The 20 Best Reads of 2011

From magazines, newspapers and the Internet, the most unforgettable articles that crossed our editors’ desks (or screens) all year.

Woman Reading© Nick White/Digital Vision/ThinkstockFrom magazines, newspapers and the Internet, the most unforgettable articles that crossed our editors’ desks (or screens) all year.

1. “The Life Reports” and “The Life Reports II,” by David Brooks, The New York Times, November 24 and November 28, 2011
Liz Vaccariello, VP, Editor-in-Chief, Chief Content Officer: “I find Brooks one of the smartest, wide-ranging columnists in the business. Almost every column feels personally relevant to me in some way. And these, published around Thanksgiving, a time of reflection and family for so many of us, seemed to say so much about what really matters in life—our connections.”

2. “The day begins with hope: Part 1 of Plain Dealer’s Tales from the Heart’ series at the Cleveland Clinic,” by Diane Suchetka, Brie Zeltner and Amanda Garrett, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 20, 2011
Ann DiCesare, Head Librarian: “The Cleveland Plain Dealer carried an eight-part series on the Heart and Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. The story takes the reader inside the heart institute, introducing patients and their worried families, detailing the anguished wait for organs and the intricacies and dangers of heart surgery. We hear so many negative stories about hospital care, inept doctors, hospital-induced infections—this article showed how one hospital, with its highly intelligent and caring staff, goes out of its way to diagnose and fix medical problems that seems unfixable. This article showed the best of the best—what every hospital and physician should strive for in terms of expertise and compassion. As the article said, ‘They’ve chosen the Clinic because they believe this is the place that can do what others can’t.'”

3. “Money Can Buy Happiness—As If,” by Woody Allen, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011
Andy Simmons, Humor Editor: “Woody Allen brings the game of Monopoly to hysterical life in this timely article from The New Yorker. Allen takes us through bankruptcies, Ben Bernanke, the Hamptons, risk-reward ration, and, of course, Marvin Gardens. I like my humor funny—laughing-so-hard-your-lunch-comes-out-of-your-nose funny. I don’t always get that with a lot of humorists, but I do with Woody Allen’s short stories. Not every sentence here is guffaw-worthy. But I did laugh. Now excuse me, I have to clean the lunch off my desk.”

4. “My Favorite Memory of Bil Keane,” by Moe Zilla, Beyond Black Friday, November 10, 2011
Jim Menick, Executive Editor, Select Editions: “Bil Keane, the creator of the Family Circus comic, died this year. The comic strip, which was always corny and family-oriented, eventually became the subject of a particularly rowdy and totally inappropriate Internet parody called “The Dysfunctional Family Circus.” How Keane handled the situation is the touching story of a real and honorable gentleman. Even the “Dysfunctional” people were impressed!”

5. “A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs,” by Mona Simpson, The New York Times, October 30, 2011
Barbara O’Dair, Executive Editor: “The whole piece is lovely, but the last third, where author Mona Simpson describes the death scene of her brother Steve Jobs in heartbreaking and awe-inspired detail, really got me. Simpson shares the many life lessons she learned by example from her brother in the years leading up to his death last October, most memorably revealing the sweetness and love at the heart of this driven idealist. “Steve had surprises in all his pockets,” she writes. I appreciated her memories of the softer side of Steve Jobs—and the revelation of his remarkable last words.”

6. “The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See,” by Michael Finkel,, March 1, 2011
Beth Dreher, Senior Editor: “I loved this profile of the quietly amazing life of Daniel Kish, a blind man who, among other things, navigates in the wilderness alone and rides his mountain bike fearlessly using a method more familiar to bats than humans. His trick? He clicks his tongue and uses the faint echo to identify objects around him. Through his foundation, World Access for the Blind, he’s teaching other blind people to take control of their surroundings. This interesting and inspiring piece is a must-read.”

7. “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer, by John Branch, the New York Times, December 3, 4, 5, 2011 (three-part series)
David Noonan, National Affairs Editor: “Without question the best journalism I read this year was this three-part series in the New York Times abut NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died last spring at age 28. Extraordinary reporting, exceptional story-telling. A heart-breaking and infuriating tale about the true cost of our obsession with big-time sports. I posted it on Facebook and I’m replying to all because I want as many people as possible to read it. It’s an example of our profession at its best.”

Robert Newman, Creative Director: “You don’t have to be a hockey or even a sports fan to be engrossed and moved by this powerful and sad tale of Derek Boogaard, once the most feared “enforcer” in the National Hockey League, who died of fight-related injuries at the age of 28. The story follows Boogaard from his childhood in Canada, through his glory days in the NHL, to his physical and mental deterioration from brain damage suffered from his many brutal on-ice fights. It’s the most fascinating, in-depth, all-around well-written story I’ve read in ages.”

8. “The Girl From Trail’s End,” by Kathy Dobie,, September 2011
Barbara O’Dair: “This harrowing tale of a young girl at the center of a front-page gang rape outside Houston last year is beautifully and affectingly rendered by Dobie, with incisive portraits of the girl’s family and her classmates, and with details that speak legions about the life of a lost child.”

9. “The Knock at the Door,” by Jennifer Gonnerman, New York magazine, September 11, 2011
Courtenay Smith, Executive Editor: “Last year, I found myself riveted by the story of Chereece Bell and Damon Adams, social workers who were arrested after a child in their caseload was found starved to death by her family–the first arrest of its kind, where the social workers, as well as the parents, were arrested. I’m one of many New Yorkers who reads the annual headlines about children who die because of neglect and abuse and asks,” How could this happen??” Well, this article tells you (and it’s not what you think). I was drawn to the story of big-hearted workers who are doing their best in impossible circumstances—and who paid a terrible price for a gut decision that turned out to be wrong. This article is ultimately about justice, injustice, and what it takes to protect children from the worst human behavior.”

10. “Mommy is an Alcoholic,” Nancy Ramsey, Redbook, October 2011
Kirsten Rohrs Schmitt, Assistant Research Editor: “This article is a best read for 2011 because it broaches one of the last taboo topics on a very personal level. The alcoholic mothers profiled are all bloggers, but none of them were posting about their addiction. One by one they came out of the closet to write about their drinking, making connections with each other as addicts and moms, as well as dealing with their issues with their families.”

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11. “The Immortal Horizon,” by Leslie Jamison, The Believer, May 2011
Alison Caporimo, Associate Editor: “A gripping account of the brutal Barkley Marathons, this piece gives an inside look to a race that Darwin would probably deem a contest in survival of the fittest. As her brother, a runner, battles the elements to survive, writer Leslie Jamison stays back at the camp to learn more about the event’s ringmaster and what keeps adrenaline junkies coming back year after year.”

12. “Unspoken Truths,” by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair, June 2011
Dawn Raffel, Editor at Large, Books: “Noted critic and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, who succumbed to esophageal cancer on December 15, chronicled the end of his life in a series of essays about “this year of living dyingly.” In “Unspoken Truths,” he wrote movingly, honestly, and without self-pity about losing his voice—then moved from the personal to the universal, exploring what it means to have a voice as a speaker, as a writer, as a friend, as a solitary human in search of connection. We’re the only species with the gift of speech. Hitchens used that gift on the page, with brilliance and panache, right up until the end.”

13. “And I Should Know,” by Roseanne Barr, New York magazine, May 15, 2011
Barbara O’Dair: “This essay is not only an illustration of Roseanne Barr at her most wild and wicked, but an insider’s account of the vile side of the entertainment industry. She’s as entertaining, funny and annoying as ever, and tells troubling truths about the roles of women in show business. Whether you admire her, as I do even as she makes me wince sometimes, or reject her, you’ll find the piece will make you laugh—and open your eyes.”

14. “Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind?”, New York Times Magazine, by Susan Dominus, May 25, 2011
Fran Lostys, Research Manager: “Several years ago, Reader’s Digest published a piece on EJ Carfi, a teenager who struggled through “butterfly disease,” a rare skin ailment. (He died in December.) I was touched by this story, and by this recommended article about conjoined twins, because it shows how resilient kids can be in the face of daunting odds, and it illustrates the good side of humanity, what’s inside of us.”

15. “The Fat Trap,” by Tara Parker Pope, The New York Times Magazine, December 28, 2011
Ann Powell, Managing Editor: “Obesity is common, serious, and costly, and while the solution—eat fewer calories than you burn—is straightforward and simple, for the two in every three Americans who struggle with their weight, it’s anything but. In the words of New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope: “Nobody wants to be fat. In most modern cultures, even if you are healthy — in my case, my cholesterol and blood pressure are low and I have an extraordinarily healthy heart — to be fat is to be perceived as weak-willed and lazy. It’s also just embarrassing.” Parker-Pope reports on the science of metabolism and the biological and psychological reasons that make maintaining weight loss so difficult, as well as the personal sagas of those who have prevailed against severe odds to lose and keep weight off. For those who have tried and failed to shed their extra pounds, “The Fat Trap” doesn’t offer magic bullets or promises, but it does provide a realistic expectation, and some understanding of just exactly how powerful the enemy is.”

16. “All the Single Ladies,” by Kate Bolick, The Atlantic, November 2011
Beth Dreher: “This piece, a realistic musing on the modern idea of marriage and independence, covers a wide swath of marital history, from 19th c. single-sex boarding houses to present-day divorce rates. Along the way, writer Kate Bolick examines why she’s still single at age 39–she ends not with an answer, but with a question: Is marriage all it’s cracked up to be? Bolick’s well-reported piece helped me crystallize some of my own thoughts and opinions about the complicated roles women continue to take on in relationships, at work, and at home.”

17. “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” by Maria Bustillos, The Awl, April 5, 2011
Barbara O’Dair: “I read this long piece, which reveals the little-explored topic of the late writer David Foster Wallace’s struggle with chronic depression and addiction recovery, with a hunger to know more. A gifted athlete and prolific and dazzling writer, Foster Wallace suffered nonetheless, one more example of how one’s interior life and sense of self can be at extreme odds with appearance. For those who are intimate with someone in this kind of pain, the story is both affirming and heartbreaking—and full of the brilliant insights and imaginative leaps that Foster Wallace is known for.”

18. “King James Bible,” by Adam Nicolson, National Geographic, December 2011
Jim Menick: “The story of this particular Bible is complicated. 54 scholars were charged with the goal of making a translation that would be free of contentious politics, and presented in language accessible to the common people. Their resulting work was not an immediate success, but it ultimately became the standard model of the English language.”

19. “The Road to Melville,” by Mark Strong, Vanity Fair, November 2011
Alison Caporimo: “I love the piece that Vanity Fair did about Herman Melville (I’m a huge fan). The author Mark Strong re-reads Moby Dick for today’s audience and shows how the epic piece of American literature is still relevant today. He also illustrates why the novel is polarizing and that some readers, like himself, have jumped from one camp (the haters) to the other (the lovers).”

20. “An Unexpected Alliance,” by Lee Siegal,, November, 2011
Jim Menick: “The last people you would have expected to find each other, at least in correspondence, were the straitlaced poet T.S. Eliot and the anything-but-straitlaced entertainer Groucho Marx. Yet the two carried on a long and rather affectionate exchange of letters proclaiming their interest in each other’s work, culminating in a most singular dinner party. As Siegel writes, “it takes one strange god to know another.”

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