February Reading List -or- How I Learned to Stop Watching So Much TV and Read on My Cell Phone Instead

If you missed my January post, I’m trying to read 366 pieces of quality journalism in 366 days in 2020, and because I got a late start, I’m still working to play catch-up. (Ed. I caught up a bit, and am on to March HERE.)

I also went back and added a ⭐ to the stories I thought were genuine standouts, so you don’t have to sift through it all if you want to just find the best of the best.

26.) The Myth of Authenticity Is Killing Tex-Mex by Meghan McCarron in Eater

Man, I enjoyed this story so much. This is such a perfect example of how taking a small idea and really digging into it can open up so many avenues to explore far bigger cultural, social and human issue. Terrific piece.

27.) The Last Time Democracy Almost Died by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker

Every story about how WW2 helped save democracy that ignores the fact that we put Japanese Americans into internment camps and the myriad other problems in 1940s society in the US really frustrate me.

28.) China Sacrifices a Province to Save the World From Coronavirus in Bloomburg

29.) An Unsettling New Theory: There Is No Swing Voter by David Freedlander in Politico

Interesting piece that didn’t address the central question I wanted to know: Why does Rachel Bitecofer curse so damn much?

30.) Stop Blaming History for Your All-White, All-Male Movie by Aisha Harris in The New York Times

I went in to this dubious about the premise. Instead, it was an articulate argument about the need for a better understanding of minorities in history rather than a refutation of the movies that have been made.

31.) The Danger of Befriending Celebrities by Michael Musto in Longreads

32.) Late Bloomers by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker

33.) ‘How do you get over it?’ Football, grief and hope two years after Parkland by Andrea Adelson on ESPN

Andrea is such a great writer, but the reporting on this is what makes it. It’s just spectacular.

34.) Behind the Scenes at Rotten Tomatoes by Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in Wired

This is a great example of a story that, at its heart, is about analytics (though I doubt anyone at Rotten Tomatoes would see it that way) where the analytics still aren’t really explained. Why does Rotten Tomatoes do a bad job of comparing the quality of movies? Because that’s not what it measures. It measures the percentage of people who like the movie. It’s still a fine piece of writing, but as someone who deals with stats all the time, I really wish that, rather than lamenting the faults of a place like Rotten Tomatoes, we did a better job of explaining exactly what it is Rotten Tomatoes is trying to measure.

35.) The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln by Bill Jensen in The Washingtonian

This is from 2015, but it’s an excellent Presidents’ Day read. (Or is it President’s Day?)

36.) How Elon Musk went from sleeping in the factory to being on the cusp of launching a crew into space by Christian Davenport and Faiz Siddiqui in The Washington Post

37.) Why the NBA isn’t as offensive as you think by Dave Barry in the Miami Herald

I had lunch recently with a couple of friends who are longtime brilliant writers, and the topic of athletic greatness came up. More to the point, the topic of how even the worst pros are massively better than most of the best amateurs. They both recalled this wonderful feature from the always delightful Dave Barry from 30 years ago about former Miami Heat center Grant Long, and it’s just a great read all the way through. I always say I want to make lighter stories more colorful, and too often I fall back into a more formal style. This is a great example of making a fun story more fun by writing it with the type of humor it warrants.

38.) The Weirdest Subway Restaurant in America by Byron Tau in The Wall Street Journal

This was disappointingly light on details, which I suppose may have been a matter of restrictions from the CIA. Nevertheless, it reminded me of this piece I’d read way back in 2014 about the FBI’s Starbucks, which I genuinely enjoyed.

39.) How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s by Tim Maughan in Medium

40.) Black Families Came to Chicago by the Thousands. Why Are They Leaving? by Julie Bosman in The New York Times

Last summer, I read “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which should be require for every high school student in America. This piece was a sad coda to the story of the Great Migration.

41.) Rob McElhenney Is Ready for His Next Quest by Emma Dibdin in Esquire

42.) You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus by James Hamblin in The Atlantic

43.) M.I.A. by Matthew Shaer in The Atavist

Man, talk about thoroughly researched! The author goes on numerous out-of-the-way journeys to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam just trying to prove something that seems quite obvious. But more than that, this story goes to show how easy it is to convince people of a thing they really WANT to believe.

And since the title does little to explain the story, here’s the subhed with the premise: Half a century ago, an American commando vanished in the jungles of Laos. In 2008, he reappeared in Vietnam, reportedly alive and well. But nothing was what it seemed.

44.) Sturgill Simpson Has A Lot To Get Off His Chest by Steven Hyden at Uproxx

So, is Sturgill our most Dylan-eque current musician or just an asshole? I’m not sure.

45.) An SEC football coach became a Trump-loving Senate hopeful. His players no longer recognize him. by Kent Babb in The Washington Post

Just a terrific profile of candidate Tommy Tuberville here. For Trump supporters, I’m sure there’ll be something to nitpick — for example, just three former players speak in the piece, which may not be at all representative — but I think the story does a nice job of laying out the color and the quotes and letting you decide for yourself.

46.) My Ex-Boyfriend’s New Girlfriend Is Lady Gaga by Lindsay Crouse in The New York Times

47.) Why Meeting Another’s Gaze Is so Powerfulby Christian Jarrett in BBC Future

48.) The Who By Fire by Stephen Rodrick in Rolling Stone

49.) The Enemies of Writing by George Packer in The Atlantic

I dunno. I think this has some very smart elements but also — it feels a bit like “these kids today! Get off my lawn!” Is there a sincere push by bigger media outlets to control their writers? Sure. But I’m not sure that was markedly different for the average writer before. And there are still tons of great journalists and writers doing great things that aren’t all about trying to mimic their audience.

50.) The Sting by Michael Lista in Toronto Life

This might be the best bit of narrative journalism I’ve read so far this year, and it was just incredibly impactful. By the end, your heart breaks for virtually everyone in the piece. My only critique: I wish there was more. There’s so much terrific reporting in the build-up, but the post-climax feels rushed and I just want to hear more — from everyone.

51.) Macaulay Culkin Is Not Like You by Robbie Fimmano in Esquire

This profile does what most good ones should: It lets the subject speak. Instead of trying to force an angle on the subject, instead of just rehashing the minutiae of the interview process, the writer doesn’t try at all to flex. He just asks good questions and prints the insightful answers.

52.) The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake by David Brooks in The Atlantic

This felt like it was a long build-up to a sales pitch for Brooks’ charity of choice. It was interesting and well researched and clearly a topic Brooks cares deeply about — but I’m just not sure I came away feeling like the ending provided much closure. Still well worth the read for the purposes of better understanding the problems.

53.) The Compelling Case for Working A Lot Less by Amanda Ruggeri for BBC

Lots of good info in here and, I think, gets at one of the biggest reasons I wanted to take on the task of reading more. It’s a chance, not to shut my brain off, but to force my brain to think about the things that aren’t immediately in front of me. There’s a strong case to be made that due to the ubiquitous access to entertainment and information we have, it’s created a society in which it’s impossible to be bored. I think boredom is critical. I don’t mean watching paint dry, but simply a chance to let your mind wander or process thoughts that get lost in the buzz of everyday life. I find I come up with my best story ideas while on the treadmill, but it’s all part of the shower analogy — that getting a shower is the place to clear your head, be bored, and creativity simply occurs. On the other hand, I also bring my cell phone in the shower with me fairly often.

54.) Murder in Fairfield County by Rich Cohen in Air Mail

This is Part 1 of what will be at least five parts, of which I’ve read three. I hated them. Hated. If I was teaching a class on feature writing, I would use this as an example of what NOT to do. It is overwriting in the extreme. Here’s this from the lede:

In life, as at the movies, be suspicious of any character better-looking than is strictly necessary.

Great, you thought of a cool thing to say. How does it do anything for the story other than shine a light on how snarkily smart you are? A bit of advice I got about writing — which, sadly, I cannot remember who said it — was that if you think of a line you’re incredibly proud of because it’s so clever, that’s the first line you need to cut. Writing shouldn’t be about showing off.

Those types of literary flourishes are planted throughout the three sections I’ve read, and perhaps some people will like it. Fine. What’s far more troubling here is that so little research has been done. There are just insanely huge leaps in logic being laid out here that, while entirely plausible, have zero evidence to support them beyond the author’s own assumptions.

Here’s one rather small but illustrative example:

What would Jennifer Farber Dulos make of the move to Connecticut?

We know only that she had grown up in New York and toiled as a writer and married in her mid-30s and now found herself in a huge house on a dead-end street with trees encroaching from every side. There was a rinky-dink town, a country club, a shopping mall, and a pond that was good for waterskiing. According to an informal survey, it takes four to six years for an average city dweller to acclimate to life in the suburbs. Try to surface too fast, your veins fill with nitrogen bubbles, you hallucinate and die. For a person used to high-density apartment living, a large house can be terrifying—all those rooms, all that space. You might walk through the halls with a baseball bat at two a.m., calling out, “Hello? Is anyone there?” It would be worse if your spouse were never around, if he were always running out to a meeting or a site inspection or to drinks with a client at Ruby Tuesday or the Wood-n-Tap Bar & Grill on Farmington Avenue.

“We know only that…”

No, the writer “knows only that” but by talking with her friends, her family, her neighbors… doing more reporting might’ve allowed for an actual description of her feelings rather than generic assumptions the writer imposes upon her. The writer swaps out Jennifer for a generic “you,” which comes off as an easy way to make the reader feel something that seems possible but has no actual basis in facts. There are far more glaring and insidious uses of this same tactic when it comes to the husband and mistress.

In all, this comes down to a point-and-laugh look at rich people in Connecticut where he’s making up the characters from scratch and simply assigning them the actions of real people as the plot device. Go back and read “The Sting” or “MIA” and compare how those narrative pieces are told to this one, which reads more like a faux-high-brow murder mystery novel. As omniscient voice fiction, it might be a real page-turner. As journalism, it’s shoddy at best.

So… We ended this month only 6 stories behind the pace for 366, so that’s real progress. Got any recommendations? I’d love to hear them if you want to post links in the comments. Then check out the March reading list HERE.

What I wrote this month:

Been a slow month for writing for me, but I did this piece on Mike Mamula and the 1995 combine that changed the way players prepare for the NFL draft.

What else I’m reading:

I’m about halfway through Ron Chernow’s epic biography of Alexander Hamilton and no I’ve never seen the play but I do want to now.

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