What are the best features stories I’ve ever read? No clue. The list is too long. But a few do immediately spring to mind, and since we all have some extra time on our hands, I figured I’d put together a quick list here for your reading pleasure.
Got favorites you’ve read over the years? Please share in the comments.
The Squid Hunter by David Grann in The New Yorker
This is my default answer for the best thing I’ve ever read. It’s just perfect in every way, a small story that is a big one, a true-life Moby Dick. It’s brilliant. Of course, everything by David Grann is brilliant, and if you’re looking for something longer, The Lost City of Z and Killers of the Flower Moon are both book-length tours de force.
As Time Runs Out by Gary Smith in Sports Illustrated
This is the story that made me want to become a sports writer, the moment I realized that the job wasn’t just writing about games. The story of Jim Valvano’s final days is told with such compassion and honestly and emotion. It’s a work of art. Gary Smith was my idol growing up, and I’ve been lucky enough to get to know him a little, and his work at SI is just tremendous always. But this one will always stand out to me.
The Promise by Joe Posnanski on JoeBlogs
Springsteen and dads. It doesn’t get much more white American sports writer than this. But Joe Posnanski, one of the most compassionate writers out there, does something utterly gorgeous with this piece that will make you want to listen to Nebraska on Spotify and call your old man.
Frank Sinatra has a Cold by Gay Tales in Esquire
Arguably the single most famous piece of profile writing ever done, and it deserves all the hype.
Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? and Why Not the Worst? both by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post
Everything Gene Weingarten has ever written is genius, but these two — absolute polar opposites in terms of subject matter — are probably my favorites. (Note: He won the Pulitzer for a different story, Pearls Before Breakfast.) The former, a deep look into the aftermath of the worst mistake a parent can make — leaving their child in a hot car — is perhaps the most emotional story I’ve ever read. In fact, since I’ve had my own kids, I can’t read it. No one has ever added empathy to such dark subject matter better, though. It’s amazing. The latter, on Weingarten’s quest to find America’s worst city, is so insightfully hilarious that it’s a perfect pick-me-up in an otherwise very dark time.
Final Salute by Jim Sheeler in the Rocky Mountain News
The photos and reporting for this piece are so vivid that the piece in its entirety is just a complete gut punch. When I think of the Bush years, the unending wars, of 9/11 and the aftermath, of the first decade of this century — this will be the story that defines it for me. But as if this story needed more tragedy, the RMN folded just a couple years after this piece won the Pulitzer.
The Falling Man by Tom Junod in Esquire
Tom Junod has gotten a lot of publicity lately for his profile of Mr. Rogers, which of course, is excellent, but for me, The Falling Man is a quintessentially perfect piece of journalism, a piece that will stand on its own in the history of writing as something unique and special and perfect. In the aftermath of 9/11, I’m not sure anything so perfectly captures the true emotion of that day as honestly as this does.
You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey by Tommy Tomlinson at ESPN.com
My friend Tommy Tomlinson is a brilliant writer, but he’s also a man who’s carried the burden of his weight with him for nearly his entire life. In fact, he wrote a book about it, and you should definitely read that book. But the book probably wouldn’t have happened if not for this story, a brilliant bit of writing — including arguably my favorite lede to any story ever — about Jared Lorenzen, the Hefty Lefty, who was making the rounds on the Internet as a point-and-laugh fat QB in the Arena League before Tommy wrote a beautiful story that captured the utter torment for people whose passion and weight often pull them in different directions. That Lorenzen died last year only adds to the emotion of reading this piece now.
Right Here Waiting by Edward McClellan in The Morning News
Richard Marx got some Twitter buzz last week for talking shit on social media. For anyone who read this wonderful piece, that wasn’t news. This is a hilarious story of the feud between the writer and the 80s pop star, but it’s also something more, about finding your place in a world that isn’t always looking to make room for you. It’s just terrific.
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace in Gourmet
I mean, knock yourself out on Infinite Jest if you’re really looking to do some DFW during your quarantine, but if you’re looking for something a bit more manageable, here ya go.
Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker
First-person essays are dangerous. The upside is an ability to really tell a story because, of course, the writer lived it. The downside is that it’s way too easy to get into the weeds, to veer off course, to gloss over the less comfortable moments. None of that happens here. This story of the writer’s miscarriage is utterly heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest.
After Newtown shooting, mourning parents enter into the lonely quiet by Eli Saslow in The Washington Post
There are many great writers who came out of Syracuse, so my chances of reaching the top of the totem pole were already pretty low. But the bottom line is, nothing I write will ever be as good as this, so Eli Saslow has permanent bragging rights.
Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building by Wright Thompson at ESPN.com
The GOAT of modern sports writing at his absolute apex.
The Innocent Manby Pamela Colloff in Texas Monthly
Pamela Colloff is one of my favorite writers, and this story has started nearly a decade of reporting on people who’ve been wrongfully convicted. She’s done some amazing work, and I’d recommend reading more of it, but this piece remains my favorite.
What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane by William Langewieche in The Atlantic
Just terrific reporting, told in a riveting narrative. It’s heart stopping and heart breaking at the same time. One of the best things I’ve read in the past few years.
Cake Weather by Holly Anderson in Medium
Man, I loved this story about a cake recipe being passed down through the family and the writer’s job of making correctly. Holly Anderson is a terrific writer, and I wish she got to do it more. I’d also highly recommend her story from Grantland on Florida Man.
The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence by Tim Urban at Wait But Why
The most mind-bendy feature on AI that I’ve ever read. Is it a bit too far on the optimist’s side of things? Perhaps. But it’s still an gloriously fun read.
Additionally, if you’re looking for something good to read to pass the time in quarantine, a few places you can find ample material: