Since 2017, I’ve made a habit of going back at the end of the year to review and recognize some of my favorite pieces in magazine and web writing from the past 12 months. Inspired by David Brooks’s old Sydney Awards, I decided to launch the Eliot Awards at Mere O, named for T. S. Eliot, whose long-form essays have been enormously helpful to both myself and Mere O founding editor Matthew Lee Anderson. It’s been an awful year in so many ways, but there has still been a lot of really outstanding work published. I’ll be back tomorrow with Mere O’s best of 2020 review that will cover some of our best pieces from the past 12 months.
The Terrible Mercy and Love of a Child’s Casket by Leah Libresco Sargeant in The American Conservative
Leah’s reported feature on Trappist monks in Iowa who make and give away wooden caskets for children who have died is a beautiful reflection on what good work actually is, according to Christianity, and how our commitment to such work inevitably changes us and the people around us.
The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet by Andy Greenberg published in Wired
This piece tells the story of a basically self-taught UK hacker who saved the internet, went to jail, and then got out. It’s a wild, fun ride that is exactly what a long-form reported feature ought to be.
I’m keeping a separate category for COVID-related stories because of how that story dominated the year.
Who Dies? by Sarah Jones, published in New York
Jones’s piece in New York about her grandfather, who was killed by the coronavirus, is not just a touching reflection on family, but a searing indictment of America’s frequently indifferent and inhumane response to the crisis.
“I Couldn’t Do Anything” by Corina Knoll, Ali Watkins, and Michael Rothfeld in the New York Times
This feature looked at how doctors and nurses in cities hit hard by COVID-19 responded and how the extended stress of their jobs often led to mental health issues, even for health workers who had no prior history of mental illness.
Love in the Time of Coronavirus by Andy Crouch in Praxis Labs
I desperately wish the Christian response to COVID-19 had looked more like this.
A Time for Solidarity by Sean Illing published in Vox
Illing’s piece used Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, to talk about what we owe to our fellow citizens and neighbors during a pandemic.
Floodplain by Matthew Loftus published in Plough
Loftus is a Mere O contributor and personal friend so I’m not objective, but this is another excellent piece that, in the same way as Crouch, exemplifies what I so wish the response to COVID had been in the American church.
The Prophecies of Q by Adrienne LaFrance published in The Atlantic
LaFrance’s deep dive into Q is the best summary and explanation of the movement you’re going to find.
The Immaculate Concussion by Julia Ioffe published in GQ
A long-form reported piece on a number of mysterious injuries separated by American diplomats and other government staff working abroad. It’s fascinating, but mostly terrifying. But if you want to understand how technology may change espionage and foreign affairs more generally, it’s an important piece.
The World’s Most Technologically Sophisticated Genocide Is Happening in Xinjiang by Rayhan Asat and Yonah Diamond in Foreign Policy
This feature is one of the most comprehensive looks at what China is doing in Xinjiang and how it is using surveillance technology to assist in its work.
Castles in the Sky by Christina Lalanne in Atavist
Lalanne and her husband moved into a hundred year old San Francisco home and immediately began the work restoring it to its former glory—and that’s how they stumbled across the story of separated lovers, Hans, the home’s builder, and Anna, his childhood love who he was separated from as a teenager but never forgot.
A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street by Francesca Mari published in the New York Times
Mari’s deep dive into the housing market produced some alarming finds about how the dream of home ownership is becoming ever more remote for many Americans. It also is an excellent explanation of how the system works and why Wall Street is able to do what it does to American housing.
Going the Distance (and Beyond) to Catch Marathon Cheaters by Gordy Megroz in Wired
This piece told the story of several marathon cheaters and documented how race officials were able to catch them.
The Enemies of Writing by George Packer published in The Atlantic
Packer’s piece, published before COVID took hold in the US, is one of my favorite pieces of the past year because it talks about the kind of qualities and characteristics that any writer aspiring to serious work needs to cultivate within themselves—and it talks about why it is so hard to do that in our current context.
Against the Infinite Stimulus of Greed by Brad Littlejohn published in Ad Fontes
So I’ll tack a disclaimer on here that Brad is a friend and blogger at Mere O, Onsi Kamel, who edited and published the piece, is a friend and an editor at Mere O, and I’m on the board of the Davenant Institute, which published the piece. All that being said: This is a fantastic exploration of how early Protestants, especially Martin Bucer, thought about greed, welfare, and work. Spoiler: They weren’t what we’d call capitalists, but neither are they progressives. Read it. It’s excellent.
Pickled Limes by Kalyanee Mam in Emergence Magazine
Mam’s essay weaves together her mom’s traditional pickled lime soup with a lengthy consideration of what it means to care for a loved one during times of great suffering and pain as the author reflects on her family’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge and her own calling to care for her mother and husband, both of whom contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic.
Classics for the People by Edith Hall in Aeon
Hall’s essay is a historical study of working-class education in Britain that yields results that contradict much contemporary thinking about the relevance and accessibility of a classical education.
Individual and National Freedom: Toward a New Conservative Fusion by Brad Littlejohn in American Affairs
This piece by Brad is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how conservatives ought to think about the role of freedom in the life of a nation.
The Designated Mourner by Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books
This is the best single piece to capture Joe Biden’s appeal as a political figure in post-Trump America.
Capitalism at Dusk by Robert Pippin published in The Point
A preeminent Hegel scholar on Hegel, Marx, and capitalism in the 21st century.
The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake by David Brooks in The Atlantic
Brooks’ longform essay on the problems created by isolating one generation of a family from another is an excellent contribution to the ongoing conversation we’re having in the US about the decline of family life.
The American Way of Life is Unsustainable by Emma Green in America
Green has long been one of our best religion reporters. Here she turns her considerable talents toward a reflective essay on how precarious the typical American lifestyle is.
The Beautiful Institution by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks published in Plough
This reflection from Rabbi Sacks, who died in the same month it was published, is one of the best things I’ve read on marriage.
Common Worlds, Common Sense, and the Digital Realm by Michael Sacasas published in The Convivial Society
This difficult-to-summarize piece from Sacasas, one of my favorite writers on technology and an occasional Mere O contributor, begins with Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition before moving on to an extended reflection on how Arendt’s work can help us understand the internet and, particularly, how digital tools change how we experience the world.
Tea Time by Lyman Stone in Plough
Lyman Stone on learning to pour tea, the goodness of creation and human culture, and how that should shape the way we understand the idea of ‘Christian nationalism.’
Habits for Ideological Times by Sam Kimbriel published in Comment
What kind of habits make one able to resist the seductive and almost inescapable (in our day) lure of ideology? This essay is a fantastic answer to that question.
The Coronavirus and the Right’s Scientific Counterrevolution by Ari Schulman in The New Republic
Schulman’s piece is the single best introduction to how the American right came to approach science in the ways that it has.