longreads" of 2011. I tried to leave out pieces that you now have to pay for (most of the stuff in the New Yorker). So the cool thing about these is that--unlike the stuff I normally talk about--you can access them immediately, for free, and read them in one sitting!
Evolve by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
Orion is a stellar environmental magazine that I had never heard of until a piece about the intelligence of octopuses* got passed around a few months ago. In October they published this piece, Evolve, about the essential role of technology in solving the environmental problems of the present and future, and in the process fairly brutally deconstructed the liberal-and-academic-led, Western pro-environmental movement. This article has literally changed the way I think about environmental issues, at least a little bit. I read it very recently, so I'm not sure what to say about it yet, but it's my recommendation number 1, for sure!
Unnamed Caved by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Earlier this year I saw Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about 32,000-year old (!!!) cave art in France. I haven't really mentioned it to anyone, because I'm not sure how to process what I saw, but the movie left an impression on me, and I haven't been able to shake some of the images. There's something deeply fascinating to me about people (like--human beings!), enough far removed from us by time that to be in so many ways unknowable, crawling into dark lonely caves in order to scrape approximations of animals on the walls that no one could ever hope to see but other, similarly-minded human beings. The bizarre-ness of that kind of behavior seems to say something salient about what we are, but I'm not sure how to parse it.
Anyway, that brings us to John Jeremiah Sullivan, who is a great writer, and who released a book this year of his essays, most of which I've been able to find online with their original publishers. His essay about the ancient cave art on this side of the pond is excellent and fascinating. It's always nice to remember that the indigenous people here had their own (often terrible, bloody) history--that they weren't just chilling and waiting for white guys like me to show up. And we'll probably never know what any of it means. Who doesn't love an unsolvable mystery?
Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library by Maria Bustillos
David Foster Wallace has become an icon to writers my age and a little older, and it's not hard to understand why: his books are smart and inventive and hip, they are both exceptionally academic and arty, he speaks in interviews the way all smart people imagine they speak (but don't), and--as this surprising piece points out--he sought salvation from his considerable demons in some unlikely but understandable places. He was generous in a very particular way, or seemed to be publicly which is just as good. I've read lots about addiction and recovery, and none of it has stuck with me so much as the five paragraphs allegedly written by an anonymous DFW, uncovered in this article.
Looking for Someone by Nick Paumgarten
I find this fascinating more as someone with a social science education than as a person who might ever use an online dating service (though--sure, why not!). I had just always assumed that these sites must be more or less identical, save for their vague reputation--and therefore their clientele. But it turns out that dating sites take radically different approaches to finding their users matches. Which is to say that they take radically different stances on what it is that makes a good match in the first place.
Dangerous Worlds: Teaching Film in Prison by Ann Sintow
An article about a woman who decides to teach a course about feminism to prisoners, and chooses to do so subtly--laterally--through a bunch of movies. Their slow understanding (or not) of the principles she introduces reminded me a lot of what it was like to be an undergraduate.
BONUS: It was written in 2004, but I read John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Upon This Rock" this year and it is very good. It's about a Christian Rock festival--sort of. As an ex-Christian-fundamentalist who moved through more liberal theology to what is essentially atheism... I have high standards about the portrayal of American fundamentalists. One side tends to not be critical enough, the other far too much. But Sullivan, having gone through a similar journey, gets it. He knows that it's wrong. But he's also intimate with its virtues. The last section almost made me cry!
*Octopi is a dumb word.