20 Great Reads of 2015
December 16, 2015
Here is a sampling of the best nonfiction articles of the year.
Jennifer Percy – The New York Times Magazine
“Like Marlow on his way up the Congo, these men seemed to experience a disturbance in their Western consciousness. … These were men who arrived with a stark idea of good versus evil, who thought of themselves as heroes, and found themselves turning in circles.”
In this surprising and chilling work of journalism, Jennifer Percy describes a surreal scene of age-old Western folly. Americans leave everything they know and arrive in the Middle East with high ideals, a sense of adventure, delusions of grandeur. They are handed heavy weaponry. Some of them kill ISIS militants. Others struggle to fill “purposeless days” and “sleepless nights.” Rumors abound: a man who pets dead militants’ bodies, social media feuds, a head-butting incident. Despite their ambitions, these symbolic American saviors do little but add to the chaos.
Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Atlantic
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
In this excerpt from his book “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the vulnerability of black bodies in America. Racism, he writes, is often put in academic terms, but it is, at its core, visceral: “it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” The history, the economics, the statistics, his childhood in Baltimore, the threat of the police, his fear for his son — all of it is ultimately a physical fear. This story, lyrically told, comes from a place of great pain, but is also finds meaning in the unending struggle for justice.
William Finnegan – The New Yorker
“The gold rush at the top of the world.”
In the highest-elevation human settlement in the world, miners tunnel deep into the earth for gold. This Peruvian town, La Rinconada, is a surreal, oxygen-starved place. Clouds and mist mingle with smoke and dust. A glacier named Sleeping Beauty hangs above the town. Contradictions everywhere, residents follow the veins of the earth, chew coca leaves, spread folklore: the man who traded his soul for gold, the child who was sacrificed to the mountain gods. In this epic work of journalism, William Finnegan nearly touches the sky.
Rebecca Solnit – Harper’s Magazine
“Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like.”
Some questions aren’t questions at all. Some of them “push you into the herd or nip at you for diverging from it”; some “contain their own answers.” Rebecca Solnit describes our obsession with happiness (“Are you happy?”), and society’s narrow prescription for it. Especially for women: marriage, childbirth, wealth. This universal recipe is no guarantee of inner peace, yet we ostracize those who stray from it. Like Edward Snowden, who gave up “happiness” (good job, Hawaiian home) for a higher ideal. In truth, there are no easy answers. For women, for anyone, really. As Solnit writes: “The art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.”
N.R. Kleinfield – The New York Times
“He had lain there for a while, nothing to announce his departure to the world, while the hyperkinetic city around him hurried on with its business.”
George Bell was an obscure man: “a simple name, two syllables, the minimum. There were no obvious answers as to who he was or what shape his life had taken. What worries weighed on him. Whom he loved and who loved him.” When he died, he lay still for days. No one knocked or mourned. Still, his death activated countless “cogs in the city’s complicated machinery of mortality.” George Bell’s body was identified. Cremated. Belongings auctioned off. A car, a watch. Apartment cleaned with care. Money inherited by strangers. In this solemn eulogy, N.R. Kleinfield illuminates one man who died alone.
Svetlana Alexievich – Granta
“I wanted to help her; she thought I wanted to kill her. The way she ran away, the way she shuddered, how afraid she was of me are things I’ll never forget. I had set out for Afghanistan with idealism blazing in my eyes.”
This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature has written polyphonic, intimate accounts of an impersonal, enormous empire: the Soviet Union. This piece, told hauntingly from the perspective of Russian citizens, is about the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Through Alexievich, they describe the glory, and then the devastation, of war. A veteran describes decades-old cans of fish — rations. A wife describes the dread of the funeral cars in town. A press officer describes the superstition: if you were photographed before battle, you died. A mother lies on top of a coffin made of zinc: “I couldn’t kiss him one last time, or touch him, I didn’t even know what he was wearing, I just talked to the coffin like a madwoman.”
Patrick Radden Keefe – The New Yorker
“Judy Clarke excelled at saving the lives of notorious killers. Then she took the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.”
Judy Clarke successfully defended the worst of the worst — the Unabomber, a 9/11 conspirator, and the gunman who wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords — from the death penalty. This profile describes her as a woman of rare compassion who is genuinely curious about her clients. A colleague remarked, “Judy is fascinated by what makes people tick—what drives people to commit these kinds of crimes. People aren’t born evil. She has a very deep and abiding faith in that idea.” Recently, she took the case of the Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Her work, this case especially, surrounds her with horrors. For motivation, she invokes this mantra: “None of us, not any one of us, wants to be defined by the worst day or the worst hour or the worst moment of our lives.”
Rebecca Giggs – Granta
“A toddler started to cry and the whale made a cracked, tubular noise. Everyone tightened in the chest and ribs. … Stillness stepped through the crowd: desperation; vigil.”
In this evocative piece of nature writing, Rebecca Giggs witnesses the death of a giant. A humpback whale in the sand, writhing, breathing until it wasn’t. Its blubber, insulating in the deep ocean, was torturous on land; the whale was “boiling alive in the kettle of itself.” Among humans, reactions vary: the whale is a spectacle, then an educational opportunity, then a spiritual connection, and then tragedy. Nothing could ease the suffering, the birds pecking “avian hieroglyphs in the whale’s back.”
George Packer – The New Yorker
“Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?”
The November terrorist attacks in Paris were committed by European nationals. Questions have been raised: Is Islam compatible with European values? Are immigrants assimilating? Are feelings of alienation driving young Muslims to terror? In this prescient article (it was published in August), George Packer tries to answer the latter question. He examines the banlieues, immigrant slums, of Paris. These neighborhoods are diverse, but also poor and sometimes, politically marginalized. Packer profiles one resident, Fouad Ben Ahmed, a community leader who shouts down bigotry, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. He extends his gaze to murky prisons, provocative entertainers, French ideals and the allure of terror.
Jon Pareles – The New York Times
“In order for me to feel confident with one of my songs it has to really move me.”
A brief but intimate look into the singer who shattered records with her latest album, “25.” Her previous album, “21,” was a flurry of fame and emotion: the roar of songs like “Rolling in the Deep,” the Grammys sweep, the vocal hemorrhage. Recently, she has retreated into relative anonymity: no social media, no product endorsements. Her latest, sudden release is a reintroduction to simpler things. In the opening track, she sings, “Hello, it’s me/ I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet.”
Emily Eakin – The New Yorker
“A brilliant surgeon offered an untested treatment to dying patients. Was it innovation or overreach?”
Not long ago, Paul Muizelaar happened upon a fascinating trend. Among those who had undergone surgery for glioblastoma, a deadly type of brain tumor, the patients whose wounds were infected survived longer. He adopted this into an experimental treatment: during surgery, he placed a strain of fecal bacteria into a patient’s brain. The hope was that the bacteria would somehow trigger an autoimmune response that could halt the tumor. It was untested, unexplained, exciting. Was it unethical human experimentation?
Michael Peck – Politico Magazine
“Call it curiosity, megalomania or a touch of control freak, but humans are fascinated by the chance to shape the fabric of an entire society.”
Video games are not typically seen through the lens of civic engagement. But many games simulate society — forcing a host of politically controversial decisions on both the designer and the player. In “Sim City,” should the rich be taxed more? In “Civilization,” does a democracy advance farther than a police state? Some games have been used a political propaganda: During the war last year between Israel and Hamas, supporters of both sides designed biased games. The drama of video games is generally pinned on violence. But there is far more beneath the screen.
Kai Wright – Harper’s Magazine
“Two years in a town where the Great Recession never ended.”
The economy, the numbers show, is recovering. Unemployment is at 5 percent. The Federal Reserve will raise interest rates soon. But in some parts of the country, the pain has not diminished. In Albany, Georgia, the poverty rate is 42 percent. A candy factory in town, a decades-old economic engine, closed in 2005. Kai Wright paints a vivid picture of desolation: the abandoned factory, boarded windows, “a pain you can manage, until you can’t.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones and others – This American Life
“Most black kids will not be shot by the police. But many of them will go to a school like Michael Brown’s.”
For decades, lawmakers have tried to close the educational achievement gap between black and white students. In this two-part radio program, This American Life examines a classic, yet effective solution: school integration. Using the show’s distinctive storytelling format, Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at modern-day integration and the resistance it has faced.
Pankaj Mishra – The New York Times Magazine
“The Dalai Lama’s life can seem one long, heroic effort to resolve the contradictions of being both a committed monk and a reluctant politician.”
The Dalai Lama has been absent from his throne for over 50 years. Now, he says that he may abolish the institution of the Dalai Lama itself. The question of succession is but one tension hanging in Tibet. Others include Chinese migration, cultural dilution, and environmental degradation. Pankaj Mishra examines the uncertain future of a people in exile.
Marilynne Robinson – The New York Review of Books
“Why stockpile ammunition if the people over the horizon are no threat? If they would in fact grieve with your sorrows and help you through your troubles?”
Irrational fear, the novelist Marilynne Robison writes, feeds off of itself. It is age-old and present now in those who stockpile ammunition, suspicious of their countrymen, and in the architects of America’s foreign wars. We are stuck in a shock-and-awe quest to master fear, to transcend risk. A futile quest. Robinson writes, “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.”
Susan Dominus – The New York Times Magazine
“Her childhood was in a desperate, losing race with the war: Which would be finished first?”
There are more displaced people now than any time since World War II. The New York Times Magazine recently examined three refugee children — one Syrian, one Ukrainian, and one South Sudanese — through text, photography, and virtual reality film. The film delivers sensations once beyond the realm of imagination: the dusty canvas corridors of the Lebanese refugee settlement; the satiating impact of airdropped food supplies; and the helter-skelter wreckage of the Ukrainian school. I’ve highlighted the profile of the Syrian refugee, Hana. Her education is suspended; she works in the fields. She wants to be a doctor, but may be married instead. She hopes she can return home, but she is aware that “so early in her life, so much is gone for good.”
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt – The Atlantic
“A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
Students have been agitating on campuses countrywide for the removal of objects offensive to them. Tributes to racist leaders, for instance. A debate has raged: Is this justice or the sanitization of history? Are students oversensitive, or are systems inflexible? Are students hiding from scary ideas? In this Atlantic cover story, two writers take on trigger warnings, mental health, and political correctness on campus.
Caleb Crain – Harper’s Magazine
“Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms.”
Even when the distance that separates them spans continents or centuries, readers and writers share an ineffable connection. It’s silent and lonely, yet sensuous and soulful. Words — and the unique worlds they conjure — resist categorization, comparison, and competition. But with the advent of data aggregation, quantification is easier than ever. What will that mean for literature? In this compelling work of criticism, Caleb Crain examines the ways value is assigned to literature: incorporation in a canon, book reviews, personal opinions. These subjective measures are being replaced by an “illusion of certainty.” Books are now comparable, replaceable, ripe for comparison. Crain mourns the loss of the unquantified; a book’s only true index, he writes, “is written in living and fallible hearts.”
(Photo: Giuseppe Milo)