusa.
Luciforo has been driving this bus for more than a year. Before that, he worked for a Christian volunteer group called Misericordia. Workers collected on the dock during refugee season. The name Misericordia is familiar. I realize I heard it last week when I was with fellow Civitella artists touring the Umbrian town of Sansepolcro. There, in the famous Piero della Francesca triptych, a hooded man kneels at the base of the cross. He looks like a hangman, but in fact he’s a member of this group, Misericordia. While they were doing charity work among the sick and dying, they wore black masks to protect against disease, and to protect their identity so they couldn’t be thanked. I imagine Luciforo in his yellow hazmat suit and a hood.
“Luciforo, what have you seen that you can’t forget?” I ask.
“One night, I watched mothers throw their babies into the sea. They popped up like corks,” he says.
Best Story You Thought You Knew But Didn’t
“Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?” (Thomas Lake, Sports Illustrated)
Everyone has heard the story of how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team by coach Clifton “Pop” Herring. But it turns out we didn’t know the story at all.
We pull up at the ramshackle house and step into a blinding afternoon, 97º, vibrating with the song of cicadas. Pop carries the pizza box in one hand and the bag of King Cobra and cigarettes in the other. We walk toward the picnic table under the spreading oak, where several ragged men cool their heels in the fine gray sand. Collectively they are known as the Oak Tree Boys. They are here morning and night. Some are homeless. One has a wild shock of white hair and another is missing his middle lower teeth, so he seems to have fangs. They have nowhere else to go.