Sure, while not trawling Twitter and Google Reader, we mostly watched TV this year, but you know what? We also read stuff! Like real stuff, not just blurbs about Prince Harry's San Diego nightclubs of choice. (Though we did read a lot of those.) So here are our favorite reads from this year, be they books, news articles, blog posts, or whatever.
"The Apostate" by Lawrence Wight
In this massive, 24,000-word New Yorker piece, Wight chronicles not just film director Paul Haggis' personal struggle with the Church of Scientology, but the whole sordid history of this strange cult/corporation. David Miscavige is shown as a terrifying, violent leader, while church founder L. Ron Hubbard is a huckster who lied about his war record. Given some of the direr details in the piece, Wight was brave to write it, and The New Yorker admirable in publishing it. It's a long one for sure, but it's fascinating and well worth the time.
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
Yeah, this fifth installment in Martin's epic (epic seems too small a word, honestly) fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO's Game of Thrones is based on the first book) isn't as good as the third one and some things drag on too long and what not, but it's still a remarkable achievement. Martin has created such a vivid, fully-realized-down-to-every-tiny-detail world for us that you feel almost as though you could keep reading forever. It's almost like you live there. While the "fantasy" label may seem off-putting to some, and the length of the books a bit daunting, take it from someone who does not typically enjoy fantasy and is often scared of long books (Infinite Jest, why must you intimidate me so?), the books in this series, the fifth one included, have been un-put-downable since I started them this summer. Clear your social calendar for the next few months and get reading.
"Climate Change and the End of Australia" by Jeff Goodell
In this harrowing account of the havocs climate change is wreaking on Australia, Goodell manages to educate while also terrifying. Towering walls of fire, floodplains the size of France, and dying coral reefs are just some of the chilling images he paints a despairing, yet oddly galvanizing portrait of in this urgent, and grimly entertaining, read.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
This actually was not the best thing to read this year. It was the best thing to have read to you, Tina Fey's audiobook is like watching 11 episodes of 30 Rock. But that's not really why it's a must read. Fey writes about lady writer things, which are not only important for other aspiring lady writers, but especially good things for gents to know, too. So read (or have read to you) Fey's book: Learn some things and laugh while you're at it. Also, she can make you grateful to work on the Internet where no one can see how old and ugly you can get.
Two New Yorker Articles About Death
A sign of a good New Yorker article is reaching the end. This year, out of the stacks of paged-through magazines there were two features that were easy to finish: David Grann's "A Murder Foretold" and Nicholas Schmidle's "Getting Bin Laden." Besides death, the one thing uniting these two tales is just how unbelievable the stories are. One is a Guatemalan murder mystery, the other a terrorist raid, but they both read like fiction. You know how one ends; the other you don't. Both hold your attention until the last word.
"I'm Gonna Need You To Fight Me On This" by Mac McClelland, Good Magazine
An incredibly personal and gripping essay in Good magazine from a reporter admitting that she turned to violent sex to cope with the trauma she experienced covering terrible and sad events in Haiti. For a woman reporter to openly admit to such painfully intimate details about her life and work, particularly after the reaction to Lara Logan's sexual assault in Egypt earlier in the year, was an incredible act of bravery. (That unfortunately was met with the expected amount of anger and personal attacks on the Internet.) It's a powerful read as well.
"The Cruelest Show on Earth" by Deborah Nelson
One of the best examples of activist journalism that you'll find this year, this piece tears down the curtain on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its horrific abuse of show elephants. Shortly after it was published the USDA fined the entertainment company $270,000 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which means it may have the rare journalistic distinction of, in some small way, making the world a better place.
Jesse Angelo's "Richest Man in South Dakota" Memo
People forget that Angelo encouraged the editorial staff at The Daily to "Find me the oldest dog in America, or the richest man in South Dakota" only after urging them to go like hell after serious stories like "corruption and malfeasance in a state capitol that no one has found" and "a town that is going to be unincorporated because it's broke." This is understandable, but we still find the memo inspiring, in a loopy, Preston Sturges sort of way. The fact it can be read along with a Joan Baez song just adds an extra layer of enjoyment.
"Mel Gibson on Judah Maccabee, Christopher Hitchens, and Circumcision" by Jeffrey Goldberg
One for the home team we admit, but remember: This interview went up on TheAtlantic.com hours after the news broke that Gibson and Joe Esterhaus (Joe Esterhaus!) were writing a Judah Maccabee movie. It also featured Mel Gibson telling a joke about foreskins and eyelids, and making sounds like "Aaargghhh!" and "Yecchhh."
Bruce Springsteen's Eulogy for Clarence Clemons
The eulogy Bruce Springsteen delivered at the August funeral for the musician and member of the E Street Band is a tough read, since it was written to be spoken. But it's informative and revealing in ways Springsteen probably never realized when he released the text. There's an undercurrent of frustration that borders on despair without the guitar Springsteen learned how to make talk all those years ago. It took time for him to accept his own best advice, that two hearts are better than one. Hearing that much of that strength came from Clarence is sobering if you're someone who gets much of your strength from Springsteen. Said The Bossman: "Clarence was big, and he made me feel, and think, and love, and dream big. How big was the Big Man? Too fucking big to die. And that’s just the facts." That's when you realize: Bruce Springsteen has lost his Bruce Springsteen.
"The Greatest Paper That Ever Died" by Alex French and Howie Kahn
Grantland did plenty of tremendous oral histories in 2011, but the best was the history of The National, the wildly ambitious national sports page that lasted for 18 months and cost investors $150 million before it closed in 1991. Scores are settled, profoundly stupid decisions are discussed with the clarity of hindsight, and the New York publishing world of the late-1980s comes alive again.
The Gated City by Ryan Avent
This e-book from The Economist's economics correspondent is more than just an engaging review of urban planning, written lively enough for those who would nod off just at the mention of the genre. It's an injunction to be excited about the city, as an engine of technological and social innovation and an underpinning of the national economy. But it is also, in the style of Ed Glaeser's The Triumph of Cities, an encouragement to those who already share an excitement about the advantages of urban redevelopment to reconsider their assumptions, and to ponder ways to shed needless burdens that prevent great cities from being greater. Avent points, for instance, toward San Francisco, that icon of prohibitively high-cost living. Streamlining urban policy so a middle class might move into the Bay Area wouldn't just be a nice thing to do for prospective residents; it would help the economy take better advantage of all that such an area is already doing well.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
There are reasons to be scared off: It's Wallace; it's, in some ways, a book about boredom; and it has the taint of being an unfinished novel, assembled by hands not really the author's. But this final novel is nonetheless remarkable. It feels unfinished, even if Wallace's editor, in an illuminating foreword, explains how he wanted story lines to rise up and then go unresolved. But the reader is in the presence, once again, of a tireless experimenter in a world both boringly real and fantastic. Pages attempting to reflect the quiet tedium of tax adjusters bent over work. A clairvoyant knowing the American Legion batting average of the maker of the Hostess cupcake he's eating. The simple, excruciating feeling of a boy in a room suddenly beginning heavily to sweat, a problem, after the stories that followed his early death, we now know Wallace felt in himself. The ambition and frequent mastery make this read well worth it.
– Ted Mann
"Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress" by By Bob Ivry, Bradley Keoun and Phil Kuntz
Just when you thought Ron Suskind's Confidence Men or Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail gave you everything you needed to know about the federal government's bailout of U.S. banks, a 4,000-word report comes along in late November and changes everything. And we mean everything. Take the Troubled Asset Relief Fund's previously-reported cost: $700 billion. It may very well have gone in the history books as the bold price tag of saving the economy. Thanks to Bloomberg Markets, we now know it was actually $7.77 trillion or "more than half the value of everything produced in the U.S. that year." What's more, Congress was left in the dark about the extent of the bailout even while it set about passing legislation to prevent future bailouts. “We’re absolutely, totally, 100 percent not prepared for another financial crisis,” former Senator Ted Kaufman tells the magazine. The scoop didn't come easy. A group of the biggest U.S. banks, the Clearing House Association, tried to block the reporters' Freedom of Information Act request in a legal battle that rose to the Supreme Court. Eventually, Bloomberg Markets won out, letting everyone gripe about the Federal Reserve's "secret bailout." It didn't come packaged with sexiest headline (you can thank "The Bloomberg Way" for that) but sometimes jaw-dropping, throughly-depressing journalism can speak for itself.
"Travis the Menace" by Dan P. Lee
After the tabloid headlines, the Oprah and Today Show appearances, it felt like there was little left to know about the 2009 chimpanzee attack that left Charla Nash mauled and Travis the chimpanzee dead. Indeed, you probably felt like you knew too much. But this feature in New York magazine impressively gave the story context: a tragic tale of one woman's devotion to a beast that did not belong in the human world.
"Lynda Barry Will Make You Believe In Yourself" by Dan Kois
Learning how a legendary cartoonist makes her bread after the web upended the old alt-weekly business model will tell you more about the changes sweeping through the media landscape than anything you could learn at a dozen of buzzword-blathering media panels. One can't help feel a sense of, well, injustice that Barry works the self-help circuit in southern Florida while her close pal and peer Matt Groeining mints millions with his Simpsons franchise. But there's hope in Barry's perseverance, too. She loves what she does and that, we're reminded, means everything.
"When Reality-TV Fame Runs Dry" by Kate Arthur
First off, there is no reason to believe that a single word of this story is true. Second, that doesn't really matter. There is really no other way that Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag's performance art spectacle could end but with a confessional about how much they regret ever indulging in years of pretending for the cameras. "This isn’t a business. That was the big thing I didn’t get: Reality TV is not a career," Pratt tells The Daily Beast. "Anyone who says, ‘Oh, you can have a career in reality’—that is a lie.” Does Pratt believe that? Or is this simply another plot line the fakesters conjured to keep us interested (and thus to further their career in reality)? Let's not think about too much and just enjoy bidding them farewell.
"The Quaid Conspiracy" by Nancy Jo Sales
Randy Quaid's descent from Hollywood's lovable doofus to bona fide crazy person was cataloged in the gossip columns, but this Vanity Fair piece explained how they all fit together, and unfortunately it seemed to come largely down to his second wife, Evi. Sales explains their bizarre theories of Hollywood Star Whackers and how they came to be living out of a car in Vancouver, but she also persuades that this is a tragic love story. "You can call her crazy, you can call her whatever you want," Quaid is quoted near the end. "But she is my lifeline, and if she wasn’t with me, I don’t know where I’d be."
"The Dubai Job" by Ronen Bergman
Like any good spy yarn, this account of the Mossad's mission-gone-wrong to kill a Hamas leader in Dubai features plenty of spycraft tick-tock, suspense, and international intrigue. But published in GQ at the very beginning of a year that would feature its fair share of extrajudicial killings, it also served as a warning of turning James Bond into foreign policy.