This year, according to my tracker (I use Reeder), I saved and read 1,039 essays and longer form articles this year, and highlighted 51 of them. There are almost certainly gems that I forgot to save for this end-of-year article, but welcome to the chaos of modern life.
I was fairly negative in my comments last year, noting that many feature pieces lacked quality editing and failed to capture the intensity of the moment we are all facing. This year felt better holistically, despite an historically bad year for journalists, writers and other media professionals. Prolix has been replaced with the profound, and more writers seem to be standing up and grappling with the reality we are facing.
Here’s the best articles I read in 2023, plus a slew of honorable mentions.
First Place: Earth League International Hunts the Hunters by Tad Friend
I’m a sucker for extraordinarily complicated policy, governance and global affairs problems — the ones that have no easy solutions or solutions at all, where a dozen intelligent people can sit around a table and no one walks out having convinced others on what to do.
Tad Friend wrote an epic on wildlife trafficking, connecting the dots from the markets in countries like China to the intermediaries that process these illegal goods to the hunters that track down exotic animals and shoot them cold. In the process, he carefully tunes his attention to human behavior and motivation in order to understand the links across the entire supply chain. Most of it is greed, some of it is ennui, but all of it is business.
What’s astounding isn’t just the sheer humanity of it all at its best and worst, but the layers of complexity that exist on top of each other. Tracking wildlife is difficult, but then tracking the funds that pay for all of these animal kingdom atrocities is also untraceable thanks to crypto and highly-encrypted communications. Networks of criminals with reputations but little physical connection can work with an alacrity and precision that some of the largest companies in the world would envy.
This reporting has it all and then some. It’s superb, and was by far my favorite single piece of the year.
Second Place: The Incredible Disappearing Doomsday by Kyle Paoletta
A few years ago, there was a doom loop in the public imagination, triggered most prominently by David Wallace-Wells’s essay and book on the subject of The Uninhabitable World. Climate change was jumping off the cliff into climate collapse, with the potential for billions of people to die and live a peripatetic nomadic life, perhaps like the one depicted in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
And then, it all changed. Wallace-Wells was the most contradictory, going from his warning that billions will potentially perish to reversing himself entirely in The New York Times by saying that, in fact, the future is really quite optimistic actually. His argument was that climate technology and particularly clean energy have exponentially improved in the intervening few years, and therefore, the worst scenarios of climate disruption will not be reached.
Paoletta is having none of this, and in this incisive critical essay, excoriates the climate doomers for suddenly becoming climate boomers. He emphasizes that the commentary of many analysts around technology makes no sense, since there have been no fundamental breakthroughs in energy tech in the past few years that fundamentally changed the adoption curves. Either these analysts were wrong then, or they are wrong now. Paoletta thinks they are wrong now, and that they have been snookered by short-term evidence that doesn’t mesh with the far more voluminous evidence from their earlier work.
This is criticism at its finest — arched, clear-minded, and with a pithy acuity on a subject of extreme importance.
Third Place: What 'Long Covid' Means by Peter Robinson
Long Covid has been one of the most challenging remnants of the Covid-19 pandemic. Millions claims that they suffer from debilitating symptoms triggered by Covid-19, and yet, tests and research can’t seem to identify any mechanism by which the disease continues. Worse, statistical evidence shows that Long Covid is not evenly distributed across Covid patients, but differentially presents to specific demographic groups — younger, more online, and more female — groups that generally have better health care outcomes on Covid than others in the first place.
Robinson, a physician in training, observes his encounters with patients and their theories, and does something almost miraculous: he bridges the gap between understanding and care.
Robinson argues that we are living in an age of medical hysteria, ranging from Long Covid to Havana Syndrome, amplified by social media that allows people to self-diagnose their illnesses despite no scientific basis. And yet, his argument is that while that pattern might be true, it really doesn’t matter to the patient sitting in the waiting room:
A good physician, similarly, is to a degree agnostic about disease: all diagnoses are provisional but some are helpful, if they lead to a successful treatment or prognosis; all diagnoses are to at least a tiny degree tentative; all are subject to later revision. They could be well-reasoned but completely wrong. They could be only partly correct—and this may be the most common case, and fortunately partly correct is sometimes correct enough.
The grand, often online discussion over some of these diseases belie the very real patient in front of the doctor. Robinson offers empathy for healing while acknowledging the rational decision-making that should form the basis of quality care. He threads a very tight needle in this essay, but does it with aplomb.
Fourth Place: The Hunt for Russian Collaborators in Ukraine by Joshua Yaffa and Sketches from Ukraine by Dave Eggers
Ukraine was obviously one of the major stories of 2023, and reporters covered it dexterously this year (far better than last year, from my vantage point). Last year, reporters covered the vagaries of the war and the immediate aftermath of the attacks going both directions. Now, they are covering the longer-term consequences that will be with us potentially for generations.
Russia and Ukraine have traded control over some cities in Ukraine the past two years. Joshua Yaffa’s reporting explores what happens when citizens collaborate with one side or the other — and then the governance switches sides. The result is incredibly challenging ethical and moral questions. Should a Ukrainian mayor help the Russians capture specific Ukrainian fighters, if it means the rest of the city’s Ukrainians citizens can live a better life? The answer, of course, is that the decision shouldn’t have to be made in the first place, but that’s the bind that many in Ukraine find themselves in. Yaffa handles the emotional tensions, hatreds, and impossible situations with a degree of adroit sympathy that makes this piece a godsend.
Meanwhile, Dave Eggers writes a travelogue episode of sorts from Ukraine, identifying how war changes and doesn’t change society and the daily rhythms of its participants.
We returned to the street level to find the city’s lights on and bright. A café next to the train station was blasting “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” from a tinny speaker. A nearby storefront featured, in foot-high letters, the slogan bravery is ukrainian brand. We checked the time: we had twenty minutes to get across town. Our new Ukrainian friends, Anna and Andrii, had invited us to dinner at a celebrated Crimean Tatar restaurant, opened by refugees after the 2014 annexation. When the air raid began, we had wondered if our dinner would be canceled. But no. When we arrived, the place was full.
We joined Anna and Andrii in the last empty seats.
For all the emphasis on the war itself, the wider view of quotidian Ukrainian life is just as interesting, and Eggers does a fantastic job of covering it.
Fifth Place: When the New York Times lost its way by James Bennet
This was a late hit that everyone in the media industry was talking about, and for good reason: Bennet, who was fired by the New York Times as opinions editor after publishing an op-ed by senator Josh Hawley in 2020, riposted this month with a scathing and yet even-handed analysis of his time at the publication. His decision to publish Hawley’s op-ed became a Rorschach test for how editors and journalists should think about media. Is it about objectivity, truth and allowing the reader to form their own opinions from a range of perspectives? Or is it about delivering a moral narrative, proselytizing a view to readers of what is right and wrong?
Bennet walks through his lengthy career at the Times and identifies a sea change in how reporters think about the job and their role as stewards of the public trust. He is depressing, and depressed, seeing the world of journalism as entirely changed from when he matured as a reporter:
It became one of [NYT’s top editor] Dean Baquet’s frequent mordant jokes that he missed the old advertising-based business model, because, compared with subscribers, advertisers felt so much less sense of ownership over the journalism. I recall his astonishment, fairly early in the Trump administration, after Times reporters conducted an interview with Trump. Subscribers were angry about the questions the Times had asked. It was as if they’d only be satisfied, Baquet said, if the reporters leaped across the desk and tried to wring the president’s neck.
I have long held a thesis about life that the quality of any art or creation is only as good as those observing and consuming it. Bad writing would disappear tomorrow if readers weren’t willing to read it. A well-informed citizenry should throw away most of the drivel that’s considered analysis these days. But we are tired, busy and eschew the reasoned dialogue of the citizen and have replaced it with the triggered anger of the demagogue. Bennet gets at that transition — and he’s as frightened as we all should be.
Sixth Place: The age of average by Alex Murrell
Why does everything look so goddamn similar? The colors, the designs, the fabrics, the layouts, the logos, the brands, the chamfers — all of it. As a culture, we seem to have converged on one true way for doing everything, even in the most creative of domains. And it’s not just objects — even our very faces have converged to a single look thanks to a combination of beauty tutorials on YouTube and TikTok as well as plastic surgery.
Alex Murrell has noticed, and he isn’t amused.
First, I have to point out his collections of photos, which you can pursue in the essay. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the juxtaposition of a dozen or more photos of the same thing — but slightly tweaked — will quickly show you how similar everything in our consumer society is. It’s unmistakable and relentless — and once you notice it, you can’t stop seeing it everywhere.
But then there’s the text itself, where Murrell diagnoses our collective creative banality.
There are many reasons why this might have happened.
Perhaps when times are turbulent, people seek the safety of the familiar. Perhaps it’s our obsession with quantification and optimisation. Or maybe it’s the inevitable result of inspiration becoming globalised.
Regardless of the reasons, it seems that just as Komar and Melamid produced the “people’s choice” in art, contemporary companies produce the people’s choice in almost every category of creativity.
I can’t unsee this piece, and that’s precisely what makes it special.
Presented in no specific order
- Love in the Time of Sickle Cell Disease by Krithika Varagur — an incredibly sensitive and thoughtful portrait of love, dating and the social consequences of disease.
- Epistemological Panic, or Thinking for Yourself by Michael Ignatieff — a great piece written by a long-time human rights thinker on why argumentation and the ability to see specifically and differently from others is the only path forward for democracies.
- India’s Uprising by Christopher Caldwell — the right-wing thinker looks at the positives of Modi, in a compelling corrective to some of the mounting invective arrayed against India’s prime minister.
- The Tyranny of the Tale by Parul Sehgal and The Rise of Narrative and The Fall of Persuasion by Leon Wieseltier — two heavyweight critics both explore the downside of our culture’s focus of story and narrative over facts and empiricism.
- US-China 1MDB Scandal Pits FBI Against Former Fugee Pras Michel by Jason Leopold, Matthew Campbell and Anthony Cormier — an incredible yarn of a business tale about the famous musician and the epic corruption in Malaysia as part of the 1MDB public corruption scandal.
- Days of Plunder by Maureen Tkacik — a book review that just delightfully and delectably skewers the private equity industry.
- Inside the Meltdown at CNN by Tim Alberta — Chris Licht tried to reinvent CNN and he was eventually scooted out the door in a train wreck of a tenure. This was the marquee piece on the implosion and denouement — tick-tock journalism in real-time at its finest.
- The New New Reading Environment by The Editors of n+1 — a great and succinct look at the corruption of reading and publishing in the internet age.
- Paradigms Gone Wild by Steven Shapin — a profound review of Thomas Kuhn and his concerns that his ideas around paradigm shifts overshadowed his later deeper work. Here’s a scholar who died very uneasy with their intellectual legacy.
- Forbidden Fruit by Alexander Sammon — an incredible profile of a region in Mexico and the armed fight by its citizens to protect themselves from the encroachment of avocado farmers.
For more great articles, check out my “best of” posts from previous years.