This year according to Pocket, I read just above 3 million words on their platform across 1,640 articles from about 370 publications. While journalism can often get a bad rap from certain folks in the day-to-day scrum of beat news and process journalism, the reality is that when the final pieces get written, the bar remains so impossibly high.
As I did in last year’s edition, I went through the full list of articles I read to select a top five (up form three!), a selection of others that I consider to be “the best of this year’s writing,” a list of articles on China, and a list of the best profile pieces written on interesting figures. Yes, that’s a lot of god damn text, but as I said — there is just so much quality writing worth your time.
In all, there are 5 top articles (plus one bonus), 12 noteworthy articles, 5 articles on China, and 9 profiles.
The only criteria is me, and I make no guarantees for completeness or good taste. As always, articles from The New Yorker, Bloomberg and a smattering of other publications are under-represented since they make it hard to save content into Pocket.
The Top Five
First Place: The Real Class War
By Julius Krein in American Affairs
Julius Krein has built a reputation as a thought-provoking political theorist who is trying to restructure the fault lines of American politics into new categories. This essay, which he published in his own American Affairs, was easily one of the best that I read this year on the challenges underway in American politics.
HIs thesis is broad, but essentially zeroes in on the struggles of the successful, elite urbanite. In his telling, there is a fight between the super elites with the wealth to live comfortably in mega global cities like SF and NYC, and the successful knowledge workers who make sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, but are always on the precipice of disaster, precarious in their station and never comfortable in the status quo.
What’s amazing is how his core thesis works so well with so many of the trends and news stories that have taken place this year, from the college admissions scandal to the fight over “big, structural change” in the Democratic Party. This essay won’t be the last word on this topic, but it is most definitely a definitive word that deserves careful consideration.
Second Place: Hand dryers v paper towels: the surprisingly dirty fight for the right to dry your hands
By Samanth Subramanian in The Guardian
This was one of the most surprising and therefore one of the most gratifying articles I read all year. Are paper towels or hand dryers cleaner in a bathroom? Not only is this not a scientific question, it is the question at the heart of a massive, multi-million dollar fight between paper towel companies and hand dryer manufacturers.
The story itself is incredibly funny at times, but it is also a layered vignette of the larger struggle around expert knowledge, the increasing financialization and subjectivity of science, and the ways that business can undermine even something as simple as paper versus air. Read and weep, but also weep from the laughter that comes when you realize that entire teams are devoted to making you believe that hand dryers spread germs in the air.
Third Place: Israel’s Covert Mission to Destroy a Secret Syrian Nuclear Reactor
By Yaakov Katz in Tablet
I’m always a bit cautious recommending excerpts from books, since I think it sort of takes away from the article format. Nonetheless, Yaakov Katz’ Shadow Strike and this excerpt were just mesmerizing in giving a behind-the-scenes perspective on how elite military and defense personnel make decisions, and the emotions that course through their veins as they wait to see how those decisions play out.
In this excerpt, the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has to decide whether to authorize a missile strike of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear reactor, which threatens Israel. What happens if the strike fails? What happens if Assad retaliates? What happens if there are mass casualties? What happens if the cabinet discussions leak? In just a few days and an intense set of frantic hours, the group has to make a singular decision and live with its ambiguous consequences. Fascinating, beautifully paced, and a reminder of just how important smart political leaders are to the success of their countries.
Fourth Place: Bolsonaro’s Brazil
By Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books
There have been huge changes in Brazil over the past few years, including the downfall of the left-wing Lula da Silva and the rise of the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro. Part of that is the global political swing toward populism, but it is also a function of a society deeply riven by class, inequality, religion, and much more.
In this (very long) essay, Perry Anderson offers a comprehensive picture of the state of Brazil today, its challenges and strengths, and where the country is going in the future. Even if you care nothing for Brazil or LatAm, it’s a very astute, carefully considered piece of analytical political writing that was certainly among the best that I read of any nation this year.
Fifth Place: O’Hare’s Billions In Broken Promises
By Alejandra Cancino in Chicago magazine
I have an on-going love for the complete disaster that is American public works. This country can’t build anything, whether it is subways, trains, or airports. There is an on-going debate about why construction costs are so high, but sometimes the answer is just pure, old-fashioned corruption.
Cancino describes the tale that could only exist in Chicago’s multi-generational miasma of corruption. O’Hare is a boondoggle of epic proportions, driven by donations from paving companies and other engineering firms to the city’s Board of Aldermen. In at least one case, the corruption on the construction side to the political side has spanned multiple generations, each side helping the other over the decades, all while the Chicago public suffers. It’s depressing, but it has to stop if America is ever to (re)build its infrastructure again.
Bonus: Going Down the Pipes
By Darcy Frey originally in The New York Times Magazine
So this piece of narration by Darcy Frey was easily the best piece of writing I read this year. It was also written in 1996, and although sort of “reissued” this year, it didn’t seem fair to include it in my top five.
Frey embedded herself in the air traffic control unit covering New York airspace, and along the way, meets a cast of characters unlike any I have ever seen. There are moments of sheer terror, moments of mirth and humility, and moments of sheer hilarity that combine together into one of the classics of the narrative nonfiction genre. I am only sad I hadn’t read this before.
And I will say this: I have never complained since about taking off at JFK or LGA. It’s a modern miracle planes don’t crash out of the sky every single day.
Noteworthy Other Articles
- Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth by Jonathan Watts at The Guardian. A deeply-researched piece on where concrete comes from (sand, and therefore water systems) and where it goes. Concrete is critical to modern life, but its supply chain is essentially murdering the planet. How do we continue to urbanize when the environmental costs are so high?
- “But I’m not a lawyer. I’m an agent.” by David Simon. Simon, who famously created the television drama The Wire, talks about what the meaning of this year’s writers strike means for creatives, and how agency “packaging” has changed Hollywood. As the media business changes, not all the incentives are going to be aligned going forward.
- ‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence by Alexandra Glorioso of Politico. A great investigative look behind the scenes of Jerry Falwell’s empire and Liberty University, the premier Christian university in the nation. The convergence of business into religion and education is fascinating, as is the prodigious growth of these institutions (online education is just massive for Liberty).
- After the Fall of the Glossy Magazine, What’s Left of Condé Nast? by Reeves Wiedeman in New York Magazine. For someone working in media, this piece is basically schadenfreude but is also a depressing look at how once great media brands perish under lackluster management and lack of innovation. So many choice beautiful moments in this piece, scaffolded by a wider narrative of the decline of elite media. Simply great.
- How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen in Buzzfeed. A great personal reflection on the challenges of being a millennial today in 2019 America. This one really affected me as both directionally accurate, and also a depressing look at the challenges of rebuilding the political landscape for a new generation of eager participants.
- The New German Anti-Semitism by James Angelos in The New York Times. Perhaps one of the scariest developments in recent years in Europe is the slow but palpable rebirth of antisemitism. This piece goes deep in Germany, where Jews once again are increasingly watching in fear and horror as the nation turns hostile to their people.
- “You Won’t Believe What Happened”: The Wild, Disturbing Saga of Robert Kraft’s Visit to a Strip Mall Sex Spa by May Jeong in Vanity Fair. A delicious yet disturbing look at the tribulations of a billionaire and why someone with so much money would pay so little for sex. Fascinating profile and perspective on a very specific (and very powerful) subculture of the American elite.
- How the Gupta Brothers Hijacked South Africa Using Bribes Instead of Bullets by Karan Mahajan of Vanity Fair. The Gupta brothers scandal in South Africa was one of the big ones the past few months and years, and this profile by Mahajan has to be among the best in the oeuvre. Everything you want to know about how an Indian family became South Africa’s most influential power brokers is right here.
- How The Kremlin’s Assassins Sowed Terror Through The Streets Of London While British Authorities Scrambled To Stop Them by Heidi Blake of Buzzfeed. In case you weren’t already suspicious enough of Russia’s influence after the whole 2016 imbroglio, here is a piece by Blake who describes the Kremlin’s worldwide intimidation campaign against Russian dissidents — even when those dissidents have millions if not billions of dollars.
- The hunt for Asia’s El Chapo by Tom Allard of Reuters. While not fully fleshed out, this piece by Allard opens a window into the underground drug world of Asia, where billions of dollars flow through the hands of just a handful of crime syndicate families. An amazing narrative tale, but with great connections to global political and business trends.
- School Daze by Keith Gessen in n+1. A liberal writer reconciles striving for education equality with the focus of progressive New York families to get their kids every educational advantage they can to compete with others. In the end, he chooses to give his kids the advantage, but remains deeply disturbed by the choices presented by society. A great personal and empathetic read.
- The bitter truth behind Madagascar’s roaring vanilla trade by Wendell Steavenson in 1843 Magazine. This is in that category of article called, “What do you know about the life of X?” In this case, Steavenson has done the work to follow the vanilla trade, and what a deep and sad look at one of the sweetest things in life. Madagascar politics and society is being torn asunder by the success of vanilla, and this is a piece that will leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
Special Subsection: China / East Asia
I read way too much on China these days, and there is just so much coverage of the country, its politics, and its society these days to possibly keep up. So here is a selective list of some of the most interesting pieces of writing that I read this year on the topic, with a bias toward longer-term, deeper analytical pieces, rather than say some of the big scoops around Uyghur concentration camps published in the New York Times.
- Inside China’s crackdown on young Marxists by Yuan Yang at The Financial Times. If the U.S. has an alt-right movement, China has an alt-left movement. Leftwing students are demanding a return to the principles of equality espoused by Marx and Mao, and that has the central Beijing government deeply worried. A key trend to follow in the coming years.
- The Wandering Earth: A Reflection of the Chinese New Right by Yuyan at Chuang. Similar to the last article but perhaps on the other side of the political divide, this translated article by Chuang gets at the heart of the cyber-nationalist movement in China, and how new generations of Chinese, growing up amidst the nationalist rhetoric of Xi Jinping’s China, are forming their worldview. A more muscular and ambitious China seems the likely result from these discussions.
- Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai by Mark Harris at the MIT Technology Review. A great romp through a mystery: why are ships disappearing in one of the most trafficked waterways in the world? Harris doesn’t give us an answer, but does ask some big questions about the future of national security in a bipolar world.
- He Never Intended To Become A Political Dissident, But Then He Started Beating Up Tai Chi Masters by Lauren Teixeira at Deadspin. This was an incredible profile of Xu Xiaodong, a martial arts fanatic who has since become a sort of unintentional political dissident as his fame has risen in China. It’s a bit of a strange tale, but a great vignette of a specific time in China’s history.
- The Rise of the Chinese-American Right by Rong Xiaoqing in The National Review. This is another one of these longer-term trends to watch. Here, we see the confluence of material success, educational attainment, and professional ambitions coalesce into a potential movement of Chinese-Americans to the right, a pattern that is at polar opposite of the last one hundred years of Chinese-American political history. Whether this vote will be locked in certainly remains to be seen, but what a fascinating portrait of the changing tides of U.S. politics.
Special Section: Profiles
- Will Merkel Be Followed by Darkness? by René Pfister in Spiegel
- How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America by Alexandra Alter in The New York Times
- Biden Inc. by Ben Schreckinger in Politico
- “He Is Trying to Play a Very Difficult Game”: The Once and Future Imran Khan by Aatish Taseer in Vanity Fair
- A ‘Bridge’ to China, and Her Family’s Business, in the Trump Cabinet by Michael Forsythe, Eric Lipton, Keith Bradsher and Sui-Lee Wee in The New York Times
- How David Pecker Built His Tabloid Empire AMI on Fear by Rene Chun of The Daily Beast
- What Does Tucker Carlson Believe? by Elaina Plott in The Atlantic
- The French Ambassador Is Retiring Today. Here’s What He Really Thinks About Washington. by Yara Bayoumy in The Atlantic
- The Making of a Trade Warrior by Matt Peterson in The Atlantic
Cover Image by Takashi Toyooka used under Creative Commons