Each year, I keep a running list of the most exceptional nonfiction that I encounter while publishing my twice-weekly newsletter The Best of Journalism. Along with my curating work for Byliner, this hoovering of great stories affords me the opportunity to read as many impressive narratives as any single person possibly can. The annual result is my Best of Journalism List, now in its fourth year. I could not, of course, read every worthy piece published during the year. But everything that follows deserves wider attention.
This year's collection is timed to the one-year anniversary of Byliner, which published Jon Krakauer's groundbreaking investigation, Three Cups of Deceit, last April. It was the first of two dozen Byliner Originals, original works of nonfiction and fiction written to be read in a single sitting. I'm grateful to the Byliner team for being so supportive of my efforts to highlight fantastic journalism — and more importantly, for helping writers tell and sell great stories in the digital era. Most of the featured bylines this year are linked to their Byliner writer pages, which make it easy to discover more of their work. Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, note that I'm a staff writer at The Atlantic (where my colleagues neither saw nor influenced this list), and have done my best to remain objective.
For all of human history they scoured the subcontinent, clearing fields of dead cows and goats, aloft over the cities in search of road kill and scavenging over the refuse of humans. What's killing them? The writer traces the mystery to its surprising conclusion, and assesses the terrible price the country will pay if they disappear.
A reported adventure from deep in the Amazon, where a spike in the price of gold caused a dystopian gold rush that cannot be stopped, even by the French commandos fighting there.
“Nearly 10,000,000 men were killed in the conflict, 65 million participated, and now we are left with two. Think about those numbers. What are you supposed to do when an era is inches away from disappearing?
Each fall, in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas, a little-known miracle transforms one of America’s most iconic—and tragically dammed—waterways. Revived by diamond-clear spring-fed creeks, the mighty Pecos River is reborn, creating a 60-mile stretch of wild and secret Class III whitewater. And did I mention we had it all to ourselves?
On a stretch of rapids rarely traversed even by avid whitewater sportsmen a group of adventurers revels in splendid isolation – until the moment when they begin wondering if they'll escape it.
An innovative profile of a young man in subculture that believes this above all else: “The appeal of malt liquor has always been precisely counter-intuitive. It’s cheap, it’s nasty, and it’s dangerous—and that’s what makes it good.”
A cyber-weapon more sophisticated than any ever wielded – explained in a gripping narrative that even a digital neophyte can follow.
An inquiry into the mysterious disappearance of a 24-year-old woman who vanished from a Disney cruise never to be seen again.
Unraveling the ultimate political conspiracy.
As stunning a political conspiracy as ever was hatched.
There was torture, starvation, betrayals and executions, but to Shin In Geun, Camp 14—a prison for the political enemies of North Korea—was home. Then one day came the chance to flee … .
“If Shin's mother met her daily work quota, she could bring home food. At 4am, she would prepare breakfast and lunch for her son and for herself. Shin was always hungry and he would eat his lunch as soon as his mother left for work. He also ate her lunch. When she came back from the fields at midday and found nothing to eat, she would beat him with a shovel.”
How two American kids became big-time weapons traders—and how the Pentagon later turned on them.
What if faraway wars were supplied by ambitious kids with an Internet connection and considerable chutzpah? Sometimes, they are.
Two days after the Japanese tsunami, after the waves had left their destruction, as rescue workers searched the ruins, news came of an almost surreal survival: Miles out at sea, a man was found, alone, riding on nothing but the roof of his house. Michael Paterniti tells his astonishing tale.
The most epic tsunami survival story of all.
“Yes, I was grateful to that river for savaging my most prized possessions. It was as if inside that much larger, more destructive flood of history that had exposed my life and left me naked, this Chilean rising of the waters had rescued the library, had oddly made it tangible for me once more. Instead of bewailing the half that had been lost forever, something in me rejoiced at the resurrection of what I had given up for dead.”
In a shantytown near Johannesburg, an angry mob committed a horrifying crime that was caught on video.
“Mob justice is most likely to occur in the nation’s informal settlements... Many of the poor, living without electricity and using communal taps and toilets, feel the necessity — the burden — to police themselves. I was commonly told: The more horrible the death of a criminal, the better it deters the rest.”
The victim of a violent crime tells her story with “transfixing frankness.”
In Lake County, Ill., new DNA evidence doesn’t necessarily set men free; it just changes the theory of how they committed the crime.
When scientific evidence all but proves a prisoner was wrongly convicted – and the state fights to keep ‘em imprisoned anyway.
"How violent sex eased my PTSD."
Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology.
A devastating takedown of Scientology.
In December 1970, a number of kids went missing from the Heights neighborhood, in Houston. But no one realized that the most prolific serial killer the country had ever seen—along with his teenage accomplices—was living comfortably among them.
“How was it possible that so many boys could have been snatched away from one working-class area of Houston, a mere two miles wide and three miles deep, without anyone — police, parents, neighbors, teachers, or friends — snapping to what was happening?”
“For all the high-minded justifications that led to Europe’s military intervention in Libya, there has been little political willingness to shoulder the humanitarian consequences of the war.”
The military industrial complex: even more alarming than President Eisenhower warned.
Brought to Europe from the New World by Spanish explorers, the lowly potato gave rise to modern industrial agriculture.
“The effective result, in terms of calories, was to double Europe’s food supply.”
The cult of barefoot running.
“We were once the greatest endurance runners on earth. We didn’t have fangs, claws, strength or speed, but the springiness of our legs and our unrivaled ability to cool our bodies by sweating rather than panting enabled humans to chase prey until it dropped from heat exhaustion... So how did one of our greatest strengths become such a liability?”
Scientists almost always use lab rats or mice for their experiments. Isn’t that limiting?
Daniel Kish has been sightless since he was a year old. Yet he can mountain bike. And navigate the wilderness alone. And recognize a building as far away as 1,000 feet. How? The same way bats can see in the dark.
Stranger than fiction. The travesty is that the moniker “Batman” is taken.
Autism rates have increased twentyfold in a generation, stirring parents’ deepest fears and prompting a search for answers. But what if the upsurge is not what it appears to be?
A four-part series on an affliction we’re grappling with for the first time. Is it a new epidemic? Or are we just now recognizing an old one?
“Many times I have stood mesmerized by an aquarium tank, wondering, as I stared into the horizontal pupils of an octopus’s large, prominent eyes, if she was staring back at me—and if so, what was she thinking?”
“As a metric unit, the kilogram is 'equal to the mass of the international prototype,' according to the official definition. In other words, as metrologists like to point out, it has the remarkable property of never gaining or losing mass. By definition, any physical change to it alters the mass of everything in the cosmos.”
And – yikes – it’s changing!
“Since many of the obstetricians and gynaecologists at the conference are untrained in plastic surgery, one big question begins to bother me: on what/whom they will practise? The answer is, they don't – or, often, not much. A number of those here plan to watch the videos and start operating.”
“Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister.”
“These were affectless penguins, and this was the desert. When I accosted one of them, I hoped it could recognize how much I appreciated the distinction... Instead, they all glared at me with the purest expressions of fear and hatred that I’ve ever seen. All save one.”
From Crick and Watson through J. Craig Venter, we had all our eggs in one basket—molecular biology, gene mapping, whatever you want to call it. It failed. And now we’re counting on this guy.
“How about taking advantage of the technology and the data that's become available over the past ten years and using it to create models of the living world that are nearly as complex as the living world itself and by God nearly as large?”
Why the “talkinest child” understands women and the power of television better than anyone else.
A deeply felt retelling of what may be the most impressive rags to riches story of our time – and an answer for anyone who has ever questioned why Oprah Winfrey means so much to her fans.
Roseanne Barr was a sitcom star, a creator and a product, the agitator and the abused, a domestic goddess and a feminist pioneer. That was twenty years ago. But as far as she’s concerned, not much has changed.
“Nothing real or truthful makes its way to TV unless you are smart and know how to sneak it in.”
Bob of the Easy Method Driving School has spent his entire life teaching his students how to drive—and there’s nothing he loves to do more.
“‘Work ethic’ seems like one of those chunks. It elicits a halo of simple images: a man hunched over a desk, staying late, furrowing his brow. The ‘work’ part dominates. One forgets the word ‘ethic’ is in there.”
A 9-11 memoir worth waiting 10 years to read.
How we remember loved ones has changed.
Why his vision lives on in Barack Obama.
“They wore their hair in manifold ways—dreadlocks and Nubian twists, Afros as wide as planets or low and tapered from the temple. They braided it, invested it with beads and yarn, pulled the whole of it back into a crown, or wrapped it in yards of African fabric. But in a rejection aimed at something greater than follicles and roots, all of them repudiated straighteners. The women belonged, as did I, to a particular tribe of America, one holding that we, as black people, were born to a country that hated us and that at all turns plotted our fall.”
That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith. How could we not?
Why did a father entrust his son to a man who wound up arrested in a police raid? “We watched him hurting and wanted his suffering to end... At that point we would’ve done anything to help him.”
“We’d not think too hard about it, and go wash our knives. Then, our détente broke.”
“The clench occurs suddenly, irreversibly—in the final instant before beginning a sentence, in the middle of a phrase—making the experience of being a stutterer somewhat like the chronic knowledge that your clothes may explode off your body any moment."
What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?
“What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?”
Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?
The best athletes on the planet have coaches. Why don’t other professionals?
Notes from one of the best writers in Cleveland on how he makes a living.
“I never needed a fortune-teller to see mine. It came shuffling past our porch every evening at 5:25, toting a lunch pail. At eighteen you were swallowed by the python and made your way through the beast like a lump. At the other end was a mill pension, casino trips on a bus charter twice a year, and church bingo every Wednesday.”
How a cheeky satire became a videogame hit.
“It’s a Facebook game called Cow Clicker, and it’s unlike anything Bogost ever made before, a borderline-evil piece of work that was intended to embody the worst aspects of the modern gaming industry. He meant Cow Clicker to be a satire with a short shelf life. Instead, it enslaved him and many of its players for much of the past 18 months. Even Bogost can’t decide whether it represents his greatest success—or his most colossal failure.”
A timeless gesture, but someone went up top first. That’s where it gets complicated.
Tracing a cultural phenomenon back to its inventor.
Thirty-five runners face hollers and Hells, a flooded prison, rats the size of possums, and flesh-flaying briars to test the limits of self-sufficiency.
“The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.”
A team of young cyclists tries to outrun the past.
The Rwandan cycling team pedals away from their country’s history.
Exiled from the NBA, vilified by the press, and ridiculed for a serious of questionable YouTube videos (eating Vaseline? c’mon!), Stephon Marbury is seeking redemption—and vast riches—in basketball-mad China. Now, if he can just win over his Communist bosses, he’ll be the biggest thing since Yao Ming.
Can former NBA star Stephon Marbury find in China a new arena for basketball stardom – and fulfill his dreams of merchandising/real estate/mobile car wash/import-export magnatehood?
One man, trapped between two worlds, still chases his dream.
“In the slum, word spread. People gathered at the gate to the club, beating drums, cheering. They carried Anil down the street, past the shacks. They deposited him in front of his mother, who said a prayer. His father touched his feet. Anil handed the money to his mother, enough for the family to live comfortably for years. She refused to take the money. It had come from golf, she told him, and it would go to golf.”
Wright Thompson goes on the road with the Indian National Team and its greatest star, navigating the madness of a billion fans and chasing the soul of the game.
The triumph of this piece is that by the end, you do.
What’s a cyclist to do upon falling in love with the rare Pedersen bike—except rescue a battered one from a hippie paradise and cajole its mysterious creator into reviving it?
“It was a strange and not unpleasant experience riding on a sling saddle. Soon it grew downright enchanting. The saddle swayed slightly on tight turns. My weight felt distributed in a new and dynamic way. It coddled me, almost like a nice dry diaper. I realize this is perhaps not an appealing image, but it feels better than it sounds.”
In the wake of an immigrant exodus, Alabama has jobs. Trouble is, Americans don’t want them.
The psychology of stigma as it applies to unskilled labor.
After once being the best thing that ever happened to porn, the Internet is now wreaking havoc: destroying some fortunes, making bigger ones, and serving as a stimulus plan, in more ways than one.
“For a decade or so, to the porn industry, the Internet looked like the best thing ever invented—a distribution chute liberating it from the trench-coat ghetto of brown paper wrappers and seedy adult bookstores... If it was equally apparent that the web would prove as destabilizing as it has for other media, the money was so good that the industry could ignore the warning signs. Now the reckoning has arrived.”
"She sorts and delivers the fresh crates but the winter backlog is tough to clear. She thinks her employers are getting suspicious. I counted 62 full mail crates stacked up in the hall when I visited recently."
A litany of scandals in recent years have made the corruption of college sports constant front-page news. We profess outrage each time we learn that yet another student-athlete has been taking money under the table. But the real scandal is the very structure of college sports, wherein student-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves.
“Student-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves.”
The smart money says the U.S. economy will splinter, with some states thriving, some states not, and all eyes are on California as the nightmare scenario. After a hair-raising visit with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who explains why the Golden State has cratered, Michael Lewis goes where the buck literally stops—the local level, where the likes of San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and Vallejo ﬁre chief Paige Meyer are trying to avert even worse catastrophes and rethink what it means to be a society.
"The people of California might be irresponsible, but at least they were consistent."
Operational innovations at restaurants like Taco Bell rival those at any factory in the world. A view from the drive-thru window at how they do it.
"It's as if the great advances of human civilization, in everything from animal husbandry to mathematics to architecture to manufacturing to information technology, have all crescendoed with the Crunchwrap Supreme, delivered via the pick-up window."
That prized garage space or curbside spot you’ve been yearning for may be costing you—and the city—in ways you never realized. A journey into the world of parking, where meter maids are under siege, everybody’s on the take, and the tickets keep on coming.
The hidden costs of free parking.
Lessons learned: Americans are hotheads, Australians are drunks—and never say where you’re calling from.
“Trainers aim to impart something they call ‘international culture’—which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one.”
“The Chinese substitution of cheap and fast for the Italian tradition of slow, fine, and expensive, has cut into the heart of Italy’s fashion industry and, by extension, into Italy’s economic culture as a whole.”
“We prize Trader Joe’s because it has auspiciously pulled off being none of the above.”
Fisheries collapse unless catch limits are enforced. The fishermen and the regulators are nevertheless at odds.
“Kids on their way home from elementary school were knocked down; parents walking from the subway station were held up at gunpoint. When my children went to camp, suburban kids, hearing that they were from Brooklyn, would ask: ‘Have you ever been shot?’”
The story of how all that changed.
First Hormel gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.
“Garcia inserted the metal nozzle of a 90-pounds-per-square-inch compressed-air hose and blasted the pigs' brains into a pink slurry. One head every three seconds. A high-pressure burst, a fine rosy mist, and the slosh of brains slipping through a drain hole into a catch bucket... Most days that fall, production was so fast that the air never cleared between blasts, and the mist would slick workers at the head table in a grisly mix of brains and blood and grease.”
The ubiquitous dollar store is the American dream writ small.
“How does a store sell four AA batteries for $1? In part this market takes advantage of the economy degrading all around it.”
“Has Tata Steel, one of India’s oldest and most admired corporates, diverged from the ethical path laid down by its founding fathers?”
What if a director treated a movie set like a small fiefdom, and forced the whole cast to play along?
The theft of the world’s most famous portrait from the Louvre 100 years ago was not only the art heist of the century. It confirmed that this picture of a smiling woman was far more than a painting.
The time a disaffected Italian immigrant stole from France the most famous painting in the world.
When the generation-defining writer David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, he left behind an unfinished novel, The Pale King, that will either serve to round out his transcendent body of writing or place a haunting question mark at the end of his career. John Jeremiah Sullivan holes up with the new book and considers the legacy.
On David Foster Wallace: “His style did more than reflect his habit of mind; it was an expression of an unusually coherent sensibility. Wallace was a relentless reviser and could have streamlined all of those syntactically baroque paragraphs. He didn't think the world worked that way. The truth, or rather truth-seeking, didn't sound like that. It was self-critical—self-interrogating, even—on the catch for its own tricks of self-evasion.”
Giving the son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge his due.
Andy Warhol is an art-world colossus whose work accounts for one-sixth of contemporary-art sales. How did that happen, and is he really worth it? Bryan Appleyard canvasses the experts …
Is Andy Warhol the best American artist of the 20th Century – or the most overrated?
“He was talking about how hard the writing was. And I said, lightheartedly, 'Dave, you're a genius.' Meaning, people aren't going to forget about you. You're not going to wind up in a Wendy's. He said, 'All that makes me think is that I've fooled you, too.'"
A fascinating interview (with the consummate interviewer) about journalism, the art of editing, and “the ruthlessness of the writer.”
One purveyor of razor sharp prose and cutting analysis interviews another.
Pakistan lies. It hosted Osama bin Laden (knowingly or not). Its government is barely functional. It hates the democracy next door. It is home to both radical jihadists and a large and growing nuclear arsenal (which it fears the U.S. will seize). Its intelligence service sponsors terrorists who attack American troops. With a friend like this, who needs enemies?
“The Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the ‘de-mated’ component nuclear parts but “mated” nuclear weapons. Western nuclear experts have feared that Pakistan is building small, “tactical” nuclear weapons for quick deployment on the battlefield. In fact, not only is Pakistan building these devices, it is also now moving them over roads.”
When First Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom was killed by Taliban fighters in 2008, while attempting a heroic rescue in a perilously isolated outpost, his war was over. His father’s war, to hold the U.S. Army accountable for Brostrom’s death, had just begun. And Lieutenant Colonel William Ostlund’s war—to defend his own record as commander—was yet to come. With three perspectives on the most scrutinized engagement of the Afghanistan conflict, one that shook the military to its foundations, Mark Bowden learns the true tragedy of the Battle of Wanat.
“Three perspectives on the most scrutinized engagement of the Afghanistan conflict.”
Europe on fifteen hundred yuan a day.
China is now rich enough that some of its citizens are starting to tour Europe by bus. A fascinating look at the continent through their eyes.
“In El Indio, I stopped to buy a Dr. Pepper and asked the old lady behind the counter, in my best Spanish, whether she knew anything about that white thing up in the sky. She did not. I decided to inquire at the post office, but it was closed. I was wondering what to do next when a minivan pulled up. I asked the driver if she knew what that white thing was up in the sky. ‘It’s a satellite for the drugs,’ she said. ‘My brother-in-law works for it.’”
On July 13, 2010, a cargo container arrived in Genoa, Italy. It was emitting torrents of radiation. No one knew what was inside. And no one knew what to do next.
“Montagna realized that one of the containers in front of him held a lethal secret. But was that secret merely a slow-motion radioactive industrial accident — or a bomb, one that could decimate the Italian city’s entire 15-mile waterfront?”
The enigmatic country is quasi-authoritarian in its leadership, yet it “has not shied away from embracing—at great expense—many of the trappings of liberal cosmopolitanism.” A look at the behavior of one of the most confounding regimes in the world.
The plan was to check out Yemen, a little-visited Arab nation that offers glowing deserts, forbidding mountains, and lonely Socotra Island—a naturalist’s paradise as imagined by Dr. Suess. But instead all hell broke loose, and a tourist romp became a front-row seat to the bloody upheavals sweeping the Middle East.
“The plan was to check out Yemen, a little-visited Arab nation that offers glowing deserts, forbidding mountains, and lonely Socotra Island—a naturalist's paradise as imagined by Dr. Suess. But instead all hell broke loose, and a tourist romp became a front-row seat to the bloody upheavals sweeping the Middle East.”
What does India’s lush Kaziranga National Park have that the rest of the country’s decimated reserves do not? A take-no-prisoners antipoaching policy that allows rangers to shoot on sight. Welcome to the future of conservation.
“Soldiers killed militants. Militants killed soldiers. Militants killed rival militants. A rhino wandered out of a park and killed a bicyclist. Old women were killed on suspicion of witchcraft. A tea-plantation worker was found shot dead. Jitney drivers atomized each other on the lanes-optional roads. Shooting poachers? A no-brainer.”
In China, it’s a form of defiance—and the government is not amused.
To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire.
“How the vagaries of the impulse to eat ethically have changed the business.”
"It looks utterly ordinary. But in the history of ecology, it’s one of the most significant places on Earth."
In 1822 a man accidentally shot himself in the gut. Improbably, he survived, and with a hole in his side – which gave doctors a glimpse into the functioning organ for the first time ever.
The Fermi Paradox: Is intelligence fatal?
“Intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, nearly instantly so.”
On Ezra F. Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China.
A seminal Chinese dissident reviews a history of a Communist Party leader.
Sexual violence is one of the most horrific weapons of war, an instrument of terror used against women. Yet huge numbers of men are also victims. In this harrowing report, the author travels to Uganda to meet traumatised survivors, and reveals how male rape is endemic in many of the world’s conflicts.
"It is for this reason that both perpetrator and victim enter a conspiracy of silence and why male survivors often find, once their story is discovered, that they lose the support and comfort of those around them. In the patriarchal societies found in many developing countries, gender roles are strictly defined."
Why we should stop worrying and learn to love a hip English professor.
"No longer could a cocoon of academic prattle shield theorists from the market’s abrasive workings."
In this excerpt from his cultural history of Rome, our most outspoken art critic, Robert Hughes, remembers when he was first dazzled by the eternal city.
"In Rome, for the ﬁrst time in my life, I felt surrounded by speaking water. What trees are to Paris, fountains are to Rome. They are the vertical or angled jets, wreathing, bubbling, full of life, which give measure to the city."
As evocative a description as you’ll find of Mexico City’s noise.
Even as the movement’s grip tightens on the GOP, its influence is melting away across vast swaths of America, thanks to centuries-old regional traditions that few of us understand.
Re-imagining the regions that compose the United States.
On Manet: Inventeur du Moderne, an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay.
“The chase and dance of brushstrokes about that face have led up to the moment when the painter dares to slam in some fat central jabs of carmine—the rosebud of the model’s mouth—and scribble on top of them, in a deep crimson upraised ridge, the parting of her lips.”
In Oxford, Miss., where Faulkner wrote and Archie Manning played, visitors can walk among legends, and eat fabulously while doing so.
It’s impossible to finish this story without wanting to visit Oxford, Mississippi.
Our writer may lose her home to clueless bureaucrats and banks. And she’s not alone.
"I bite my lip to stop from yelling or crying, hang up the phone and impose a temporary moratorium on all things house-related. I’m so tired of talking about the house. I’m so tired of feeling as though I’m being forced to defend myself in this court of insanity."
“The McRib was, at least in part, born out of the brute force that McDonald’s is capable of exerting on commodities markets.”