Every year for a while (last year’s edition is here), I have compiled a list of the “best articles” I read in that calendar year. Typically, I choose a top five, and then a long, long list of honorable mentions (last year’s list came out to 26 honorable mentions!)
This year, I read just as much if not more than usual. And yet, scanning through the hundreds of feature pieces and profiles I read this year, I can’t help but feel that the collective corpus of our cultural creative energies was wanting. So much of the in-depth coverage this year was directed to the major topics of the day: coronavirus, the summer of police brutality and civil rights protests, the 2020 presidential election, and more. History is happening in the moment, and journalists and essayists covered these events with alacrity and heart.
And yet. I read profiles from April that might as well not have been read in the first place. Coronavirus articles that were the best in their genre just a few months ago have all but expired. The incredible reporting from the frontlines of protests this summer feel like a distant memory. And the election analyses were mostly wrong before the election, and still feel completely wrong after it.
Part of my goal with these lists is to highlight pieces that have staying power, and if I am being honest, there just didn’t seem to be all too many pieces this year that fit that bill. So it’s a slimmer year, and let’s hope for a quieter 2021 where everyone can write pieces without the gush of deadline pressure.
First Place: China Used Stolen Data to Expose CIA Operatives in Africa and Europe by Zach Dorfman
Zach Dorfman’s series of articles on the fate of CIA operatives in China and the ramifications of the loss of American intelligence and perception at the start of Xi Jinping’s leadership has been breathtaking. These events started happening more than a decade ago, and we are just now starting to understand the cause-and-effect relationships and what those portend for the future.
The capsule story: the CIA had decent access to China throughout the 2000s, owing to the highly corrupt nature of Chinese business and political culture. As the country’s leadership started realizing the scale of the agency’s network, particularly after a devastating lapse that led to much of the network being killed, the country began a massive anticorruption purge to effectively eliminate America’s top assets among elites. That purge proved devastating for the U.S., leaving America in the dark about many of the major changes that President Xi undertook as he took the helm of the country.
It’s wonderful reporting, and also enjoyable as it starts to connect the disparate news dots of the early 2010s and sketches out a first draft of this tumultuous and important period of U.S.-China relations. There is so much more to come, but Dorfman has given us a sneak peek of what we will learn going forward as more history gets written.
Second Place: A Fraternity of Dreamers by Ed Simon
Simon’s discursive essay explores our need for knowledge, the meaning of reading, and the power of libraries as sources of inspiration and hope. It’s realistic about the extent of our ability to understand our world, yet like Sisyphus, we continue to fight against the expanding scope of human knowledge with extra minutes in front of the page. Melding history from Alexandria to his own personal reflections, Simon connects all these people together into a “fraternity of dreamers.” As he writes:
When I’m reading some book that I happen to be enjoying, some random novel picked up from the library or purchased at an airport to pass the time, but not the works that I perennially turn toward—Walt Whitman and John Milton, John Donne and Emily Dickinson—I’m sometimes struck with a profound melancholy born from the fact that *I shall never read these sentences again.*Like meeting a friendly stranger who somehow indelibly marks your life by the tangible reality of their being, but whom will return to anonymity. Then it occurs to me that even those things I do read again and again, Leaves of Grass and Paradise Lost, I will one day also read for the last time. What such textual anxiety trades in, like all things of humanity, is my fear of finality, of extinction, of death.
If you’re a reader, you owe yourself a deep read of this great piece. And then another one.
Third Place: A Far-Right Terrorism Suspect With a Refugee Disguise: The Tale of Franco A. by Katrin Bennhold
Bennhold has been writing a whole slew of features on the (re)-rise of the far right in Germany over the past year for the New York Times. This is perhaps her best feature yet, given not only the absurdity of the story itself, but also her extensive and in-depth access to the main suspect.
Here, we have a German army soldier who lived a double life as a refugee from the Middle East in order to incite a coup and bring down the German government. And while his plan wasn’t close to “almost working,” the depth he was able to reach in culminating his plan is staggering and a massive indictment of Germany’s current politics and law enforcement agencies.
It’s a great one-off piece in the series, but Bennhold’s entire body of work here really forces us to address an alarming prospect: that the German consensus to never look back and progress from the carnage and destruction of World War II and the Holocaust appears to be fraying, and at times quite deeply. As Brexit kicks the United Kingdom out of Europe, what happens next?
Fourth Place: “If it Hadn’t Been for the Prompt Work of the Medics”: FSB Officer Inadvertently Confesses Murder Plot to Navalny by Bellingcat
This has to be one of the more lurid stories I have read in sometime. Alexei Navalny, who has been a thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side for years, was poisoned a few months ago in a nerve agent attack while boarding a flight. In the wake of the media firestorm over the attack, government authorities denied that they had anything to do with it. So Navalny ends up getting in touch with the security officer in charge of his assassination … and actually walks through the entire attack with his own assassin without the assassin ever realizing he was talking with his target.
It’s an absolute gem of political theater, while offering just luscious insight into the current state of Russian paranoia and politics. Better and stranger than fiction.
Fifth Place: The Erosion of Deep Literacy by Adam Garfinkle
This sort of matches my recommendation of Anti-intellectualism in American Life as the best book I read this year. Nonetheless, I do think there is increasingly a strong argument to be made that many people are losing their ability to concentrate and pursue deep thinking and what Garfinkle here calls “deep literacy.”
These arguments have been around for years depending on how you define it. From Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in the 1980s to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows a decade ago, there has been a discourse concerned with the ability of American citizens to engage with the complexity of the modern world we face. I read The Shallows a year or two ago, and found it a bit wanting, but now I am not so sure. Maybe it’s the pandemic and the rise of "doomscrolling,” but something definitely seems to have changed in the ability of people to hold a deep conversation, talk about a subject for 2-3 hours, or do anything intellectual beyond the superficial.
Garfinkle makes a key point: this is a skill that is lost by atrophy, and not one that is easily regained:
Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships….A book is a large intellectual construction; you can’t hold it all in mind easily or at once. You have to struggle mentally to internalize it. Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up again on the computer. There is no context, no motive. Information is not knowledge. People are not readers but researchers, they float on the surface….This new thinking erases context. It disaggregates everything. All this makes strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve.
I think the essay is a key read, but also the kind of essay that won’t be read by those who need it most!
A few honorable mentions
- “Inside the New York Times’ Heated Reckoning With Itself” by Reeves Wiedeman — If you like inside-media baseball, this was the article of the year (and there were many, many contenders)
- The Messengers: One Small Magazine’s Fight for the Indian Mind by Maddy Crowell — a great deep dive into The Caravan, a small magazine taking on the politics of the largest democracy on Earth
- The Bible That Oozed Oil by Ruth Graham — a great fun romp of a story
- Best Sellers Sell the Best Because They’re Best Sellers by Alexandra Alter — a great profile of the leading book publisher, while also providing a deepened perspective of the state of the book industry (hint: it’s great if you are famous)
- SoftBank’s Masa-Misra Partnership Strained by Losses, Infighting by By Pavel Alpeyev, Giles Turner, and Peter Elstrom — a masterwork in covering one of the most important business stories of the last few years
- The Falling Man by Tom Junod — a classic feature piece that is mesmerizing in its quality, depth, humanity and longevity
Britain’s cladding debacle
We end with an absolute dumpster fire of policy after the Grenfell Tower fire. Some great articles on what’s happening:
- The Cladding Trap: Thousands Fearful in the Shadow of Grenfell by Stephen Delahunty
- The Grenfell Tower inquiry is uncovering a major corporate scandal by Peter Apps
Cover photo by N i c o l a via Flickr used under Creative Commons