Best of America

The 20 Best Reads of 2011

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.”

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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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