For the longest time one of my favorite year-end rituals has been combing through David Brooks’s Sydney Award winners for the year to find which ones I’d missed and to re-read favorites from earlier in the year.
That said, the various folks who contribute to our project here read quite a bit too. So this year we are going to try something new: The Eliot Awards. Named for T. S. Eliot, who may well be the third patron saint of this little site of ours, the Eliot Awards are given at the end of every year to recognize great achievements in cultural criticism and reporting in the past calendar year. So, without further delay, here are the first annual Eliot Awards:
17776 by Jon Bois, published at SB Nation
Trippy sci-fi fiction is not the sort of thing you normally look for on a sports site like SBN, but Bois is one of the more imaginative writers going right now and the team at Vox gave him the resources to turn this crazy idea of his into a totally engrossing read. If you can only read one long-form thing from the web this year, this should be it. (Disclosure: I freelance for SB Nation and know the guy who designed this. But even if I did not I would still tell you it’s my favorite thing I’ve read on the internet this year.)
The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial by Venkatesh Rao, published in Ribbon Farm
One of the best pieces I read all year—and somehow one that very few of my friends read. If you missed it, fix that. It’s one of the most perceptive pieces I’ve read on class and culture in 2017 America.
Waiting for a Young Pope by Matthew Schmitz, published in First Things
In both style and content, Matt Schmitz is one of my favorite writers. Agree or disagree, he’s one of the best young stylists around in my opinion. The other thing I love about his work is that he has this curious idea that theology matters and that if we actually care about our theology it should change how we live in ways that even we might find uncomfortable. This take down of boomer religion (and of Pope Francis) is one of his best pieces, though I could have chosen several others to put here. The last paragraph of this piece in particular is perfect.
A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, published in GQ
This GQ feature highlights the distinctly American characteristics of the entire sad story around Dylann Roof and his killing of 12 black Christians at a downtown Charleston church.
Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation? by Jean Twenge, published in The Atlantic
Twenge’s essay is going to show up in a lot of year-end lists and for good reasons. If you want a case for keeping your kids away from smartphones… this is it.
Losing My Child at Easter by Leah Libresco Sargeant, published in First Things
Leah is always worth reading. This piece in particular is a mature reflection on tragedy that captures both its sadness and beauty as loss is transfigured into hope through Christ.
My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon, published in The Atlantic
One of the most read features of the year, this piece by the late Tizon describes his immigrant family’s disturbing relationship to a woman that his grandfather “gave” to his mother when she turned 18.
Art & Culture
Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture by Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson, published at Current Affairs
This essay is as good a take as any I’ve seen on why turning over decisions about day-to-day human life to algorithms could lead us to a dark place. It’s not just that the results are ugly and hostile to health, though they usually are. It’s that “but the computer made it,” is awfully hard to argue with.
Beware the Open-Plan Kitchen by Caitlin Flanagan, published in Vulture
Flanagan’s piece takes a closer look at the moral, aesthetic, and familial poverty that often stands not far behind the glitz and glam of fixer upper shows of the sort made popular by HGTV.
The Soul of Barbecue is Being Reimagined in Charleston by Danny Chau, published in The Ringer
Smoking meats is one of my favorite hobbies (only hobbies, really) so this piece had my full attention and it didn’t let me down. Chau traveled to South Carolina to tell the story of two pitmasters, both known across the country for their work, who are now working only a few miles from each other in downtown Charleston.
Considerations on Cost Disease by Scott Alexander, published at Slate Star Codex
In this piece, Alexander looked at the rapidly increasing cost of many different goods and services in the United States, noticing a similar trendline across healthcare, education, housing, and several other sectors. The scary thing? Costs are rapidly going up and there aren’t any easy answers that would explain why.
Millions Are Hounded for Debt They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back, With a Vengeance by Zeke Faux, published in Bloomberg
This story is amazing for two reasons: First, it is a great piece for helping readers understand one of the most common ways that fraud happens in the US. Second, because it tells the entertaining and slightly disturbing story of how one man turned his quest to unmask the scammers into an obsession.
The Local News Business Model by Ben Thompson, published at Stratechery
Tech writer Thompson explains, more clearly than anything else I’ve seen, why the local newspaper is failing and what a digital-era local news organization should look like. The tragedy of newspapers is both that they ought to take his advice and that they almost certainly cannot take his advice.
Christopher Nolan’s Sleight of Hand by Adam Nayman, published in The Ringer
I’m particularly inclined to like this because I totally agree with the main argument of the piece: Christopher Nolan’s best film is The Prestige. But Nayman makes that argument in interesting and striking ways by surveying Nolan’s entire body of work while also offering a close reading of The Prestige which helped me see new things in it even though I’ve probably watched it a half dozen times. If you’re a Nolan fan, this piece is for you.
We have a political problem no one wants to talk about: very old politicians by Harold Pollack, published in Vox
Pollack’s piece is relatively straightforward: America has a ton of really old politicians and we aren’t really sure what will happen when so many fixtures in the top levels of government retire or die.
America Wasn’t Built for Humans by Andrew Sullivan, published in New York
Sullivan can be very hit or miss, but when he’s on he is still extremely good. And this piece is him at his best.
Breaking Faith by Peter Beinart, published in The Atlantic
Beinart gives his take on Douthat’s “if you didn’t like the religious right just wait until you meet the post-religious right,” line. It’s an informative, challenging and jarring read.
The Media Bubble is Real by Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty, published in Politico
The idea that coastal elites live in a bubble is old hat at this point. But sometimes it is still jarring to realize exactly how segregated American society has become. And reflecting on what that segregation might mean for our nation’s future can be sobering. This piece by Shafer and Doherty highlights the problem as it relates to journalism and publishing.
Colin Kaepernick has a job by Rembert Browne, published in Bleacher Report
Browne’s piece is, unsurprisingly, an excellent long-form essay working at the intersection of race, sports, and politics in America. There’s been no shortage of pieces on Kaepernick, but for my money this is the best.
The Addicts Next Door by Margaret Talbot, published in The New Yorker
Talbot’s feature is one of several that we will feature here that took a closer look at the personal effect of the opioid crisis in rural America. All of them draw out different aspects of the horror, but Talbot’s is perhaps the most vivid and maybe the most sad.
When Truth Becomes a Commodity by Daniel T. Rodgers, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education
Rodgers essay is one of the most skillful handlings of the “post-truth” question as it relates to other cultural and social issues.
What America Is Losing as Its Small Towns Struggle by Brian Alexander, published in The Atlantic
Alexander’s piece is a concise statement of what happens when small towns erode and nothing replaces them as a shaper of people and communities.
Why Are More American Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety? by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, published in The New York Times
This piece explores the crisis facing many American young people who are struggling with crippling anxiety that in some cases prevents them from even going to school and in other cases stands just behind the seemingly successful student.
What Happened When Walmart Left by Ed Pilkington, published in The Guardian
The opioid crisis is layered. One of the main issues behind it is that the interests of capital mostly militate against the health of rural America generally and against the specific attempts to revive depressed regions in particular. This story is one example of how this process works.
The Pill Mill of America by Chris Arnade, published in The Guardian
Arnade has become one of the main chroniclers of the decline of rural America and the plight of the white working class. Though he has a tendency to insert himself into the story more than I’d like, he’s often well worth reading. This is him at his best.
The Wellness Epidemic by Amy Larocca, published in New York
Larocca’s piece is the best treatment I’ve read of the complicated commercial motivations that stand behind most of the contemporary enthusiasm for alternative health, wellness products, and so on.
Hard Lessons in Living Off the Grid by Amelia Urry, published in Grist
Urry takes a closer look at one family’s attempts to get off the grid—and their subsequent discovery of exactly how difficult it is to actually do that, not only logistically but also morally.
When Should a Child Be Taken from His Parents? by Larissa MacFarquhar, published in The New Yorker
It’s hard to sum the piece up well. But if you’ve spent any time thinking about it or reading on the topic, you know that child custody cases and broader questions about the state’s rights over a family are thorny and extremely complicated. This piece will help you realize exactly how complicated it can get.
The Concussion Diaries by Reid Forgrave, published in GQ
This devastating piece on one former prep football player’s struggles with CTE, which eventually drove him to suicide, will absolutely haunt you if you’re a football fan.
Porn and the Threat to Virility by Belinda Luscombe, published in Time
There’s a sad inevitability to Luscombe’s piece. Nothing in it is terribly surprising—we know that porn is ubiquitous and that it changes the brain. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that it would also contribute to reduced virility in men. Even so, Luscombe’s piece manages to shock or grieve readers at several different points.
How the Elderly Lose Their Rights by Rachel Aviv, published in The New Yorker
One of our contributors gave this piece the award for “most likely to cause your blood to boil.” It is that. But it is also a massively important piece on how seniors in America are exploited and which shows how in America two of the most vulnerable groups are our youngest members and our oldest.
The Ikea Humans: The Social Base of Contemporary Liberalism by Samuel Biagetti, published in Jacobite
Biagetti’s piece on the crossover between the embrace of big box stores that are acceptable in bourgeois circles, like Ikea, and the underlying social breakdown that is one of the main stories of 2017 is intriguing and well worth your time.
How Google Eats a Business Whole by Adrianne Jeffries, published at The Outline
If you work in marketing and SEO, as I do, then this story is mostly old news. But if you don’t, here’s the short version: Small changes to how Google ranks items in search or how it displays information on search result pages can often make or break a business. This feature tells the story of one business and of how hard it was for the owner to get anywhere with Google, even though their new feature (which was destroying his business) was created using information that he himself had researched.
Build, gather, brawl, repeat: The history of real-time strategy games by Richard Moss, published in Ars Technica
If you’re like me, you’ve spent a lot of time on real-time strategy games like Age of Empires. This piece is a great review of the genre’s history and a comparison between real-time and turn-based strategy games, such as Civilization and Europa Universalis.
A Brutal Intelligence: AI, Chess, and the Human Mind by Nicholas Carr, published at The Los Angeles Review of Books
One of the themes in a number of these essays is the way 2017 has exposed long-standing frailties in our culture in ways even more apparent than what had been hinted at in 2015 and 2016. This piece, by best-selling author Nicholas Carr, explores how the emergence of AI is changing the human brain, making us think and behave more like robots and less like humans.