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Evan Kindley: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Evan Kindley is the managing editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Ariel Levy, “Basta Bunga Bunga” (June 6, 2011) - The New Yorker

A great piece about what proved to be the Last Days of Berlusconi’s Italy, with all the virtues of the typical artfully triangulated New Yorker profile (as recently codified by John McPhee) plus a refreshing willingness to let Levy herself play a crucial role.  (Difficult to avoid, perhaps, when the people you interview say things like “I see you are a girl—I want to kiss you! … This is nature.”)

Adam Plunkett, “King of the Ghosts” (October 7, 2011)  - n+1

Moving, passionate, yet determinedly unsentimental remembrance of David Foster Wallace by one of his students at Pomona that doubles as a review — the best I’ve seen — of his frustrating posthumous semi-opus The Pale King.  Whether or not you care a whit about Wallace, there’s a lot to be learned here about the anguish of mentorship: “He expressed some of the most meaningful things he said to me in some of his sentences most likely to seem meaningless. ‘It means a lot that it means a lot,’ ‘I feel for you.’”

Drake Bennett, “David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street” (October 26, 2011) - Bloomberg Businessweek

"David Graeber likes to say that he had three goals for the year: promote his book, learn to drive, and launch a worldwide revolution. The first is going well, the second has proven challenging, and the third is looking up." I, too, have failed to learn to drive in 2011.

Rob Horning, “The Failure Addict” (November 18, 2011) - The New Inquiry

I’m not sure I buy Horning’s fundamental premise, that “Papa” John Phillips was “a harbinger of what microcelebrity may do to the rest of us,” but the two halves of this neatly turned essay — a knowledgeable account of Phillips’s sordid solo career and a lucid analysis of how an increasing amount of our (increasingly internet-dependent) sociality is getting redefined as “sharing” (“It’s sharing when we confess something; it’s sharing when we link to someone else’s work; it’s sharing when we simply express approval for something; it’s sharing when a social-media service automatically announces some action we took”) — are each worth the price of admission.

Sy Montgomery, “Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of an Octopus” (November/December 2011) - Orion Magazine

My nickname around the Los Angeles Review of Books office is “the Octopus.”  Read this and draw your own conclusions.

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Kevin Smokler’s Top 5 Deep Interviews of 2011

Kevin Smokler is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Practical Classics: Rereading Your Favorite Books from High School (Prometheus Books, 2013) and curator of Deep Interviews here on Longreads. 

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Here on Longreads, I’m curating Deep Interviews (#deepinterviews)—lengthy interviews with interesting people—a format I’ve grown to love. It’s not quite original reporting but certainly more than transcription, a showcase for at least three of my favorite art forms—conversation, listening and set decoration. A great interview not only brings us inside the mind of an interesting person but inside the room where the conversation happened. And while many of the best presenters of interviews (The Paris Review, Playboy, Bomb) use an iterative process—the final interview emerging from several sessions like portrait painting—many others, equally loved, are on-the-spot reporting while all the action sits in hotel room club chairs. We the reader are invited in but are not the important person. We’re probably leaning uncomfortably against the bathroom door and trying to stay out everyone’s way. 

For this best-of list, I’ve chosen only interviews that you can read right now, no subscription required, from 5 different publications, at five different points in the trajectory of a culturally-known person. If the Deep Interview is a butterfly, below we’ve got pupae to pretty flying thing, though in no order biology would understand. 

2012 is looking to be a denser, dizzier time for the Deep Interview. More publications are opening their archives and the Charles Foster Kane basement of the genre (explained below). The hashtag #deepinterviews will keep you up to date on all these developments starting right now. 

I. William Gibson, The Paris Review Interview (Summer 2011 Issue)

Gibson knocks ‘em dead here—funny, smart, but plain and practical. A line like “We’re increasingly aware that our society is driven by these unpredictable uses we find for the products of our imagination,” which left me thinking for a solid 40 minutes, is tossed off without pause. There’s also plenty for those of us who know science fiction much more as cultural phenomenon than by the particulars of the author’s worlds. I’m also guessing that even the diehards will be pleased by Gibson calling Neuromancer, his most famous novel, “a soap box derby car.” 

II. Scott Shepherd and Richard Maxwell: Bomb Magazine (Summer 2011 Issue)

BOMB has featured artist-on-artist interviews as its signature offering since 1981. About 90% of the time I have no idea who the subjects are and that’s just the way I like it. I read BOMB to unearth areas of creativity. Their interviews are my miner’s helmet. 

Scott Shepherd is an actor with the New York theater company Elevator Repair Service. ERS was profiled last year in the New Yorker as they were putting up GATZ, a six-hour word-for-word retelling of The Great Gatbsy. Richard Maxwell is an experimental theater director. Of them, I know The Great Gatsby, the New Yorker and that’s it. These guys don’t have a bunch of old war stories but rather experience collected as the raw material of the future, of projects yet conceived and horizons yet crossed. I don’t understand a fair amount of the theorizing about theater that they do. But the conversation is open enough for curiosity and learning and in that way, is the creative process itself in miniature. 

III. tUnE-yArDs: Pitchfork Interviews (April 25, 2011)

I loved Merrill Garbus (TY is her project) after reading this interview. She’s funny, self-aware, thoughtful. She’s also exactly the kind of musician you want big sloppy success for, which is what makes this piece such a great example of a type: The interview that catches a star on the rise. 

Pitchfork catches Garbus right before a tour, when she’s “doing a lot of boring and wonderfully domestic things.” Read the rest and you’ll think “I don’t think Merrill Garbus will be doing her own laundry much longer unless she wants to.” Also the interviewer both acknowledges that TY does not fit a current musical trend yet nonetheless insists on asking if Garbus went through a “punk phase” (nothing in her afro-pop-inspired-vocal-heavy songs would indicate this. The interviewer seems to think that any musician not wearing glitter must have had a punk phase) and rushing past Garbus’s narration of her musical salad days in the uncool 1980s to get to her time spent in the more culturally approved 1990s. 

Garbus is having none of it. She is straight with the journalist but firm that her story not fit any convention but her own. 

I wish only great things for Merrill Garbus after reading this. And I hope she also files it away as capturing a moment before all those big things happened. 

IV. Giancarlo Esposito: The Onion AV Club Interview (Oct. 7, 2011)

Read enough interviews and you thank 18 different gods when someone with a criminally underrated career is given room to talk about themselves. Such is the case with Giancarlo Esposito, a character actor who makes everything he appears in better just with his presence. 

Esposito has been acting since the 1980s and I became aware of him from starring roles in Spike Lee’s early films. If you’re around my age (38) you probably remember him as Buggin’ Out in Do the Right Thing or as Cab Driver YoYo in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. The AV Club’s got him here for his role as Gustavo Fring, the newest addition to the acclaimed series Breaking Bad, unseen by me. But I still say “thank god” and “about time.” Fifty more like this with Mr. Esposito please and at least that many actors like him. 

V. Martin Luther King Jr: The Playboy Interview (January, 1965, republished Oct. 21, 2011)

I’ve got this one here as a representation of where the availability of Deep Interviews is going. Playboy has taken to republishing from its 50-year archive of interviews via reader requests on the magazines Facebook page. Martin Luther King Jr.’s is here by reader demand, a rebuke to the idea that no one reads Playboy for the articles. 

Beyond that, Playboy’s efforts are an indicator of reader demand for this kind of journalism. And with any luck, more availability, more openness, at whatever rate, is where we’re headed. BOMB and The Paris Review already have their complete interview archives available on line and free. I’d love to see more publications head that way. 

An even bigger interview drop is coming in the next two years. The Library of Congress is in the process of digitizing the entire collection of interviews by Studs Turkel, perhaps America’s greatest interviewer. The first of those nearly 7,000 conversations is due to be made publicly available sometime next year. 

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Matt Pearce: My Top 5 Longreads

Matt Pearce is a contributing writer for The Los Angeles Times, The New Inquiry, and The Pitch. He’s based in Kansas City and recently covered the Egyptian elections and uprisings on Tahrir Square.

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1. Paul Ford - “The Epiphanator” - New York magazine

I think this year we’ve reached this saturation point where a critical mass people have finally accepted the deep role social media plays in the way we live our lives, a progress I’ve measured largely through 1. former New York Times head honcho Bill Keller’s decreasingly humiliating comments about Twitter and 2. this brilliantly droll smoker by Paul Ford, who writes about social media’s arrival the way some people write about coming to terms with their mortality. I don’t think the tone in Ford’s essay would have been possible even last year, which is what makes it so definitive of the moment, and it has that David Foster Wallace quality of articulating deep feelings about a phenomenon I didn’t quite realize I’d felt and certainly never could have expressed so wonderfully.

2. Édouard Levé - “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” - The Paris Review

Levé was a photographer, but right before he committed suicide in 2007, he wrote a book called, um, “Suicide.” His prose here, distracted and fissiparous, reads like a kind of literary pointillism: Each individual fleck doesn’t make much sense on its own, but by the end the mass agglomerates into something dark and quite beautiful. It’s like tossing through a box of unsorted and unmarked photographs to deduce the life of the man who shot them — and damn, what a life it must’ve been.

3. Alex French and Howie Kahn - “The Greatest Paper That Ever Died” - Grantland

I’m still not sure what to make of Grantland, but I liked it a lot more after I read this oral history of The National, which was an national sports daily with huge ambitions whose collapse read like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella set in contemporary New York. In a lot of ways, The National is Grantland’s forebear, and so if Grantland doesn’t work out, the least we could hope for would be an autopsy as funny as this one.

4. Jon Lee Anderson - “King of Kings” - New Yorker

Over the summer, I reported on a Libyan-American trapped in Libya during the civil war. He’d grown up there, and after he escaped, we became friends. On the day Qaddafi died, I texted him to see if he’d heard — he lived in a van because he didn’t have any money, and nor did he have a TV — and I didn’t hear back. While walking through a park later, he told me that when he got my text about Qaddafi, he sat down and didn’t move for several hours. It’s tough to explain how deeply Qaddafi had engrained himself into Libyan psyches, creating a distortion field where it was impossible to imagine existence without him. While walking, I told him about the New Yorker and how it writes these comprehensive takes on a subject that often become the final word, and I told him we could expect something from the New Yorker on Qaddafi. And shortly later, there it came: A brilliant postmortem by Jon Lee Anderson to explain the man-cum-phenomenon. My friend had trouble finishing it because it hit so close to home, and that’s what great journalism should do.

5. Tim Rogers - “Who Killed Videogames? (A Ghost Story)” - Insert Credit

This monster on the deep unhappiness behind the contemporary gaming experience came at me from out of nowhere a few months ago, and it hasn’t left me since. I still have questions about it, actually: How much is real? How much is fiction? In the end, the particulars didn’t matter so much as the dark way Rogers captures the Pavlovian sickness behind games created by companies like Zynga, whose games thrive by creating an itch in users rather than aiming for real joy.

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Honorable mention: 

Kim Zetter - “How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History” - Wired

One of these days, after The Big One hits, we’re going to wish we’d stuck more narrative writers on the tech beat to explain the malevolent 1s and 0s secretly undermining our lives online and, increasingly, our relationship with the world at large. There will always be the Nicholas Schmidles to write the Osama bin Laden takedown (which might’ve been on this list if not for transparency qualms), but the day is soon coming where our most important national security enforcers write code instead of rappelling out of helicopters — if they aren’t already. Zetter’s piece is a brilliant argument that that day has already come. (Bonus points for Wired’s visual presentation of the story.)

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Outside’s Joe Spring: My Top 5 Longreads of the Year

Joe Spring is the online editor for Outside Magazine.

This was a big year for longform journalism. Byliner came out with blockbuster stories, like Jon Krakuer’s Three Cups of Deceit. The Atavist put out consistently strong features with solid multimedia. At Outside, our editors and writers contributed excellent investigative online exclusives (“Blood in the Water,” “Crashing Down”). Thanks to Longreads, Longform, Sportsfeat, The Browser, and other longform-loving sites, I found more great stories online then ever before. Every time I read something that made me think, I printed it out and taped it to the wall above my desk. Here are five of the articles published in 2011 that hang over my workspace.

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Dr. Don, By Peter Hessler, The New Yorker

A big look at the American West, told through the story of a small town pharmacist

Punched Out, By John Branch, The New York Times

How do you talk about the effects of concussions in sports in a new way? By profiling an individual’s life in exquisite detail, from start to after the finish. The multimedia is first rate as well. (This one took up the biggest chunk of wall space.)

Robert Krulwich, Commencement Speech at the University of Berkeley School of Journalism, Posted on Not Exactly Rocket Science

An argument for going after the things you want.

Frank’s Story, By John Brant, Runner’s World

Frank Shorter was the most famous marathoner of his day, yet few people knew about the disturbing behavior of his father—a supposedly perfect small town doctor.

The Fracturing of Pennsylvania, By Eliza Griswold, The New York Times Magazine

There were stories about hydrofracking with more statistical analysis and stories that explained the overall process and its effects in more detail, but no story was told better. Here’s how fracking in rural Pennsylvania affected the Haney family.

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The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at The New Yorker and a frequent Longreader.

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I’m a sucker for stories about reinvention, disappearence, and people who pretend to be someone they aren’t. The genre has cliches, and can become trite. But it can also be wonderful. And this year, the category brought us some wonderful longreads.

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"Where’s Earl?" Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker

I’m biased, but the story by Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker about the rapper Earl Sweatshirt is, I think, a classic. The character Earl is the reinvention of another boy, whose amazing past and origins Sanneh describes. But then there’s the second disappearence of Earl himself, and then his quandry about whether and how to return to his career. Sanneh is also, stylistically, one of the most original and graceful writers around. Every sentence is a pleasure.

"His Own Private Idaho," Sean Flynn, GQ

This piece by Flynn about a mobster who reinvents himself in Idaho, seems familiar at first. But then it turns out the central character is much more complex than you might have thought—and he ends up undone by something surprising and redemptive. It’s great. 

"My Mother’s Lover," David Dobbs, The Atavist ($1.99)

I’m biased on this one too (I’m a co-founder of The Atavist), but Dobbs’s piece has deservedly been one of the best-selling “e-singles” of the year. It’s an amazing tale of a man discovering that his mother harbored a secret her entire adult life. And then, as Dobbs tries to resolve a mystery of his own family’s past, he gets tangled in the story of another’s. 

"Dave Sanders: Fiber-Optics Exec by Day, Defender of Justice by Night", Joshua Davis, Wired

Joshua Davis is one of the most cinematic magazine writers around; he’s wonderful at introducing groups of characters, crafting scenes, and keeping a narrative moving. This recent piece in Wired about a fiber-optics-executive who recreates himself as a (sort-of) good-guy vigilante is a classic. It’s complicated, but Davis tells the story smoothly and smartly. 

"The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms," Joshuah Bearman, This American Life

I know this is a long “reads” list, but the lines with long “listens” are blurry, and there was a story this fall on This American Life of this type that I just loved: Joshuah Bearman’s “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms.” Like many of the other best stories in this genre, it takes, layer by layer, through a complicated series of reinventions and disguises. Plus it mixes in reality television, a mole, and an heroic journalist.

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Elmo Keep: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Elmo Keep is a writer who has written for The Hairpin, and other places.

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The Tetris Effect — Justin Wolfe, The Awl

There really isn’t a way to talk about this without spoiling the reveals. Just read it, whether you understand gaming or not, it doesn’t matter: If you don’t, you will come away curious, and if you do, you will have your mind blown it’s just so clever and moving and wonderful. The narrative structure of this piece is so satisfyingly interwoven and then resolved, it’s one of those stories that makes for a totally different experience on the second reading. This is the kind of enthralling, super-long writing that I love the Internet for making space for. 

Joan — Sara Davidson, ByLiner Original

This was a beautiful companion to Blue Nights, Didion’s most recent memoir. In that book, she is very adept as all memoirists are, at revealing only what she chooses to while weaving the illusion of revealing everything. Sara Davidson has known Didion for forty years and the portrait that she paints of her very affectionately is in a lot of ways more complete than the image that Didion presents of herself. A must for Joan Didion tragics like me, especially for the glimpses of her life with John Gregory Dunne written from an outsider’s perspective peppered throughout. 

Blindsight — Chris Colin, The Atavist

The Atavist have really pioneered what is the logical evolution of longform writing for the web, integrating everything about the medium into tablet-only experiences that truly immerse you in a world. In this story the writer finds ways to let us experience what is happening to the protagonist — a man who has suffered an horrific brain injury — so vividly that we can for a moment inhabit is mind, a place where memory and time have been shattered and distorted. You also get the sense throughout of how much the writer cared for his subject and the result is a humane and profound portrait of resilience. 

What Makes A Great Critic? — Maria Bustillos, The Awl

The Internet has been wonderful for writing for so many reasons, but also, terrible! For others! Particularly when it comes to cultural criticism (pop culture especially). In this piece Maria Bustillos does everyone a favour by pointing out that recaps are not reviews and takes a long, considered look at what makes criticism valuable when the writer really, really cares about the subject. This piece goes a long way to settling the “criticism vs review” debate and is a must read for all aspiring critics and an excellent brush-up for any working critic who might have let complacency slip in. 

The Quaid Conspiracy — Nancy Jo Sales, Vanity Fair

I loved this inversion of a celebrity profile, especially in Vanity Fair to read about people on the fringes of that machine. Not even the writer is certain what’s true and what isn’t in this caper — which is really what it reads like; being dragged along on a wildly tangential ride rife with drugs and paranoia. 

The By Far Funnest Read of the Year — American Marvel — Edith Zimmerman, GQ

This gets so much love because it is *fucking awesome*, that’s why. It’s also been widely derided by old people, which is again a tick in its favour in my view. This is the exact kind of celebrity profile you want to read: It’s a publicist’s nightmare, which again, is why it’s so great. Read it! Read them all!

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