I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. But Jan. 15 resolutions? Well, that’s a whole other prospect. Actually, this was just an idea that came to me two weeks after it would’ve seemed fitting, but it was an idea none the less, and I wanted to follow through.
Here it is: I’m going to read a story a day for a whole year.
Now, I’ve got a little making up to do. The real goal is 366 stories in 366 days (happy Leap Year, btw) rather than one per day, since I got a late start. This also won’t be about reading a quick newser on Trump’s latest tweet or a gamer on a college basketball showdown. I’m talking about features, stories the writer put some real time and effort into. Mostly, I mean long form, but it’s not about length so much as depth. Does the piece try to say something? If so, it counts.
The reason for this plan is twofold. For one, I used to read a lot more than I have recently. I used to put out a list of my favorite stories at the end of each year, but I didn’t do it for 2019 because, frankly, I’d spent too much time watching TV and playing games on my phone than reading. But the second is, I think good writers get better by reading, and I want to get better. I want to read a lot, and I want to really give some thought to what the writer did with the story. Why did it work? Why didn’t it? How might I have approached it? And, of course, what can I steal from this for my own work?
So here’s the plan: I’ll read 366 stories in 2020 and post a link to each of them here. For some, I’ll write a bit about them. For others, just a link. But in a time when we could all use a reminder of why journalism matters, I hope it’ll at least be a good home for some quality work and, ideally, offer a little inspiration for me to do some quality work, too.
Got a story I should read? Please send me suggestions HERE.
1.) Lived In Bars by Helena Fitzgerald in Good Beer Hunting
Everyone who loves bars has at some point wrestled with some big questions about their own alcohol consumption. This makes me feel at least a little better about the idea that maybe it isn’t just the booze that keeps me coming back.
2.) How Toto’s “Africa” Became the New “Don’t Stop Believin” by Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone
I feel like there’s more of an idea here that’s not realized. Alas, Sheffield is still great and if you want a good book recommendation I suggest picking up “Love is a Mixtape.”
3.) He Is Our OJ by John F. Harris in Politico
4.) The Incredibly Happy Life of Larry David by Brett Martin in GQ
I generally hate celebrity profiles because they’re inherently just a story about the interview, which is lame. In this case though, the story of the interview really tells us a lot about Larry David, which should come as a surprise to no one.
5.) How Dog Parks Took Over the Urban Landscape by Alissa Greenberg at Smithsonian
6.) Who Was I in College by Wright Thompson in Mizzou News
This was a fine piece about Wright’s time at Missouri and the old haunts he inhabited there, but it’s not my favorite piece by Wright about old bars. His best story on the subject is about Elaine’s, an old sports writer favorite in New York City, a place that, once Wright finished college and left to become the best sports writer of his generation, getting to drink at Elaine’s was a benchmark, a sign he’d made it. It’s a great piece, but I absolutely loved the ending.
The last night at Elaine’s was a time to remember, to celebrate what had been done and look forward to whatever was coming next. That’s what a great bar does. It stays the same so we can measure our own change. That’s why we mourn them when they disappear.
How great is that? It’s beautiful. Man, Wright can put an ending together. I wish I could just steal all his endings.
But let’s talk about bars. I’ve spent a lot of time at a lot of bars over the years, but when I read any stories about the ones that really meant something, the bars that were so bad they were good, the ones that were uniquely YOURS not because of all the great stuff but because of all the flaws that you and a select group of other unfortunate misfits all managed to love anyway, when I read those stories, I think of Charley B’s.
My first big-boy job in journalism (if you can call making $24K/year a “big boy job”) was at the Albany Herald in a small town in Southwest Georgia. This was in 2005, when small-town newspapers could still be a good place to start a career. I flew in to interview and my boss picked me up at the little commuter airport. He wouldn’t let me rent a car. He told me later it was because he didn’t want me to see too much of the town and not want the job. That was a smart plan. Albany was terrible, a true bastion of the worst parts of the old south, poor and decaying and overtly racist far too often, a place where the smart folks got out and the folks who remained weren’t too interested in change, no matter how bleak the future looked on its current trajectory. All of that is to say, Albany wasn’t a town with a lot of fun places to go out.
And yet… we went out. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. And, if we were out, the night certainly ended at Charley B’s, an absolute gem of a dive bar, where a moose head hung on the wall with dozens of panties dangling from its antlers, the men’s room had a hole in the wall between two urinals marking the spot where a third one had long since disappeared, and there was a weekly “swimsuit” competition in which the MC repeated the event’s slogan: “Skin to win, ladies.”
I had, to be generous, a love-hate affair with the place during my time in Albany. I would’ve preferred to be anywhere else, and yet I wouldn’t trade those nights for anything — me, at the dawn of a career I couldn’t even really see at the time, commiserating with people who’d become some of my best friends despite meeting them in a most unlikely of locations. It was a place where, when I walked in, my beer was already waiting on the bar, but also a place that insisted I pay a cover even when I got there at 1:15 a.m. and the band had already packed up to go home. It’s a place where a bartender once bribed me with beef jerky to back down from a fight in the parking lot. Fond memories? Maybe not. Memories? OK, that’s perhaps going too far, too. But it happened.
I eventually moved on from Albany — a long story in its own right — and I’m certain I swore I’d never go back. But of course I went back. We never escape our darkest fears and worst impulses. It’s why alcoholics are always “recovering” and never “recovered.”
I was in a bad place at the time. I was in between jobs, uncertain I’d ever make it as a writer. In Albany, I’d been a semi-big fish in a very small pond, and I left to go do something more. I’d accomplished nothing. I left, too, to follow a girl, but we broke up. (Spoiler alert: We got back together later. We’ve been married 10 years.) I thought I was special, and the world outside little Albany had told me I was not.
So I went back to visit friends and drink away a few sorrows and feel a little better about myself by spending time in a place I figured was beneath me but, in fact, was always exactly where I belonged.
When I walked back in to Charley B’s on that first return trip, I was stunned. They’d fixed the place up. Sure, the moose was still there, but they’d invested some money in new tables and bar stools and cleaned and polished and, while I wouldn’t have recommended eating off the floor, I think you probably could’ve at least done it without catching a flesh-eating bacteria.
It was fitting, I guess. I was a different person now, too. I just expected when I returned, I’d get that same feeling — maybe arrogance, but at least some sense of self worth by spending a little time in a place where I knew I could do better. But that’s now how it looked. The bar got better, and I was barely treading water. This awful dive bar had made more progress in a year than I had.
But I was at Charley B’s, so I drank. I drank and drank and then I had to pee. I walked into the men’s room, where a new stall had a working door and none of the sinks were dripping brownish liquid and no vomit was on the floor. And then I saw it. There, in between two urinals, was a hole in the wall.
I was elated. I took my spot at one of the functional urinals and I beamed. Sure, there was a fresh coat of paint on the walls, but this was still my place. They’d kept it that way, maybe just for me. This place was a dive, and it was happy that way. They could add a little window dressing when they had to, but if Charley B’s was OK with its scars and its flaws and its limitations, hell, so was I.
I left the bathroom and ran to the bar to find Frankie, the proprietor of the place.
“Frankie!” I yelled. “What a nice touch! You cleaned up the whole place, but left the urinal missing for old time’s sake! I love it!”
Frankie looked confused.
“No, man,” he said. “We replaced the urinal. Somebody just got drunk and ripped it out of the wall again last week.”
And that’s why we love old bars. They stay the same so we can measure how far we’ve come.
7.) So long, salt and vinegar: how crisp flavours went from simple to sensational by Amelia Tait in The Guardian
Sucker for food stories.
8.) ‘No blondes allowed’: 50 years after a junior high experiment, students say it had ‘a big impact’ by Diane Bernard in The Washington Post
9.) How This Con Man’s Wild Testimony Sent Dozens to Jail, and 4 to Death Row by Pamela Colloff in New York Times Magazine
There are a handful of writers that are required reading every time they have a new piece, and Colloff is one of them. Her work on the problems in the criminal justice system has changed lives. This is an especially disturbing account.
Aside from the quality of the reporting, however, the thing that always stands out for me from Colloff’s reporting is how well she turns documents (court and police records, witness accounts, etc.) into compelling, plot-driven narrative. That’s really hard to do.
10. The 2010s have broken our sense of time by Katherine Miller in Buzzfeed News.
11) 7 Theories of What The Wizard of Oz Is Really About by Bilge Ebiri in Vulture.
12) A $100,000 Bill? The Story Behind Large-Denomination Currency by Ethan Trex in Mental Floss
I was at a wedding last weekend in Athens, Georgia, which necessitated a 3-hour (each way) drive, which meant I listed to some podcasts. Among them was a good one from Stuff You Should Know on currency (an old one from 2014 they’d recently re-aired) that mentioned both articles, so I got curious and read them and, if there’s a lesson learned here, it’s that it helps to have your stories mentioned in podcasts.
13) A World Without Pain by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker.
14) Gossiping is Good by Ben Healy in The Atlantic.
First, this story notes a study done by Texas & Oklahoma, which… seems like some real gossiping might’ve gone down there.
Second, if you’ve ever read “Sapiens,” there’s strong anthropological evidence that humanity flourished as a species directly because of gossiping.
15)If Everyone Hates Spirit Airlines, How Is It Making So Much Money? by Rob Walker in Medium.
I’m a sucker for any story about airline economics. I also loved this advice from the former CEO of Spirit in response to customer dissatisfaction:
Looking back, he concedes that perhaps the Spirit brand was a little more brazen than it needed to be. But he’s not exactly apologetic: Sure, there were lots of complaints, but Spirit consistently delivered on its low-cost promise, and that’s why customers kept coming. “Businesses that look at what people say,” he argues, “don’t do as well as businesses that look at what people actually do.”
This is also a terrific example of a story that takes a thing people talk about (Spirit Airlines) and actually looks under the hood in a way that few of the people talking ever bother to do. It’s one of the best ways to find a story idea — what’s something in the cultural zeitgeist worthy of exploration that hasn’t been explored? — but it’s also oddly hard to do. The subject matter is often so commonplace as to rarely raise an alarm bell that there’s actually undiscovered depth to the topic. Often “trend stories” are less about a trend than forcing a non-significant blip (Every local news has a “new trend your kids are doing” story that ends up being about Tide pods or butt chugging and becomes a joke) or a rehash of something we’ve heard a million times. But there’s real value in finding the stuff between those two things, which I’ve tried to explore at times (like my story last year on fan memes) but still could use to do a lot more of.
16) The Myth of Self-Reliance by Jenny Odell in the Paris Review
If you can get past the first few paragraphs, which feel a bit too English major-ish for my tastes, this is an interesting discussion of the individual vs. society debate that essentially underpins every significant political argument we have.
17) Remembering Kobe Bryant required the hammer of truth by David Von Drehle in The Washington Post
OK, so this isn’t longform but it hits a bit on the conflict I’ve felt since the death of Kobe Bryant. The grief experienced by people — fans, teammates, competitors, media — is real. The scope of this tragedy — the eight others who died — makes it all the more overwhelming. And yet…
The outpouring of celebration of the man, rather than the athlete, has been disconcerting to me. At best, Kobe Bryant was a transcendent basketball player who once cheated on his wife, assaulted a woman during the course of a sexual act he believed to be consensual, paid her a lot of money to make a case go away, and then bettered himself to become a good father. At worst, he was a spoiled kid who had everything from an early age, who at the height of his fame, raped a 19-year-old.
And yet the response has been almost universal canonization of the man, with everyone gushing over the unique ways he made them feel special, the enormity of his talent, and his life as a father. The hashtag #girldad was trending.
But I can’t help but think about the girl who accused him of rape and what her father must be thinking about as the world sings Kobe’s praises. That’s what Felicia Sonmez, herself a sexual assault survivor, was also thinking when she tweeted a link to a well-reported story on the rape accusation, which resulted in disgusting backlash and, in my opinion, even more disgusting suspension from her job at the Post.
There certainly are other aspects of Bryant that warrant consideration, too — his competitiveness on one hand, the fact that many players disliked playing with him on the other. That might be some nice shading to a story, too. But this issue of sexual assault is at the forefront of our current cultural reckoning, and for Bryant, it’s been utterly absent from the discussion. In a time when we’re tearing down statues built to flawed men, people are now calling for the NBA to change its logo to an image of Kobe. In a time when we want women to feel strong, we’ve utterly ignored a woman whom Kobe made feel incredibly weak.
Now, given the circumstances of his death and the timing and lack of context afforded by Twitter, Sonmez’s tweet may have been in poor taste in that specific moment, but there’s more going on here than simply aggrandizing the dead. The narrative that ignored the rape charge was essentially true of Kobe’s retirement, too.
I never met Bryant, but even if I had, I wouldn’t be comfortable offering the reverence that is being afforded this week. A thing I learned a long time ago in this business is that you never really know the subjects you cover, and that most ultra-rich, ultra-successful, ultra-famous people bring with them ample baggage. Sonmez didn’t want that baggage ignored.
Sonmez kept both eyes on the truth — or more precisely, on one particular truth, namely that somewhere a woman was experiencing this outpouring of adulation for a man who choked and lacerated her during an encounter that she called a rape, and which he acknowledged was very much like one. And that this woman, and others like her, victimized by other accomplished, admired, even celebrated men, should not be resected from the stories of those men’s lives.
It is sad when a person dies young. It is far sadder to see the loss of children. It is reasonable for people to grieve now. But grieving is not the job of a journalist. It is our job to tell the truth, to offer context, to balance those gut feelings with a bigger picture, and to set aside the will of the masses to prioritize the accuracy of history. That a journalist was suspended by her employer — the Washington Post, no less — for doing exactly that is despicable.
What will be said at the deaths of other flawed men? Bill Cosby, Michael Vick, Ray Lewis, Floyd Mayweather, Ray Rice… on and on and on. They’ve all reached heights similar to Bryant in some way. They’ve all been mentors, role models, heroes. They’ve all made genuinely positive impacts on people at some time or another. And at other times, all were monsters.
The world is full of shades of gray, and regardless of your opinion of Kobe Bryant, it is a disservice to ignore that he was a complex human being, capable of both greatness and, for at least one woman, great horrors. In death, those shades of gray don’t simply disappear.
18.) Gayle King doesn’t deserve your anger by David Dennis Jr. in The Undefeated
And again, the frustration isn’t so much that people are celebrating Kobe’s legacy, it’s that it’s genuinely dangerous to even question the portrayal or suggest there’s more to the story. So odd.
19.) This Tom Hanks Story Will Help You Feel Less Bad by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in The New York Times.
I liked this, but it felt a little too meta — a story that worked a bit too hard to mimic the Tom Junod piece on Mr. Rogers, which if you haven’t read it, is amazing.
20.) The Great Affordability Crisis Breaking America by Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic
This is a great piece because it cuts to the heart of a problem that gets talked about ad nauseam without anyone really digging into the “why” of it all. Reminds me a lot of the “who’s going to pay for health care?!?” discussion that has dominated politics for two decades (at least) without anyone (seemingly) asking “why has healthcare gotten so expensive in the first place”?
21.) How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition by Daniel Markovits in The Atlantic
Had meant to read this last year, but it was linked in the previous story on affordability, so I finally got around to it. I wouldn’t have thought there was a compelling argument against meritocracy, but this was not bad. The bigger (and unanswered) question though is: What’s the alternative?
22.) What I’ve learned from my tally of 757 doctor suicides by Pamela Wible in The Washington Post
23.) The Machine Stops by Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker
A treatise by an old person on the problems with modern life. I get it. I just don’t know how much I buy into alarmist, Luddite rhetoric. This interview points out some of the alternatives to the discussion.
24.) The Outsize Influence of Your Middle-School Friends by Lydia Denworth in The Atlantic
25.) The Mathematics of Mind-Time by Karl Friston in Aeon
*brain exploding emoji*
26.) The Ghost Hunter by Leah Sottile in The Atavist
If you tie your story to “Goonies,” I’m definitely going to read it.
On to February HERE…
Books I read in January:
- The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdiniby Joe Posnanski
One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in Americaby Gene Weingarten
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman
Calypso by David Sedaris