Every day Longform highlights three or four outstanding pieces of non-fiction. Some are brand new, others from as far back as the 1800s. When we started the site, we worried that we might run out of older pieces eventually. In retrospect, that fear was ridiculous. With over a century of magazines and newspapers publishing longform journalism, the well of great stories waiting to be discovered is unfathomably deep.
At this point, the biggest hurdle is that most magazines haven’t begun digitizing the bulk of their archives. We’ve found hundreds of masterful pieces that we know people would love to read, but they’re only available as scanned PDFs or on Google Books. Articles like these deserve the kind of focused, distraction-free reading experience that Readability has made possible, and that requires a text version.
The original publishers are certainly not to blame. Digitizing decades worth of writing is expensive, time consuming, and doesn’t help sell print subscriptions. But here’s what we’ve learned editing Longform: Great stories don’t have expiration dates. Classic stories get clicked just as much as fresh ones. Hopefully, magazines with rich archives will start to see them as a long-term asset that yields dividends in the form of prestige and new audiences. Classic journalism is part of our shared history, and should be available to students, researchers, writers—and people who want awesome stuff to read on their commute.
So, as the internet finishes up another epic and largely gratuitous season of year-end lists, here’s one more: our favorite “finds” of 2011, five classic stories that were among the most read on Longform this year. (We also compiled a Best of 2011 collection, which includes handy Readability buttons.) If you found something amazing this year, let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale
Kenneth Tynan • New Yorker • Feb 1978
Aaron Lammer: I read this on a cross-country flight, and at 22,000 words it took nearly the entire trip to finish. Superficially, it’s a profile of Johnny Carson at the top of his game, an entertainment figure unparalleled both in 1978 and in the present. The piece is so much more, though—both a history of the talk show and a probing look at the form of television itself. Kenneth Tynan puts himself in the mindset of both Carson’s sharpest critics and his adoring audience, and finds a disarmingly complex character. A star who didn’t sing, dance, or act, Carson was the ultimate icon of the televisual age.
Tynan unapologetically depicts Carson as a cold man—driven, demanding, and hard on those he worked with. These themes were echoed heavily in the coverage of Steve Jobs when he died, though I didn’t read a piece on Jobs that so effectively managed to braid the darkness and the glory into a single thread. Both Carson and Jobs were perfectionists without true competition; unique species who left huge marks on the popular consciousness but no true heirs. Even if TV is made obsolete, this profile will live on as essential document of a place and time where an ordinary man could become a walking god purely on the basis of his ability to stare at a camera every night and “talk.”
The True Life Confessions of Fleetwood Mac
Cameron Crowe, Rolling Stone • Mar 1977
Gretchen Gavett: There comes a time in every aging hipster’s life when listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on vinyl for weeks at a time seems like a good idea. My “Gold Dust Woman” month was this past June. And, naturally, I had to track down the accompanying “how-they-made-this-record-while-fighting-and-wearing-embellished-capes-and-tight-pants” longform article. I found it the old-fashioned way: frantically searching the internet (I can call that “old-fashioned” because my detective work didn’t involve Twitter). Sometimes this method ends in frustration, either because the article doesn’t exist (see: my fruitless quest to find the definitive “Macho Man” Randy Savage article written while he was alive) or because it’s only available behind a paywall or as a PDF. This time, though, I lucked out: Someone reprinted an epic and slightly clunky 1977 Cameron Crowe article from Rolling Stone about the making of Rumours.
Crowe had yet to turn 20 when the piece came out, but his days of writing regularly for the magazine were coming to an end. And so were the band members’ relationships—everyone was breaking up with everyone else. The result is a story about emerging fame and whispering secrets not-so-quietly to the world, a strange mirror to the record itself. And I should know. I can sing the entire thing from memory. Poor, poor downstairs neighbors.
The True Story of Lady Bryon’s Life
Harriet Beecher Stowe • The Atlantic • Sep 1869
Elon Green: Found by following a link from The Atlantic‘s fantastic Famous (and Infamous) Contributors page, this story was a series of surprises. Here’s a piece that is both ancient (at least by the standards of longform journalism) and genuinely sordid; it’s written by Harriet Beecher Stowe; and it’s published in The Atlantic! Surely I’m not the only one who associates this wonderful magazine with think-pieces on urban sprawl, not 13,000-word tales of incest. What I love about the story is it hinges on a line that, at least from a 21st-century vantage point, is so vague you could easily miss it: “secret adulterous intrigue.” It says nothing, and everything, and it’s the lynchpin of this classic read.
My Mother’s Killer
James Ellroy • GQ • Jan 1994
Aaron Lammer: I’ve never read any of James Ellroy’s novels. I don’t read a tremendous amount of mystery or noir, and given the amount of reading that goes into editing Longform, I don’t read all that many books anymore. Boo hoo. But one of the great pleasures of reading bucketloads of articles is the repeated opportunities to get passing glimpses of the personalities lurking in unexplored corners of the bookstore. This one just slapped me in the face.
Ellroy, one of the great hard-boiled crime novelists of his time, assigns himself to investigate the 1958 murder of his mother. He recreates the night of her death as she heads out drinking, leaves with a strange man, and eventually is discovered the next morning next to a Little League field. It’s a mystery seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old Ellroy and grizzled old cops straining to remember an unsolved case. After reading dozens of articles on brutal murders, it’s rare to find something so raw and tender that you almost want to look away. Cheers to GQ for rescuing it from their archive.
A Fan’s Notes on Earl Monroe
Woody Allen • Sport • Nov 1977
Max Linsky: OK, so I didn’t exactly “find” this story. I retyped it by hand. That’s still how most magazines put their old stuff online, which helps explain why so little of it is available—transcription is a terrific pain in the ass. Allen’s masterpiece was worth it, though. It’s one of those things the internet just deserves to have.
“A Fan’s Notes” is about more than sports, which is always what makes for great sportswriting. Allen compares Monroe to Brando, rightly casting the Knick point guard as an entertainer years before the NBA thought of its stars that way. Monroe is an artist, Allen writes, not just a player—he was a constant threat to do something unexpected and amazing. You couldn’t look away. Allen is so enamored with Monroe’s genius—the piece is more of a love letter than anything else—that at one point he admits that he’d rather his beloved Knicks lose than see Monroe sublimate his game for the good of the team.
The essay’s funny, too, of course. After fawning over Monroe from afar, Allen goes to his Upper West Side townhouse for an interview and turns into a babbling pool of awkwardness when an “unbelievably beautiful” woman named Tina opens the door. Monroe isn’t home, and he never shows—Allen waits for an hour mumbling to Tina, then leaves more enamored with his hero than ever. “Whatever he was doing,” Allen writes, “I admired him for his total unconcern. Tina said he would be very upset that he had missed me, but I knew it was not the kind of thing Earl Monroe would dwell on with the anguish of a Raskolnikov.”
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