We certainly read a lot of bad things this year—but we also read a bunch of stuff that was great. Here are our picks for the best books, essays, articles and Urban Baby blog posts of 2015.
Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command by Sean Naylor Even if you don’t care about military history, there are so many true yet impossible-sounding and confounding anecdotes of waste, mismanagement, incompetence, and incredibly poor planning in here to make it worthwhile. These are the people who (eventually) killed Bin Laden! What a world. A perfect record of expensive American messiness.
“I Don’t Believe in God, but I Believe in Lithium” by Jaime Lowe in the New York Times Magazine Almost everyone who tries to make their own life interesting fails, and almost everyone who writes about their own problems is annoying. Jaime Lowe’s story of a personal pharmacological dilemma is fascinating and never whiny or looking for sympathy. It’s just perfect.
“What Defeating ISIS Would Look Like” by Kurt Schlichter in the Independent Journal I don’t think I laughed at anything so hard in 2015 as “Get the Wildman on the line.”
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina “Projecting feelings onto other animals can lead us to misunderstanding their motivations,” writes Safina in his empathic dive into the emotional lives of animals. “But denying that they have any motivation guarantees that we’ll misunderstand it.” His case for what was once derided as “anthropomorphism,” is framed as simple common sense. “Humans are not the measure of all things,” Safina writes. We share the world with these apparently sentient beings—why should what we share stop there? Beyond Words is routinely moving and teeming with examples of animals exhibiting astonishingly recognizable behavior. Did you know that baby elephants throw tantrums and suck their trunks for comfort? Or that some females fake estrus for attention? Or that they’ll dress themselves in bushes, in apparent goofy dress-up play? Simple wonders like these are on virtually every page.
“I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen” by Noreen Malone and Amanda Demme in New York Exactly as overwhelming as it needed to be.
“The Fight To Save Atlantic City” by Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker “Hey, at least we’re not Detroit!” says the mayor of the crumbling South Jersey resort. What happens to a city that billions and billions of dollars have been poured into after its usefulness dries up? (The proliferation of legal gambling in nearby cities and states has severely depressed the former slot-machine mecca.) It gets a character like Glenn Straub, an eccentric of literary proportions, a developer who wants to build a “Tower of Geniuses” in the Revel (a $2.4 billion hotel casino that opened in 2012 and closed in 2014), an equestrian center, and the world’s largest water park in A.C. Is Straub the city’s “white knight” or yet another vampire who’s intent to suck out of Atlantic City whatever life is left? I have no idea, but I loved reading about him. This series of recollections of conversations with him made me lol for real:
Once, he answered his phone as he was getting fingerprinted by the Casino Control Commission, for his gambling-license application. Another time, he announced that he was at a urinal. With bankruptcy-court procedures in mind, I asked, “So what comes next?” and he replied, “I wash my hands.”
The best thing I read this year was Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell which taught me among other things that journalists were much more hardcore in George Orwell’s time. The best thing I read on the internet this year was UrbanBaby.com, shout out to all of the urban babies in the struggle.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff I couldn’t put down Lauren Groff’s two-part chronicle of the birth, life and death of a marriage. It’s a beautifully crafted, dreamily expressed horror story set in the mundanity of everyday life. And just when you think the story is done, the second act hits like a ton of bricks.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins This time last year, a girl I went on vacation with left this fun little book behind. I had, to my chagrin, finished it by the time I got home. I envy anyone who gets to read this for the first time. Olivia, I owe you one.
Ha ha, it’s racist!
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf I generally don’t like “graphic novels” (I had to read Maus in college and it was fine/I bought The Watchmen and read a few pages before setting it down on my shelf to stare at me for the next five years), but I couldn’t put this down. It’s written by one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s only friends from high school. In this case, “friend” is used incredibly loosely as Dahmer didn’t really have friends in the conventional sense and they mostly just let him hang around for comic fodder. Still, the way the serial killer before he was a serial killer is portrayed in this is equal parts fascinating and unsettling. In no way is he fully humanized (I don’t think there’s much human in him to begin with), but you do see how a student with severe emotional issues spirals downward as every possible authority figure around him completely fails to do anything about it. You also see the very beginning of what’s to come as he starts to lash out (both emotionally and physically). The illustrations lend to the grotesque sort of humor that Dahmer seemed so fond of. It really only takes a few hours to get through, and I’ve read it nearly four times now. It’s great.
“Just Checkin” by Paul Ford on Medium Paul Ford is rare in that every single thing he has ever written is phenomenal. But this short piece he wrote in February about anxiety-inducing email subject lines is indescribably perfect. So rather than try to describe it and fail, I will just tell you to read it. Now.
And last but not least, this tweet from Kylie Jenner was objectively the best thing I read this year:
“Access Denied” by John Herrman on The Awl The Awl’s John Herrman is our most perceptive critic of the torturous relationship between the media and tech, content and the content industry, and the work of journalism and the new platforms intended to support it. His essay “Access Denied,” about the slowly shrinking amount of leverage afforded to reporters and publications in their various exchanges with sources, feels like a culmination of the loose series about online media he’s been publishing since last year. Media criticism doesn’t have a reputation as riveting, page-turning stuff, but when I started reading “Access Denied” on my iPhone at an airport bar this month, I almost missed my flight because I didn’t want to get up before finishing.
“Joe Gould’s Teeth” by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker Jill Lepore’s investigation into the legend of the longest book ever written, tells the irresistible story of a writer who seemed psychologically unable to put down his pen and stop writing. Joe Gould brushed elbows with E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound, slept in the streets of New York, fought through a series of mental breakdowns, and claimed to have documented nearly every single thing that ever happened to him in an impossibly lengthy handwritten manuscript he called “The Oral History of Our Time.” In 1941, a reporter claimed that the Oral History’s pages, stacked up, were over seven feet tall. Joe Gould was also a crank who stalked and assaulted women and obsessed over bogus race science. Most of his published work, Lepore writes, was dreadful.
The legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Joe Gould in 1942, introducing the Oral History to the larger world, and again in 1964, after Gould’s death, when he claimed that the history had been a lie all along—Gould had conceptualized the book, and told plenty of people about it, but never actually written more than a few pages, Mitchell claimed in “Joe Gould’s Secret,” the second profile. Since then, it has become clear that Mitchell himself was a world-class fabricator, who once wrote a profile of a man he seems to have invented entirely. “Had Mitchell seen it? Had Gould made it up? Had Mitchell made it up?” Lepore asks of a will that Gould supposedly carried in his breast pocket at all times. She continues, “For that matter, what about the Oral History? Mitchell hadn’t seen it, and said Gould had made it up, but maybe Mitchell had made that up.”
Lepore navigates these layers of fact and fiction, digging through dusty archival boxes for scraps of the Oral History, making calls to those who claimed to have more, and asking questions along the way about the nature of biography and what motivates a person to write. In the end, she doesn’t get much closer than Mitchell did to finding the history of Joe Gould’s life, but while her predecessor claimed definitively that the world’s longest book doesn’t exist, Lepore recognizes that the real truth of any story is rarely that simple.
“Ina Garten Does It Herself” by Choire Sicha at Eater Even if you’ve never watched the Food Network’s cooking show Barefoot Contessa, reading Choire Sicha’s profile of its creator and star, the enormously successful cookbook author Ina Garten, is mesmerizing: A meditation on Garten’s rejection of domesticity sits comfortably next to a mini-profile of Garten’s husband, Jeffrey, who may or may not be a former C.I.A. spook. It’s probably true that Barefoot Contessa viewers will appreciate this essay in ways that non-viewers such as myself cannot. But that goes both ways: I found this piece entrancing precisely because I had no idea who Ina Garten was.
Memorandum Decision and Order for Animal Legal Defense Fund, et al. vs. Otter, et al. by Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill for the U.S. District Court of Idaho In this decision, Judge Winmill struck down a thoroughly unconstitutional Idado statue that prohibited “interference with agricultural production”—an entirely new criminal category which outlawed, among other things, any kind of undercover investigative journalism targeting the state’s private agricultural companies, who helped pass the law in the first place. In siding with activists who exposed the hideous conditions of those companies’ livestock, Winmill delivers an uncommonly spirited defense of the First Amendment, and demonstrates why proponents of free speech so often frame the principle in maximalist terms: Because speech can, and does, change the world.
“How to Win Tinder” by Alicia Eler and Eve Peyser at The New Inquiry What, exactly, is Tinder? In their essay about the dominant mobile dating app, Alicia Eler and Eve Peyser explore the values, pitfalls, and invisible ideologies of a platform designed to streamline the weird process human beings refer to as “dating.” It’s a perceptive piece in itself, but it’s also a valuable rejoinder to another Tinder essay published 2015, Nancy Jo Sales’ takedown in Vanity Fair. By approaching the app from several different standpoints—Tinder as software, Tinder as labor, Tinder as video game, and so on—Eler and Peyser manage to comprehend not just Tinder, but the accelerating change of the conditions under its users exist.
“Seeing Through Police” by Mark Greif in n+1 What is the place of the cop in a democratic society? In the course of exploring this question in his unsettling essay about police and police reform, Mark Greif argues that the social status and legal authority of police have vastly outgrown their historical role, under which they functioned less like a paramilitary force and more like a boring municipal agency or a small office within the judiciary. Today’s police, by contrast, occupy a position with multiple and therefore ambiguous duties, ranging from routing traffic, to chasing speeding cars, to touching, pushing, detaining, and maiming a great number of racial minorities. Anyone grappling with these realities, which conspire to place the very existence of police above question or comment, will benefit greatly from Greif’s essay.
“How Crazy Am I to Think I Know Where MH370 Is?” by Jeff Wise in New York I’m ready at a moment’s notice to read thousands of words on the great mystery of my lifetime, and this amateur investigation achieved such a good balance of realism and “but what if...” that I closed the tab thinking, “You know, maybe the plane really is in Kazakhstan.”
“Five Hostages” by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker This New Yorker tome by Scientology gnat Lawrence Wright about five families with children captured in the Middle East who were forced to band together to navigate the murky world of hostage-taking is in equal measures a class in modern geopolitics and a nimbly told look at excruciating human tragedy.
“Where Would the Kardashians Be Without Kris Jenner?” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the New York Times Magazine This year featured no better match of writer and subject.
“The Browns Way” by Joe Posnanski on NBC Sports Joe Posnanski is a preeminent sportswriter who can fall victim to the same wide-eyed, weepy tales of inspiration that entrap so many preeminent sportswriters. But he also has a rare gift for writing about sports incompetence, so it made perfect sense that he spent the fall writing about each game involving his hometown Cleveland Browns, the most incompetent sports franchise of a generation. This entry recounting the Browns’ heartbreaking and improbable loss to the Baltimore Ravens is so awesomely dry and emotionless.
The Twitter account of Vince Staples at @vincestaples Funniest person on the internet.
Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes (Riverhead) A tight little collection of stories that I love. You could even read it in one sitting, if that’s the way you like to read.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday) Krakauer’s methodical investigation into how the University of Montana recently dealt with several rape accusations against members of its football team was so much better than anything else written on the beat this year.
“My Push Present” by Kim Kardashian on KimKardashianWest.com. The only blogger I’m looking forward to reading in 2016 is Kim Kardashian.
The things that tended to stick with me this year were largely Twitter-sized morsels. “There were many hilarious things under his hat, including doge” will bounce around in my head for some time, I suspect. Jessica Misener’s delightful lampoon of second-generation Choire Sicha-via-Today In Tabs voice had a pitch-perfect opening: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. This was probably a very bad idea!” This gem from Mark E. Smith, to Shane McGowan, in 1988: “You don’t know fuck all about Nietzsche, pal!” And the Dril-like poetry of: “That’s it! I’m, Voting for Sarah...”
I also enjoyed:
Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard by Russell Miller One of the books I belatedly got around to this year was Going Clear. It was great, which was no surprise, considering the author and the subject. It also led me to a lesser-known but possibly even more entertaining read on the history of Scientology. Russell Miller’s exhaustive biography of L. Ron Hubbard, Bare-faced Messiah was originally published in 1987, but the Church of Scientology more or less successfully suppressed it with a deluge of lawsuits against its publisher. While it was available online since the 1990s, it was finally properly reprinted in 2014. Wright’s book is the more complete history of the church, but Miller, who had incredible access to Hubbard’s unpublished writings, including a journal he kept as a teenager, wrote what will likely remain the definitive biography of its incredible founder. Two highlights: Those aforementioned journal excerpts, which show young Hubbard elaborating on and embellishing his own legend in real time, and the book’s account of his dismal war service. Hubbard’s lengthy battle against wholly imaginary Japanese submarines off the coast of Oregon is high comedy.
“This Cartoon Does A Bad Job Of Explaining What Privilege Is” by Clickhole It’s 100 words and a bad drawing. It’s perfect.
What’s the best thing you read in 2015? Tell us in the comments below.