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.
In most years, I have split this out more by topic, but due to time constraints this year associated with running the print magazine as well, I’m going to format this in a simpler way that doesn’t require as much work on my end to produce.
The End of Rage by Ashley Lucas, published in Plough
This is one of the best pieces published this year, in my opinion, and you should read it. I don’t know how to summarize it other than to say it is a profoundly Christian attempt to reckon not only with social and racial injustice, but also with the hearts of individual human people, all reckoning with the various ways that both personal and social evil challenge and frustrate their attempts to live well in the world.
Let the Body Testify by Leah Libresco Sargeant, published in Plough
Sargeant’s essay in Plough is a vital consideration of the ways we think about pain and the body in medical care, but also the ways in which social norms presuppose certain types of bodies and tend to obscure or erase many others. (Disclosure: Leah is a friend and a colleague at Plough, where we both serve as contributing editors.)
The Cross and the Machine by Paul Kingsnorth, published in First Things
Kingsnorth has been one of my favorites to read this year. This essay detailing his conversion to Christianity is one of the best things I read all year.
COVID is Boring by Justin E. H. Smith, published in his Substack
This is one of the best and most careful takedowns of the ways public health goes bad, all done while still recognizing the real dangers that COVID-19 has posed to us over the past nearly two years.
The Role-Playing Coup by Bruno Macaes, published in City Journal
Macaes’s review of the events of 1/6 which opened our year are worth returning to. He argues that reducing the events of that day to an attempted “coup” actually undervalues what happened. Rather, the events of 1/6 marked a further step in the transformation of “real” life into a kind of performative stage in which people act out their fantasies, LARPing in real life, basically. It’s worth your time.
Everything is Broken by Alana Newhouse, published in Tablet
This was a sobering but necessary read on the state of American institutions in 2021.
When Losing is Likely by Brad East, published in The Point
This reflection from Brad East on the works of Wendell Berry and George Scialabba is really a reflection on how one can live well in the world when it seems likely, as it does in our day, that many good things are soon to be lost, perhaps irrevocably, and many wrong and horrifying things seem poised to triumph. How do you hold onto virtue and hope under such conditions? That is one of the most important questions for us to be reflecting on now, and I think Brad’s essay provides some excellent guidance on how we should answer the question.
The Long, Withdrawing Roar by Philip S. Gorski, published in The Hedgehog Review
Of the writing of obits for the religious right there is no end. Even so, this one is worth reading.
Better Eats by Nick Whitaker, published in Works in Progress
I’ve long thought that a fascinating way of telling the story of America from 1900 to the present would be to do a review of cookbooks and American cuisine during that era—observing the move from pre-modern kitchens and whole foods into modern kitchens and processed foods and then toward whatever you want to call contemporary American forms of cooking. This essay tells one part of that story very well.
Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge by Meribah Knight and Ken Armstrong, published in ProPublica
These are the kind of stories that I wish more white conservatives hostile to racial discourse would simply read and spend some time thinking about. The reporting here is thorough and the details are horrifying. Please read it.
The Great Unsettling by Paul Kingsnorth, published in his Substack
Kingsnorth’s whole series on “The Machine” that he did on his Substack this year is well worth your time. This one in particular, which is not paywalled, is especially good and works extensively from Simone Weil’s concept of rootedness, which is a theme I hope to come back to often in the year to come at Mere O.
Earth Alienation as a Service by LM Sacasas, published in his Substack
One of my favorite Substacks to follow is “The Convivial Society,” published by occasional Mere O contributor Michael Sacasas. In this essay he uses a section in Arendt that I’m also quite fond of as a way to reflect on how the willingness to be alienated from the created world is now almost hardwired into our economy and way of working.
On Violence by Justin E. H. Smith, published in his Substack
Smith was one of my favorite writing discoveries this year. This is another good example of why I find him so interesting.
The Year of Madeleine by Haley Stewart, published in Plough
Stewart’s essay is a delightful read about how spending an extensive amount of time reading the works of Madeleine L’Engle helped Stewart to discern new significance and delight to be had in motherhood but also new opportunities for her to practice and enjoy a vocation to the writing life as well.
Googlespeak by Cyrus Shepard, published in Zyppy
This piece by a leading expert in search engine technology is really important if you want to understand the ways in which many large tech companies, Google especially, actually shape the way we think and use language.
The Paradox of Control by L. M. Sacasas, published in his Substack
This is another vintage Sacasas piece, weaving together astute observations of our current regime alongside close readings of critics like Ivan Illich and, in this case, Hartmut Rosa.
What I Told the Students at Princeton by Abigail Shrier, published in her Substack
This is a significant essay about the virtues of courage and persistence when facing immense social pressure.
The Sperm Kings of America Have a Problem: Too Much Demand by Nellie Bowles, published in the New York Times
This reported piece from Bowles, who left the Times not long after this ran, definitely belongs in your “dispatches from the dystopia” file. But if you’re concerned with basic human creatureliness and the threats that biotechnology poses to that, this is a piece you’ll want to know about.
Nike’s End of Men by Ethan Strauss, published in his Substack
This is one of the best ad analysis pieces I’ve ever read. Strauss analyzed a series of Nike ads for various athletes and sporting events over the past 40 years to show how our culture’s relationship to masculinity has shifted.
John le Carré’s Genius for Surveillance by Jake Bittle, published in The New Republic
I’ve never been a huge John le Carré reader, but this essay helped me understand what makes him so good as a novelist and helped me better understand why so many people love his books—the man was a master of creating the right kind of feel for spy novels.
Pleasure Needs No Politics by B. D. McClay, published in Gawker
McClay’s essay masterfully pulls apart the way in which so many elements of simply being a human being have become “radical,” or “revolutionary,” in contemporary discourse.
The Craziest Sports Story of 2021 is FC Sheriff by Grant Wahl, published in Wahl’s Substack
Wahl’s travelog from his time in one of eastern Europe’s strangest regions is a mad read that even non-sports fans will enjoy, I think.
Loving Lies by Bill Adair, published in Airmail
This story catches up with Stephen Glass, a former journalist who was fired after being caught fabricating stories in multiple outlets. It tells the story of his life after journalism and his wife’s tragic death caused by early-onset Alzheimers.
Growing My Faith in the Face of Death by Tim Keller, published in The Atlantic
Keller’s essay concerns his reckoning with his own death in the aftermath of learning that he had pancreatic cancer and going through this experience after 45 years of pastoral ministry and regularly counseling people who are dying and even writing a book about dying.
You Aren’t Mad at the SATs by Freddie deBoer, published in his Substack
I subscribed to his Substack the moment deBoer launched it. This essay is a good example of him at his best: Incisive, relentlessly focused on the problem, and unconcerned with currying favor from anyone.
I Became a Mother at 25, and I’m Not Sorry I Didn’t Wait by Elizabeth Bruenig, published in the New York Times
Bruenig continues to be one of my favorite writers. I think I’ve included her in the Eliot Awards almost every year I’ve been doing this. This column is another excellent example of why I find her work so helpful.
What If People Don’t Want a Career? by Charlie Warzel, published in Warzel’s Substack
This edition of Warzel’s newsletter offers one of the most clearly stated critiques of how work and professional life actually functions in the US today. A lot of people just want a job that pays a decent wage and offers some not-unreasonable benefits. Meanwhile, many members of the capitalist class want people who dedicate their lives to their work and ground their concept of identity in their professional life.
A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society? by Steven Levy, published in Wired
Levy tells the story of a bet made in 1995 between tech critic Kirkpatrick Sale and a Wired co-founder asking whether or not tech would destroy society.