Ever since college, I've made a habit of reading the annual compilation of The Best American Magazine Writing. I recently finished the 2012 edition, and as always, found truly great writing and articles. This is one of the best editions in years, and they are always good. I didn't find one piece skippable. The thing about reading it, though, is that I want to share it and talk to people about what I read! Here are the award-winning and nominated pieces from the book, I recommend them all. Save the links to some of the articles that may interest you for your subway ride, lunch hour, downtime, etc. (And then maybe come back here and tell me what you thought.)
01 "Joplin!" by Luke Dittrich, Esquire [Winner - Feature Writing]
The first piece in the anthology, I have to admit this made me cry on the subway. Dittrich paints a wonderful and terrifying portrait of a group of people who hide in a convenience store beer freezer during the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri. It made me appreciate my life.
02 "The Apostate" by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker [Winner - Reporting]
I remember spending an entire lunch hour reading this when it was first posted online, and I was not surprised when I opened the book to see it there as a winner. Wright talks to Paul Haggis, famous director and Scientology defector, and delves into the rumors about the religion--to the point where a group of Scientologists showed up at The New Yorker offices to debate his research.
03 Excerpts from "The Encyclopedia of 9/11" by New York Magazine [Winner - Single Topic Issue]
Ten years later, and it's still hard to read about. The encyclopedic structure made it almost scientific, but did not take away any of the emotion. Especially the entries for 'Blue,' 'FDNY,' 'Good-Bye,' 'Television News,' and 'Total Progressive Collapse.' Since not all the entries were featured in the anthology, I'm starting to go through the others online.
04 "Wall Street Isn't Winning--It's Cheating" by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone [Finalist - Commentary, Digital Media]
I've read Taibbi in past editions of this anthology, and I admire his anger and the ability with which he is able to articulate his points eloquently. After he describes a writer on television news dismissing the Occupy Wall Street movement because he believes "the protesters are driven by envy of the rich," Taibbi states why this is a stupid assertion, quite clearly, and for much longer than below:
...the worse the economy got, the more being a millionaire or a billionaire somehow became a qualification for high office, as people flocked to voting booths to support politicians with names like Bloomberg and Rockefeller and Corzine, names that to voters symbolized success and expertise at a time when few people seemed to have answers. At last count, there were 245 millionaires in congress, including 66 in the Senate.
And we hate the rich? Come on. Success is the national religion, and almost everyone is a believer. Americans love winners. But that's just the problem. These guys on Wall Street are not winning – they're cheating. And as much as we love the self-made success story, we hate the cheater that much more.I've added his column to my RSS feeder. The book also featured "Mike Bloomberg's Marie Antoinette Moment" and "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the OWS Protests."
05 "Too Much Information" by John Jeremiah Sullivan, GQ [Finalist - Essays and Criticism]
A great piece on the late David Foster Wallace's impact on the literary world, what it has lost, and thoughts on his final, unfinished novel.
06 "Our Man in Kandahar" by Matthieu Aikins, The Atlantic [Finalist - Reporting]
Aikins reports from Afghanistan about Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar and U.S. ally. He spent two years investigating the rumors of Raziq's brutality; it's startling.
07 "Arms and the Dudes" by Guy Lawson, Rolling Stone [Finalist - Feature Writing]
So a couple of 20-year-olds win a military contract to buy and ship arms to the war efforts in Afghanistan. This is so strange, I laughed as I read the opening paragraphs. I actually read part of it out loud to Jesse.
08 "The Invisible Army" by Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker [Winner - Public Interest]
If you read anything on this page, read this. There's a reason this is the public interest winner -- it's about something I had no clue was happening, and didn't even think about. Who are the workers at those far-flung U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan? The workers at the PX and who clean the barracks and run the salons? This is astonishing to read.
09 "The Secret That Kills Four Women a Day" by Liz Brody, Glamour [Winner - Personal Service]
A scary article that everyone should read, not only women.
10 "The Signature Wound" by Bob Drury, Men's Health [Finalist - Public Interest]
Currently only available online as a Kindle Single, Drury's report describes what it's like for soldier's to come back from war, not only without legs, but also without genitals--the injury rarely spoken about. Drury talks to soldiers at Walter Reed and explains why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing more of these kinds of wounds. After this article was published, there were significant changes in military policy.
11 "Fractured" by Susan Ince, Good Housekeeping [Finalist - Personal Service]
Another article that changed policy, you should read this if you have a mom, and probably pass it along to her (I did!) just in case she's taking preventative medicine for osteoporosis. The article demonstrates that a certain type of medicine actually has far worse side effects.
12 "Dewayne Dedmon's Leap of Faith" by Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated [Finalist - Profile Writing]
I look forward to the sports pieces in this anthology ever since I was introduced to the great sportswriter Gary Smith in an earlier edition. For all the terrible things that are reported about in sports these days, there are still great stories. Ballard's profile of a seriously tall young man who wasn't allowed to play basketball due to religion is a just one of those great stories, told over the span of years.
13 "Paper Tigers" by Wesley Yang, New York Magazine [Winner - Essays and Criticism]
In this critical take on Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yang writes as himself, an Asian-American, talks to others, and reports on the stereotype of the studious, successful Asian-American. The 'tiger mother' upbringing and test-taking ends at some point. An insightful piece.
14 "Game of Her Life" by Tim Crothers, ESPN the Magazine [Finalist - Profile Writing]
The unlikely story of a teenage chess champion from a slum in Uganda. Crothers juxtaposes her impoverished home life and the opportunities learning chess has given her -- like a flight to Russia to face off against other great chess players.
15 "He Is Anonymous" by Tim Rogers, D Magazine [Winner - Profile Writing]
The computer hacker group Anonymous has been making headlines ever since their crusade on Scientology began years ago, and most recently about the terrible Steubenville 'Rape Crew.' This winning profile talks to one of the 'Anonymous' hacktivists, and it's at times funny (sometimes reminding me of that '90s movie Hackers), but mostly informative. Here's your look at what makes up Anonymous.
16 "The Right to Write" by William Zinsser, The American Scholar [Winner - Commentary, Digital Media]
Zinsser is in his late eighties, and if you took any writing classes, you may have had to read his book. I thoroughly enjoyed the three columns here, but mostly this one, for this: "Sorry to be so harsh, but I don’t like people telling other people they shouldn’t write about their life. All of us earn that right by being born; one of the deepest human impulses is to leave a record of what we did and what we thought and felt on our journey." See also: "Looking for a Model" and "Content Management" (unavailable online).
17 "America's Next Top Weiner" by Joel Stein, Time [Finalist - Columns and Commentary]
Witty columns about pop culture, obviously I laughed along. See also: "Duck Tape" and "The End of Kardaschadenfreude."
18 "The Hox River Window" by Karen Russell, Zoetrope: All-Story [Winner - Fiction]
When I first started this short story, I was a bit bored after all the non-fiction I'd been reading up to this point. However, by the third page I was riveted and by the end I had goosebumps. Unfortunately, the whole story is not available online.
19 "From Abbottabad to Worse" by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair [Winner - Columns and Commentary]
I didn't always agree with the late and great Hitchens, but I will always be in awe of his eloquent writing and rhetoric. His opinions are displayed rationally and with a certain distinguished emotion--he never lacks conviction and passion for what he believes in (or does not believe in, as it were). This column is about Pakistan, "When the King Saved God" is about the beginnings of the English-language bible (he is a famous atheist), and most poignantly is "Unspoken Truths," about being diagnosed with cancer and facing, unexpectedly, losing one's voice. (Unfortunately, this column is not posted online.)
I KNOW THAT'S A LOT. But like I said, come here if you are ever for lack of reading. Sometimes I'm at work and I think I've 'conquered' the internet, but then I look up any new works by authors I've read in past editions. I recommend all of these, but if you wanted to narrow it down I'd read (as numbered above): 01, 04, 08, 09, 10, 11, 13, and 19. Okay, that's still a lot.
Hope you enjoy!
Photos by artist Thomas Allen