The Top 10 Longreads of 2011
December 17, 2011
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1. Travis the Menace
Dan P. Lee | New York Magazine | Jan. 24, 2011 | 24 minutes (6,096 words)
The heartbreaking, horrifying story of a chimp named Travis and the Connecticut couple that raised him like a son. Lee followed Travis's path from local celebrity to fully grown (and violent) adult:
"Stamford's animal-control officer was more concerned. After contacting primatologists, she spoke with Sandy, arguing that Travis was by now a fully sexualized adult (chimpanzees in the wild have sex, nonmonogamously, as often as 50 times a day); that he had the strength of at least five men; that adult chimpanzees are known to be unpredictable and potentially violent (which is why all chimp actors are prepubescent); and that maintaining Travis for the duration of his five- or six-decade lifetime was not viable. Sandy seemed to pay an open mind to the officer's warning but ultimately concluded that Travis had never exhibited even the slightest capacity for violence."
"Travis" was the first in a "tabloid-with-empathy" trilogy from Lee: He also brought humanity to the story of Anna Nicole Smith ("Paw Paw & Lady Love") and wrote about Harold Camping, the elderly doomsayer who never quite got his apocalypse calendar right ("After the Rapture").
More Lee: "Body Snatchers" (Philadelphia Magazine, 2008)
2. Vanishing Act
A child-prodigy author mysteriously disappears. Barbara Follett was 13 when her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927:
Paul Collins | Lapham's Quarterly | Dec. 17, 2010 | 15 minutes (3,837 words)
"Through the door could be heard furious clacking and carriage returns: the sound, in fact, of an eight-year-old girl writing her first novel.
"In 1923, typewriters were hardly a child’s plaything, but to those following the family of critic and editor Wilson Follett, it was a grand educational experiment. He’d already written of his daughter Barbara in Harper’s, describing a girl who by the age of three was consumed with letters and words. 'She was always seeing A’s in the gables of houses and H’s in football goalposts,' he recalled. One day she’d wandered into Wilson’s office and discovered his typewriter.
"'Tell me a story about it,' she demanded.
"This was Barbara’s way of asking for any explanation, and after he demonstrated the wondrous machine, she took to it fiercely. A typewriter, her parents realized, could unleash a torrential flow of thoughts from a gifted child who still lacked the coordination to write in pencil."
This was from December 2010, but it came out after last year's best-of list was published. It's also on The Awl editors' best-of-2011 list. I still think about this story constantly.
More Collins: "The Molecatcher's Daughter" (The Believer, 2006)
3. In Which We Teach You How to Be a Woman in Any Boy's Club
Molly Lambert | This Recording | Feb. 22, 2011 | 11 minutes (2,825 words)
A manifesto for the modern woman:
"'What If I Love Being The Only Girl In The Boys Club?' Megan Fox Syndrome, aka Wendy from Peter Pan. It is the delusion that you can become an official part of the boys' club if you are its strictest enforcer, its most useful prole. That if you follow the rules exactly you can become the Official Woman. If you refuse other women admission you are denying that other women are talented, which makes you just as bad as any boys' club for thinking there would only be one talented girl at a time.
"You will never actually be part of the boys' club, because you are a woman. You are Ray Liotta in 'Goodfellas.' You are not Italian, therefore you are never going to get made. And you don't want to be a part of the boys' club, because it is dedicated to preserving its own privilege at your expense. Why wouldn't you want to know and endorse the work of other women who share your interests? How insecure are you?"
I can think of at least ten other personal essays that blew me away this year, but Lambert's seemed to completely take over our conversations, online and off.
More from This Recording in 2011: "Where We All Will Be Received" (Nell Boeschenstein)
4. A Murder Foretold
David Grann | The New Yorker | March 28, 2011 | 57 minutes (14,318 words)
A political conspiracy in Guatemala and the murder of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who created a video predicting his own killing in 2009:
"Rosenberg told friends that his apartment was under surveillance, and that he was being followed. 'Whenever he got into the car, he was looking over his shoulder,' his son Eduardo recalled. From his apartment window, Rosenberg could look across the street and see an office where Gustavo Alejos, President Colom’s private secretary, often worked. Rosenberg told Mendizábal that Alejos had called him and warned him to stop investigating the Musas’ murders, or else the same thing might happen to him. Speaking to Musa’s business manager, Rosenberg said of the powerful people he was investigating, 'They are going to kill me.' He had a will drawn up."
Obviously, with David Grann, it's never so straightforward.
More from the New Yorker in 2011: Clarence Thomas, Michele Bachmann, a small-town pharmacist and a Jamaican drug lord
5. A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home
Michael Kruse | St. Petersburg Times | July 22, 2011 | 10 minutes (2,735 words)
A reporter retraces the last years of a woman who slipped away from society:
"Kathryn Norris moved to Florida in 1990. She was intelligent and driven, say those who knew her back in Ohio, but she could be difficult. She held grudges. She had been laid off from her civil service job, and her marriage of 14 years was over, and so she came looking for sunshine. She knew nobody. Using money from her small pension, she bought the Cherie Down townhouse, $84,900 new. It was a short walk to the sounds of the surf and just up A1A from souvenir stores selling trinkets with messages of PARADISE FOUND.
"She started a job making $32,000 a year as a buyer of space shuttle parts for a subcontractor for NASA. She went out on occasion with coworkers for cookouts or cocktails. She talked a lot about her ex-husband. She started having some trouble keeping up at the office and was diagnosed in December of 1990 as manic depressive.
"After the diagnosis, she made daily notes on index cards. She ate at Arby's, Wendy's, McDonald's. Sometimes she did sit-ups and rode an exercise bike. She read the paper. She got the mail. She went to sleep at 8 p.m., 1:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m. Her heart raced.
"'Dropped fork at lunch,' she wrote.
"'Felt depressed in evening and cried.'
"'Noise outside at 4 a.m. sounded like a dog.'"
Once you finish this piece, read the annotated version of this story, in which Kruse breaks down exactly how he reported each fact from Kathryn Norris's life. Incredible.
More from the St. Petersburg Times in 2011: "Spectacle: The Lynching of Claude Neal" (Ben Montgomery)
6. What Really Happened Aboard Air France Flight 447
Jeff Wise | Popular Mechanics | Dec. 6, 2011 | 17 minutes (4,253 words)
A fatal human error, repeated over and over again, as the reader observes helplessly. Writer Jeff Wise uses pilot transcripts to deconstruct, conversation by conversation, wrong move by wrong move, how bad weather and miscommunication between the pilots in the cockpit doomed this Airbus 330, which plunged into the Atlantic in 2009, killing 228 people:
"02:11:21 (Robert) On a pourtant les moteurs! Qu'est-ce qui se passe bordel? Je ne comprends pas ce que se passe. (We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don't understand what's happening.)
"Unlike the control yokes of a Boeing jetliner, the side sticks on an Airbus are 'asynchronous'—that is, they move independently. 'If the person in the right seat is pulling back on the joystick, the person in the left seat doesn't feel it,' says Dr. David Esser, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. 'Their stick doesn't move just because the other one does, unlike the old-fashioned mechanical systems like you find in small planes, where if you turn one, the [other] one turns the same way.' Robert has no idea that, despite their conversation about descending, Bonin has continued to pull back on the side stick.
"The men are utterly failing to engage in an important process known as crew resource management, or CRM. They are failing, essentially, to cooperate. It is not clear to either one of them who is responsible for what, and who is doing what. This is a natural result of having two co-pilots flying the plane. 'When you have a captain and a first officer in the cockpit, it's clear who's in charge,' Nutter explains. 'The captain has command authority. He's legally responsible for the safety of the flight. When you put two first officers up front, it changes things. You don't have the sort of traditional discipline imposed on the flight deck when you have a captain.'"
This, along with "Travis the Menace" and Wired's "The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist," was one of the most heart-stopping of the year.
See also: "The Unlikely Event" (Avi Steinberg, Paris Review)
7. Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World
Amy Harmon | The New York Times | Sept. 18, 2011 | 30 minutes (7,524 words)
A year in the life of an autistic teen moving into adulthood—a time when support systems can begin to fall away:
"Many autistic high school students are facing the adult world with elevated expectations of their own. Justin, who relied on a one-on-one aide in school, had by age 17 declared his intention to be a 'famous animator-illustrator.' He also dreamed of living in his own apartment, a goal he seemed especially devoted to when, say, his mother asked him to walk the dog.
"'I prefer I move to the apartment,' he would say, reluctantly setting aside the notebook he spent hours filling with tiny, precise replicas of every known animated character.
"'I prefer I move to the apartment, too,' his father, Briant, a pharmaceutical company executive, replied on hard days.
"Over the year that a New York Times reporter observed it, the transition program at Montclair High served as a kind of boot camp in community integration that might also be, for Justin, a last chance. Few such services are available after high school. And Justin was entitled to public education programs, by federal law, until only age 21."
Harmon's was one of several outstanding pieces this year on the subject of autism. Also see Steve Silberman on John Elder Robison, an author with Asperger syndrome.
More from Amy Harmon: "A Son of the Bayou, Torn Over Shrimping Life"
8. The Girl from Trails End
Kathy Dobie | GQ Magazine | Sept. 6, 2011 | 26 minutes (6,657 words)
Revisiting the Texas gang-rape story, and a reminder about protecting our youngest victims. Dobie spends time with the girl's family and attempts to understand how some members of the community could jump to the defense of the 19 men and boys accused:
"While the gag order did silence the defendants and the officials, it didn't come close to quieting the rumors and accusations, the ill-informed but passionate opinions, the confusion and muddy thinking that obscured what should've been a clear-cut case of statutory rape: An 11-year-old child cannot consent to having sex. But a deep misunderstanding of the law persisted—of why it exists and the morality it is meant to express, as did an even deeper ignorance of children's brains and the true nature of vulnerability.
"The most confused of all were the young people of Cleveland, the vast majority of whom sided with the boys and men and blamed Regina [not her real name]. The peer pressure to take sides—if you can even call it that, for at times it seemed like a mob versus one girl, all alone—was immense. Even the kind ones, the ones who called themselves her friends, had decided against her. In a Facebook conversation, a 13-year-old who was a cousin of one of the defendants said that Regina was 'like my best friend n i love her' but went on to write that 'she ask for them to do that to her i do not care becuss thats just gross n i will never do that.... she like a slut type of girl.' At 13, this girl could no more grasp the susceptibility of an 11-year-old than an anorexic can see herself clearly in a mirror."
Just one of many outstanding pieces from GQ this year, including "The Movie Set that Ate Itself," essays from John Jeremiah Sullivan, "Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph High School Basketball Scandal," and a fun collection of oral histories.
More Dobie: "The Long Shadow of War" (Dec. 2007)
9. A Sister's Eulogy for Steve Jobs
Mona Simpson | The New York Times | Oct. 30, 2011 | 9 minutes (2,383 words)
The final moments, and unforgettable last words, of a technology visionary's life:
"He told me, when he was saying goodbye and telling me he was sorry, so sorry we wouldn’t be able to be old together as we’d always planned, that he was going to a better place.
"Dr. Fischer gave him a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.
"He made it through the night, Laurene next to him on the bed sometimes jerked up when there was a longer pause between his breaths. She and I looked at each other, then he would heave a deep breath and begin again.
"This had to be done. Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.
"He seemed to be climbing.
"But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.
"Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times."
Steve Jobs tributes poured in during October and November, including a touching tribute from veteran tech journalist Steven Levy. Some of the best reading came from Steve himself, with his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech.
See also: The Steve Jobs archive on Longreads
10. Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library
Maria Bustillos | The Awl | April 5, 2011 | 38 minutes (9,439 words)
The ultimate DFW fan goes on a road trip to see what was on his bookshelves and pore over the marginalia for clues about his life:
"One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace's library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.
"Much of Wallace's work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace's legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace's work."
After this was published, Bustillos kept going. In 2011 she also dissected the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, as well as Wikipedia and Aaron Swartz, among other topics.
See more longreads from The Awl in 2011
See the rest of the Longreads community's Top 5 of 2011 lists: Including contributions from the New York Times Magazine staff, Sady Doyle, 5280 Magazine editor Geoff Van Dyke, and more.
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