The Best of a Best Reading List

If you’re looking for good reading, you can find plenty — including some stellar science pieces — in Conor Friedersdorf’s post of Nearly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism at the Atlantic. Here is my short list taken from his long one. Italicized comments are mine.

Last Days Of The Comanches by S.C. Gwynne | Texas Monthly

“By the autumn of 1871, the Western frontier was rolling backward, retreating in the face of savage Indian attacks. When a ragtag army of federal soldiers arrived on the Llano Estacado to crush the hostile natives once and for all, they had numbers and firepower on their side. What they didn’t know was that their enemies were led by Quanah Parker, a half-white war chief who may have been the greatest fighter of his time.” Some history! Praise God! Plus I’m glad to see Texas Monthly, a long-time favorite of mine from my native state, included here. Friedersdorf wrongly identifies the publication as the Texas Observer, another long-time favorite of mine. Some people get those great Texas magazines mixed up.

The Promise by Joe Posnanski | Joe’s Blog

The story of Bruce Springsteen’s most moving song, how it got recorded, and the way it captures certain truths about working class life better than anything else. This piece — a blog post — has a wee bit (but just a wee bit) of flab here and there, but it’s one of the most emotionally powerful things I’ve read lately. The more so, probably, because my older son called it to my attention.

The Chemist’s War by Deborah Blum | Slate

The strangely forgotten story of “how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition,” ultimately killing perhaps 10,000 Americans. Blum is on fire on this subject, which she explores at depth in The Poisoner’s Handbook.

The Chess Master And The Supercomputer by Garry Kasparov | The New York Review of Books

One of the world’s most accomplished chess champions reflects on how CPUs changed his game.  Fantastic.

Invasion by Tom Junod | Esquire

The subject is ants: “If you think the numbers sound like abstractions, if you wonder what deranged census-taker came to the conclusion that in the shadow of each and every human being there lives a hidden host of 1.6 million, well, that only means you haven’t attempted the experiment of peacefully coexisting with them.”  Haven’t read it; looks interesting, and I’m glad to see ants in Esquire.

Autism’s First Child by John Donvan and Karen Zucker | The Atlantic

The life story of the first person ever diagnosed with autism – and the hope his long, happy life holds for the one in 110 children who suffer from the condition. Rightly lauded far and wide.

The Distant Executioner by William Langewiesche | Vanity Fair

Inside the spooky world of America’s warrior sharpshooters, “the sniper’s special talents and torments,” and how they cope.  Haven’t read it yet, but Langewiesche rarely misses.

Generation Why by Zadie Smith | The New York Review of Books

A review of The Social Network. And a meditation on the ways that technology can shape and change how we think and behave toward one another. I had a couple quibbles with this, but it’s a great read.

This Is A News Website Article About A Scientific Paper by Martin Robbins | The Guardian

A spot on parody. What he said.

Consider The Oyster by Gary Cartwright | Texas Monthly

An unparalleled ode to the oyster – and a regretful premonition of its possible demise. Cartwright has been killing it for TM since I read it in Houston as a teenager. He’s still killing it.

The Jihadist Next Door by Andrea Elliott | The New York Times Magazine

As a 15-year-old, Omar Hammami had just been elected president of his sophomore class at an Alabama high school. A decade later, he was on the eastern edge of Africa leading a brutal Islamist insurgency. Why?

The Comedian’s Comedian’s Comedian By Amy Wallace | GQ

An inquiry into Gary Shandling as comic innovator: it hints at what humor might look like if our cultural obsession with irony makes space for an earnest but sophisticated avant garde. Wallace has been on quite a roll. Glad to see her in here.

The Lost Girls by Mimi Swartz | Texas Monthly

The sex trade is thriving in Houston – and many of the people working in it are little better off than slaves. Like Cartwright, Swartz has long been under-recognized nationally because she writes for a regional. Glad to see their work called out here.

Beware Of Greeks Bearing Bonds by Michael Lewis | Vanity Fair

“How on earth do monks wind up as Greece’s best shot at a Harvard Business School case study?” Michael Lewis descends on the country to find out, and discovers a peculiar brand of fiscal madness.  A masterpiece — wildly funny, incredibly informative, and with a understated bombload of vital spleen and damnation at the end. It’s also a great model for science writing: 11,000 words about finance, and never bogged down in jargon.

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