Best reads of 2022

I read a lot of journalism because I feel like it’s impossible to be good at something if you don’t also spend a lot of time studying others who do that thing well. And, since I read a lot, I’ve made a habit of, each December, putting together a list of my favorite stories I’ve read during the past year.

You can find my 2021 list HERE.

You can find my 2020 list HERE.

As for 2022, I struggled to narrow things down to 10 (and, as a result, my top 10 actually includes 12 stories) so here’s the list along with a bunch of honorable mentions.

Happy reading!

Honorable mentions:

  • December offers a truly endless supply of lists, most of which are simply opportunities to remind yourself that, oh yeah, “Severance” was a thing I watched in 2022. This one, however, was actually insightful, funny and thought-provoking: Tom Whitwell’s 52 Things I Learned in 2022 in Medium.
  • Speaking of thought-provoking, I enjoyed Jason Kehes “Of Course We’re Living in a Simulationfrom Wired. I’ve done a rather embarrassing amount of reading on metaphysics and the possibility we are, indeed, all part of a simulation, including a book Kehe mentions in his piece,Reality+” by David Chalmers. But if I’m going to recommend one item from my long list of “what does it all mean?” research, I’d suggest A Trip to Infinity on Netflix, which was completely mind-bending and yet entirely accessible.
  • I sometimes worry that stories like this one — Madeleine Aggeler’s “In the Court of the Liver Kingfor GQ — do just enough to glamorize the subject while intending it to be something of a circus freak show that they add credibility to something or someone who doesn’t deserve it. Still, I can’t argue that this wasn’t a fun and ridiculous read.
  • I’ll write more on the topic of government agencies that have long since exceeded their value with my top story of the year, but this piece from Darryl Campbell in The Verge on the utter misery of working at the TSA is an exceptional example of well intended government bureaucracy going awry.
  • My pal Tommy Tomlinson says a story should have two central points: 1.) What’s it about? And 2.) What’s it really about? What I loved about this piece from Kelsey Vlamis in Business Insider about a mountain climber’s fall on Denali has a genuinely engaging narrative that also asks the deeper question of what we owe to a complete stranger in moments of great stress.

Honorable mention, Part II: What has become of our society?

I found myself reading less than usual this year. It wasn’t intentional, but more a byproduct of the fact that so much of the best journalism was about stuff I simply lacked the emotional bandwidth to consume after years of stress and anxiety about politics and pandemics and — well, everything. I think, of all the divisions in our country right now, one of the most problematic is the one between the people who have found meaning in the fight and those of us who are simply exhausted by it, and want to find some small sense of normalcy again.

It feels like land mines are hidden around every corner by folks who have found an identity in culture wars, political crusades, conspiracy theories, cancel culture — on and on and on — and I, for one, am just tired of being eternally vigilant. I think about movies like “Das Boot” or “Jarhead,” where soldiers are damaged less by those rare moments of genuine stress and more by the ceaseless need to be prepared for disaster for weeks and months and years. We all deserve a break, but there never seems to be a means of escape.

As such, I found myself reading a lot this year about the people who have been victimized, in one way or another, by this endless war on… what, exactly? The specter of potential danger? The threats of an unseen enemy? The belief that the very survival of our family and friends and country depends on us, individually, fighting endlessly? The fallout of those battles is everywhere, as these pieces showed.

  • I think Senator Chris Murphy oversells what government can — or should — do to address the problem, but his essay in The Bulwark on the epidemic of loneliness in our country hits on what may ultimately be the defining issue of our time.
  • This piece in the New York Times from Campbell Robertson feels so insanely tragic: A Kentucky man goes down the conspiracy theory/end times rabbit hole, builds a bunker under his house, and then sees his daughter murdered by another man obsessed with the end times and the need to secure his own safe space when the inevitable civil war comes.
  • Becca Rothfield‘s piece in The New Yorker certainly isn’t the first to address “the Shaming Industrial Complex,” but it’s yet another reminder that the cost of making ourselves feel better is often a cruel and unusual punishment for those who’ve made mistakes. As a society, we lack any sense of grace these days.
  • I’m not an Andrew Yang fan by any means, but his essay in The Washington Post, backed up by boatloads of data, about the price males are paying amid a societal reckoning on sexism and misogyny, is really eye opening.
  • David Wolman‘s New York Times story on two men who set out for Hawaii to escape Covid-19 lockdowns is yet another example of how the right-wing media’s obsession with conspiracy theories and outrage led to the (likely) deaths of people who buy in to the whole narrative.

The Top 10

  1. What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic

First off, I cannot emphasize enough what a terrific follow Derek Thompson is on Twitter. Perhaps part of this comes from his work really being in my readership wheelhouse — contrarian, data-driven, thought-provoking, and often with a nice analogue to sports. (In fact, if you’re looking for a pure sports-and-data piece, here’s another exceptional piece from this year on the most amazing statistical achievements in sports.)

As for this story, it hits on something I’ve been thinking about for a while — that imperfection is actually essential to humanity. I starting considering this with regards to replay in college football. I hate replay. Hate, hate, hate it. Yes, it may correct incorrect calls — but the cost, in my opinion, far outweighs the benefits. It slows the game down, priorities tedium over the bigger picture, and asks officials to go against their instincts to make calls with the expressed intent of “fixing” them later on replay.

But Thompson’s piece goes bigger: By determining the ideal blueprint to maximize an advantage, we remove the fun from the entire system. This is true in baseball, clearly, but I think you can see it all over these days when so many things are determined by an algorithm programmed toward efficiency when, at least to a degree, I think most people enjoy the messiness, the unexpected, the chance that, in a chaotic world in which anything can happen, at least one of those outcomes might be something truly remarkable.

The point: Efficiency has diminishing returns, and beyond a certain point, more order equates to less enjoyment.

  1. A Pirate Looks at 61 by Spencer Hall and Holly Anderson for Channel 6

Holly and Spencer have somehow become the go-to obit writers for complex characters. I had a good relationship with Mike Leach. I liked him. It was hard not to. But he was not a man without flaws, and he was not someone whose life could — or should — be summed up in a neat package. The Channel 6 reckoning with his sudden death this month did a fantastic job of capturing the man behind the character, and it was one of the few truly fitting send-offs to the Pirate.

8 (tie). How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student by Rachel Aviv in The New Yorker

and In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things by Bill McKibben in The New Yorker

I included these two stories together because I felt the same way about them when I was done reading them: I had questions.

I don’t mean this as a negative, per se, because obviously I loved the pieces overall. They were challenging and insightful and well reported — and yet I felt each had a clear thesis, delivered a stirring argument in support of it, and yet left me with some follow-up questions I wish could’ve also been answered.

In Rachel Aviv’s piece about a girl who was abused by her mother, escaped that horror, then was thrust back into it when Penn decided it didn’t believe her story, the obvious emotional response is outrage. How could this happen? How could so many people fail to believe this girl? How could Penn victimize her all over again? In fact, the question of how this could happen — and how her mother seemed to escape sincere scrutiny for so long — was so big that I came away wondering what I was missing.

In McKibben’s piece, he includes tons of research to support his opinion, but I think he too often shrugs off the politics of the situation in favor of the obvious “we should be doing this!” mantra. He’s probably right — and I think there’s a huge issue with assuming the status quo is better than an alternative because the immediate expense is large and the rewards come over a longer term. Ultimately, McKibben makes the case that there is no panacea to our energy and environmental concerns, that we have to take the bad with the good, that we must make the leap now, even at great cost, to avoid a far higher bill in the future. Again, I think he’s probably right. But I had so many follow-up questions afterward.

I think that good stories should do that — leave you wanting more. Both of these stories opened the door to stories where I simply wasn’t satisfied with what was on the page. I wanted to live among them longer, to ask my own questions, to dig deeper and deeper until I was utterly comfortable with the narrative.

(And, of note, Aviv’s piece led to a reversal by Penn. Again, the mark of great journalism is creating actual change.)

  1. At 88, Poker Legend Doyle Brunson Is Still Bluffing. Or Is He? by Joe Levin in Texas Monthly

There’s no magic trick to this story. It’s just a good, old-fashioned profile of someone I knew a little about and enjoyed every new detail I learned. Great writing matched with a great profile subject equates to a great story.

  1. I’ve Always Struggled With My Weight. Losing It Didn’t Mean Winning by Sam Anderson in The New York Times

When I read a personal essay, I’m far less concerned with it being “good” so much as engaging and honest. Thankfully, Anderson hits those notes with ease while still delivering a really well written, funny, emotional and thought-provoking piece that asks some important questions about diet, health and how we manage the very strange relationship we have with our own bodies.

5 (tie). The Sordid History of Hunter Biden’s Laptop by Andrew Rice and Olivia Nuzzi for The Intelligencer

and ‘He’s Not OK’: The Entirely Predictable Unraveling of Madison Cawthorn by Michael Kruse for Politico

I loved these stories because they approached two very flawed human beings with an empathetic eye that allowed the central figures to feel human rather than the caricatures they often seem to be on cable news.

In Rice and Nuzzi’s piece, the reporting into the most-discussed and least-understood laptop in history is terrific, tracing its origins and custody throughout the entire ordeal leading up to the 2020 election. It reveals a story that is somehow both far more scandalous than Democrats want to admit and far less of a stinging indictment of the Biden family than Republicans want to believe. But more than all that, it’s a tragic story of a guy who has enormous demons — both self-inflicted and as a result of circumstance — that ultimately feels more sad than scandalous.

Similarly, Kruse’s profile of Cawthorn is deeply personal and oozing with genuine empathy. For those of us unwilling to dive into the deep end of the political crazy pool, it’s easy to look at someone like Cawthorn and ask, “How does someone end up this way?” Kruse actually finds answers. He’s become arguably the best political profiler in the country (check out his profile of Rafael Warnock, too) and this piece on Cawthorn ranks among his best works.

  1. Untold by Tom Junod and Paula Lavigne for ESPN

I’m a bit biased here, too, in that Paula is one of the best in the business and the person I turn to every time I need to dig into a real investigative piece. She’s done so much unbelievably good work for ESPN over the years, but few stories have matched this one for vivid detail and intense humanity. It’s impossible to read this and not come away outraged, but it’s even more frustrating to know that this was certainly not the only predator allowed to upend lives on college campuses for years and years while escaping any public scrutiny because schools were all too happy to cover up for athletes and ignore women. But the beauty of this story is that it doesn’t allow the evil of the central figure to overwhelm the humanity of the victims. This is, at its heart, a story of survivors, who even decades later, still demand to be treated as people.

  1. Endgame: How the Visionary Hospice Movement Became a For-Profit Hustle by Ava Kofman for ProPublica

In most years, this deep dive into the money-making enterprise of hospice care would rank as the story that made me angriest, but our No. 1 story this year had that title on lock down. Still, this was an exceptionally reported piece that showcased what an absolute scam many hospice providers are and the impact it has on both your tax dollars and, far worse, the folks being scammed into signing away their rights in hopes of (maybe) receiving some kindness from businesses that promise to take care of them.

  1. It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart by Jennifer Senior in The Atlantic

I noted Chris Murphy’s essay on the epidemic of loneliness earlier, and I think this piece hits so many important notes on why it’s a far trickier topic to address than Murphy suggests. From the piece:

When you’re in middle age, which I am (mid-middle age, to be precise — I’m now 52), you start to realize how very much you need your friends. They’re the flora and fauna in a life that hasn’t had much diversity, because you’ve been so busy — so relentlessly, stupidly busy — with middle-age things: kids, house, spouse, or some modern-day version of Zorba’s full catastrophe. Then one day you look up and discover that the ambition monkey has fallen off your back; the children into whom you’ve pumped thousands of kilowatt-hours are no longer partial to your company; your partner may or may not still be by your side. And what, then, remains?

I’m 44, early middle age according to Senior. My kids are still young enough to want to spend every moment with me. That ambition monkey is loosening its grip, but it hasn’t fallen off. My wife still tolerates me. And yet I felt this story in my bones.

I have a lot of friends — friends from high school and college, friends from work, friends from towns where I haven’t lived in more than a decade, friends whose kids go to school with my kids, friends from… it’s impossible to say quite where. I’m lucky in that sense. And yet there’s an eternal feeling of tenuousness, that the whole enterprise could collapse under the weight of the real world. I have a near constant guilt that I don’t put more effort into these friendships, that I don’t see people more often, that I don’t set aside other things for more nights out for drinks or road trips to a football game or all the things that help keep friendships going, that provide a new set of inside jokes and quotes to be used and reused, over and over. I worry that, too often, when I see friends, we just talk about the old times, and we’ve ceased to have experiences that will one day be the fodder for our conversations about a new set of old times.

We are so incredibly divided as a society these days, and sometimes that feels natural — to isolate from all the people who’ve hurt you, disappointed you, believe something different from you, or just want a portion of your time you can’t afford to offer. And yet, those relationships are the things that sustain us. We need connection. It’s as essential to our lives as food and shelter and air to breathe.

  1. “We Need to Take Away Children” by Caitlin Dickerson in The Atlantic

The first thing to say about this piece is that it might be the most detailed investigative story I’ve ever read. But because of that, I’m guessing a lot of people who needed to read it did not. It is long — a two-hour read, according to Pocket, but I’m much slower than that. It’s tough to digest at times, too, because such a huge part of the story is the bureaucratic nightmare that ensued, and bureaucracy is inherently a hard thing to make interesting. But the substance of the story is so relentlessly exasperating.

What’s great about this piece beyond the depth of investigative reporting that went into it is that, much like the Cawthorn or Biden pieces mentioned earlier, it finds its pulse in understanding the people involved rather than focusing on the policy or the rhetoric.

Yes, the policy of family separation was abhorrent. Yes, for some people — Trump and Stephen Miller, most assuredly — the cruelty was the point. And yes, in the final chapter of the story, the gut-wrenching impact of the policy is laid bare.

But where the story mines its best material is in the way it explains the sheer laziness, incompetence and bureaucratic nonsense that allowed all of this to happen.

Long before this was the biggest story in the country, dozens — hundreds? — of people made clear that the policy had no chance at success. And yet on the strength of fear, incompetence and self-interest, it happened anyway. It is an astounding indictment not just of the Trump administration’s morals, but of how insanely dumb so many of his sycophants were and how frustratingly spineless so many of the career bureaucrats were.

There are so many takeaways from a piece like this, including the obvious issue of kids STILL separated from their parents. But I think the three things that have stuck with me most are:

1.) The levers of government are not built to withstand the sheer force of will of zealots.

2.) ICE, as an institution, needs to go. The culture within that department is unfixable.

3.) The situation at the border is legitimately awful and people who suggest it is untenable are not evil or malicious. The problem is that the issue is so deeply politicized that any measures that might actually help are unlikely to be implemented.

We’re caught in a debate between open borders and approaching caravans, and the truth is what we desperately need is a coherent immigration strategy that allows people to enter the U.S., find community, and add value to our society. There’s no easy path to that point, but we can get there if we’d just stop ignoring the obvious in favor of rhetoric.

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