Another year, and another extraordinary period of in-depth journalism, voluptuous profiles, and incisive analysis. The news media is under constant vituperative attack, so I’m always astonished at the immense quality and erudition writers bring to bear on their work. Writers might suffer from economic percarity, but we live in an era of bold and limitless imagination.
Every year, I go over all the articles I saved and read (this year, a bit more than 1,600 essays and pieces) and pick my favorites. Unlike my slightly plangent note last year, I found that writing in 2021 returned to some semblance of “normal” — the daily history being made has become quotidian, and writers ventured outside the news obvious beats to explore interesting subjects.
All choices here are capricious and arbitrary. As always, New Yorker pieces (which there are many great ones this past year) aren’t included since I read it entirely on paper and never save the links.
First Place: The Anxiety of Influencers by Barrett Swanson
This was a gorgeous and original piece on well-trodden territory. Swanson travels as a “foreign correspondent” to Los Angeles in order to explore the rise of hype houses and the influencer world, running into a cast of teenagers whose antics and psychologies become enmeshed with those of our society at large.
It’s not just a good yarn, delightfully told. It’s also the kind of deeply-layered piece that allows for re-reading and pondering over many months. It’s about individuals and the pursuit of happiness and wealth. It’s about the clash of personalities between kids as well as kids and their parents, the latter of whom are often the driving force behind some of these influencer careers. It’s a comment on culture, marketing, narcissism and the exchange of “high” culture for the ephemeral. And it’s a statement on the precarity of American society, that many kids now see their best path to stability is to sell their photos (and really, bodies) online.
Ultimately though, Swanson’s background as a teacher and an academic allows him to see the psychologies swirling in these milieus — and the crisis that’s brewing. What will these influencers do in five years? They don’t know, but the cognitive changes are permanent. Optimistic but harrowing.
Second Place: “Where Are the Americans?” by Leon Wieseltier
America has yet to truly reckon with the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Both remain smoldering, and their effects will take years to fully extrapolate.
Wieseltier takes a melancholic look at the nobler aspects of these hideous wars, elucidating the unimaginable complexity of what took place. Policy pendulums swing in America, sometimes wildly, and none more so than in foreign policy, where active intervention and democracy promotion have given way to isolationism and a laissez-faire attitude to authoritarianism.
Bad wars are bad wars, but isolation will never allow freedom, economic development, and minority rights to spread throughout the world. How do you balance wanting to bolster a people’s freedom when the very tool used is what is killing them? Wieseltier confronts the impossible choice, finding despondency in a country with its heart in the right place but its brain on the run. I was shaken and have re-read this piece several times.
Third Place: “Lab-grown meat is supposed to be inevitable. The science tells a different story” by Joe Fassler
Hype is a critical aspect of technological change. Hype compels first adopters to explore new technologies and tell their friends, getting new ideas and products into our hands faster.
Yet, hype has become a more complicated beast. The hype cycle starts earlier, crescendos quickly, and fizzles out just as fast. This past week’s verdict on Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal is just one example of dozens in recent years that showed just how bad the hype machine can perform.
So let’s talk about lab-grown meat. It’s exciting — it could taste amazing, save emissions, protect the planet and revolutionize food as we know it. Dozens of startups have raised billions of dollars in venture capital, and media profiles have come fast and furious.
And then you read Fassler’s piece here, and it’s like running full power into a wall of bricks.
Fassler does something so few writers have the bandwidth to do today: to go deep into the science and process manufacturing in order to understand the potential of lab-grown meat and how realistic the movement is. What he finds is alarming: not only can it not scale, but fundamental laws of physics and contamination all but guarantee that these products have no future whatsoever.
It’s a bold and definitive claim, but a clear story and ample evidence gives this piece an incredible structure and power of influence. I still want lab-grown meats, but after reading this piece, it’s clear that the industry will have to develop never-before-seen tech that alters our fundamental understanding of biology in order to succeed. It’s a tall order, and one that calls for sober investment as opposed to a frenetic hype cycle.
Fourth Place: Akihito and the Sorrows of Japan by Richard Lloyd Perry
I missed this piece in 2020 and read it mid-2021. But it’s an excellent piece, and a beautiful parallel piece to read after watching The Crown. What do you do as a monarch with no inscribed political power but incredible tacit influence? How do you live a life? How do you find love?
Perry gives a panoramic perspective on the institution of the Japanese emperor, of the conflicting politics of a monarch who was often more liberal-learning than his right-wing supporters, and the challenges of succession and marriage. It’s wistful: you can clearly sense that Akihito wanted to do so much more, and yet felt compelled to stay silent, not unlike a father that needs to make amends with a child after years of neglect.
The essay is not only a fantastic portrait of an institution and a people, it’s also clear that no one — ever — should want to be a monarch.
Fifth Place: Ten Million a Year by David Wallace-Wells
And another one from the London Review of Books. David Wallace-Wells is a gifted storyteller, and I really enjoyed his The Uninhabitable Earth, which I read last year as well. One of the paralyzing stats from that book is the overwhelming number of deaths worldwide attributable to pollution — coal power retains a massive market share in places like China and India, and quite literally 10 million people die a year from particulate matter.
Wallace-Wells has managed to turn a persistent problem — a phenomenon that is both faceless and continuous — and turn it into a gorgeous piece of prose that both indicts the world for its indifference while castigating each of us for ignoring obvious crises in our own communities. It’s the very best of data science writing (in fact, you would never know it is data science writing from reading it): it’s about a stat of course (it’s in the headline) but it’s so much more human than a number.
Let’s just say I have an air pollution monitor and filter on backorder now.
A range of other great pieces that I read last year, in an unranked, semi-random order.
- The Weirdness of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s Reluctant Leader by Tim Mak — great and distinctive profile. The man is nothing you would ever expect.
- Becoming a Whorelord: The Overly Analytical Guide to Escorting by Aella — a delightful work of the economics of escorting, complete with comprehensive data.
- ‘I’d Never Been Involved in Anything as Secret as This’ by Garrett M. Graff — the final and definitive oral history of the Osama bin Laden raid.
- The stench of death: On Canada’s Highway of Tears by Brandi Morin — a harrowing series on crimes against indigenous women in Canada told with empathy and depth.
- Meth, Vanilla and ‘Gulags’: How China Has Overtaken the South Pacific One Island at a Time by Susannah Luthi — part memoir, part political corruption thriller. The world is so complicated, but pieces like this, well, they make you see the complications.
- The Gradual Extinction of Softness by Chantha Nguon with Kim Green — a gorgeous creative non-fiction work that connects food with the tragedies of Southeast Asia.
- Against longtermism by Phil Torres — a comprehensive and ultimately convincing attack on effective altruism and specifically longtermism.
- How a brutal assault led a woman to one of the CIA’s most valuable Russian spies by Jenna McLaughlin and Sean D. Naylor — great in-depth whodunit that just goes to show you that the actions of nation-states are often the aggregate of very human ridiculousness.
- The ultra-violent cult that became a global mafia by Africa Eye [BBC] — an in-depth investigation of a Nigerian crime group with tendrils throughout the world.
- An Engineer’s Hype-Free Observations on Web3 (and its Possibilities) by Dave Peck & the PSL Team — One of the best pieces on web3 from last year — we need more of these, now.
- The Inevitable Rivalry by John S. Mearsheimer — a melancholic take on the challenges of U.S. relations in the post-American world.
- Lost to the Ages by Emily Yoshida — a classic from 2013, but a fun retrospective on the lack of long-term impact of Myst (which I replayed this year in its 2021 reincarnation).
- The Most Frightened Nation by Lionel Shriver — a hilarious and depressing depiction of modern British politics in the wake of Covid-19.
- Culture as counterculture by Adam Kirsch — what culture is protesting which? Kirsch points out that high culture is now a protest and not vice versa, and lucidly explains why that matters.
- Capitalist Fiction – Murdering the Imagination by Susanna Kleeman — a great piece of critical reflection on the death of fiction.
- Critical Attrition by The Editors of n+1 — a great analysis on the death of book reviews as an influential medium.
- This Man Does Not Make Poppers by David Mack — a delectable investigation into the weird world of poppers and their gray legal status. You probably didn’t want to know, but now you are intrigued.
- How the internet censorship world turned on NetBlocks by Gian M. Volpicelli — a great investigation and summary of the challenges to NetBlocks as concerns about methodology have reached a crescendo
- The Man in the MTA’s Money Room by Christopher Bonanos — finally, a fascinating local story about the complexities of keeping the cash flowing through one of the world’s largest subway systems.