My Top 5 (or 10) Longreads of 2011

The wonderful site Longreads is collecting “5 Favorite Longreads” from a variety of writers, editors, and other folks. They were kind enough to ask me for mine. They appear at Longreads — and for faithful readers here, below as well. Do check out the other lists at Longreads as well.


Truly we live, as Steve Silberman said, in a time of longform renaissance.  The reading year was notable not just for the rise of many long reads and Longreads, but for the debut of The Atavist and Byliner, two new venues for publishing pieces too long for magazines but too short for books. Both, like Longreads, brought me lots of good reading. And The Atavist, which was first off the blocks, let me publish a story, My Mother’s Lover, for which I had tried but failed to find the right length and form for almost a decade. Cheers to Longreads for helping spearhead this renaissance—and to you, Constant Reader, for doing the reading that in all but the most immediate sense makes the writing possible.

Here are my top 5 longreads of 2011, plus some extras. My filter: a combination of what I thought best and what continued to resonate with me. Writing is hard. I’m moved by the dedication to craft in these pieces.

“Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” by Amy Harmon, New York Times

Harmon pulls off something extraordinarily difficult here: she draws on little more than straight reportorial observation to show a young autistic man moving out into a world that struggles to accommodate him. Neither is quite ready for the other; yet they engage, as they must. Gorgeously structured and an immense reward. (Bonus: She later tells how she put it together.)

Janet Malcolm’s “Art of Nonfiction” interview in Paris Review

Malcolm has written several of the best books I’ve ever read; The Silent Woman haunts me more on every reading. Here she reveals how she did it: a rigorous method wielded by a powerful mind and rarefied sensibility. Equally moving and informative were the Paris Review interview with John McPheeand a Chris Jones conversation with Gay Talese. I am now in love with Talese, though he never calls.

“Study of a lifetime,” by Helen Pearson, Nature

Pearson, Nature’s features editor, shows how fine science writing is done, following a set of researchers researching a set of people and they’re all trying to figure out the same thing: How to make sense of their lives. Lovely stuff, true to complex, incredibly valuable science about complex, richly textured lives.

“Climbers: A team of young cyclists tries to outrun the past,” by Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker

Young Rwandan cyclists try to ride into the future. Some rough road, some find riding (and writing).

“California and Bust,” by Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair

California as a formerly developed country. Includes deftly rendered bicycle ride with former governor Schwarzenegger. Lewis is writing some of the best stuff out there right now.

Okay that was 5 and then some. But these I couldn’t omit:

“The Apostate,” Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker

The Church of Scientology versus Wright and the New Yorker fact-checking department. Former is overmatched.

“The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist,” by Rich Shapiro, Wired

Riveting and bizarre.

“The Promise,” by Joe Posnanski, at Joe Blogs

Promises made, broken, and kept, variously, by Bruce Springsteen, the United States of America, and Posnanski’s dad. 4 stars easy, 5 if you love Bruce. And who doesn’t?

“What Made This University Researcher Snap?” by Amy Wallace, Wired

How and why a scientist went postal.

too many Daves, by David Quigg

Blatant cheating, as this is a blog, and Quigg almost always writes very short posts But he’s reading long stuff, all good, and responding to it beautifully as writer and reader; almost no one gets so much done in so little space. If you harbor even a spark of literary love, he’ll fan it. Was he who pointed me to the  Didion video at top.


Video: Joan Didion reading from Blue Nights. Haven’t read it yet; skeered to.

Disclosures: The Atavist and Nature published stories of mine this year, (actually a separate outfit from Wired the magazine) hosts my blog.

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