Best Articles I Read (2021 Edition)

Best Articles I Read (2021 Edition)
Image Credits: Anthony Vicente / Flickr / Creative Commons

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.

Honorable Mentions

A range of other great pieces that I read last year, in an unranked, semi-random order.