the ask@AAR: What are the best articles you read this year?

People are often startled when I tell them I read very little non-fiction. Some are disbelieving. I just smile and say “I read four newspapers a day.” It’s funny this is my answer: an article is not a book. That said, it somehow explains my failing and the conversation moves on. 

The thing is, I am as serious about my journalistic reading as I am my fictional. I do not watch any TV news, don’t listen to podcasts (This is so anomalous in my world that it’s now more confounding to my friends than my lack of non-fiction reading.), nor do I regularly listen, anymore, to NPR (National Public Radio, for my non-US readers.) Thus, reading is how I apprehend the world and its histories.

If you are cursed blessed to be my friend, you, over the course of a week, are likely to see, either on my FB page or personally sent to you, some piece of writing I think we all should read. (I’m also extremely pro-poem, but that’s another post.) I’m sharing, today, writing that rocked my world.* I’d like to know what rocked yours.

This year, the article I’ve sent to people the most is one Ann Patchett wrote for Harper’s in, These Precious Days. It’s from 2021 and it is beyond sublime.

It is comprised of paragraph after paragraph, each individually flawless, which, as one, make a fist in the best way possible. Here’s one:

Walking backward is an excellent means of remembering how little you know. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in a café in the West Village with my friends Lucy and Adrian when a woman ran in and said a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. A plane? we asked. Like a Cessna? She didn’t know. She hadn’t seen it happen. We went out to the street on that bright morning to see a fire high up in the distance. The waiter came out and told us to get back inside. We hadn’t paid the check. I paid the check. Lucy said she didn’t have time for this. She was teaching at Bennington, in Vermont, and this was the first day of classes. She had to make her train. We said our goodbyes and Adrian and I walked downtown to see what had happened. We both wrote for the New York Times. Surely there would be a story there for one of us. We had just passed Stuyvesant Park when the first tower fell. I would tell you we were idiots, but that’s true only in retrospect. In fact we were so exactly in the middle of history that we had no way of understanding what we were seeing.

Another article, this one about the lives of those with dementia, has given me hope for all those I know who struggle with this silencer. The writer, a caregiver for those with dementia sees their lives as full of joy. Here’s an excerpt.

Paul Broks describes living brains as “progenitors of infinite space,” universes unto themselves, and the dead brain as “a point at which the universe has collapsed.” But I sometimes think of dementia as the long way home. Most of us will die by degrees, and everything lost in dementia is in time lost to all of us. What I feel the most in the world of the demented is wholeness, the unknowable and almost overwhelming wholeness of a single human being. I touch this now and then as I do my errands, hurry off to work: every person I see is beyond measure. The tired woman on the bus, the intent young man riding his bicycle the wrong way up the road, the smiling neighbor nodding at me as her snuffling boxer pulls her down the steps. I walk down the hallways and watch people gently orbit one another: singularities. Patricia, her hair a careful riot of bobby pins. Albert, banging his walker. They are planetary, enormous.

Jenisha Watt’s I Never Called Her Momma will tear your heart out. It might be the most powerful piece I read published this year.

I was a collector of words. In sixth grade I learned the meaning of dumbfounded from a vocabulary test. I liked the fullness of the word and how it rolled off my tongue.

I felt the same about the word perplexed. Tom Joyner, the radio host, said “I’m perplexed” during an interview, and as soon as the word landed on my ears, I knew what he meant. I learned epitome from a TLC song, and regurgitate from a friend’s letter about her abortion.

Words were the only things that seemed attainable to me. I could look them up in my grandmother’s dictionary and understand their meaning—unlike math, where, if I was stuck, I’d need someone to help me. The more words I learned, the more I realized that my own language could be deepened.

Christine Emba’s writing about the crisis faced by American men resonated with me. If I could make everyone believe the following, I would.

For all their problems, the strict gender roles of the past did give boys a script for how to be a man. But if trying to smash the patriarchy has left a vacuum in our ideal of masculinity, it also gives us a chance at a fresh start: anopportunity to take what is useful from models of the past and repurpose it for boys and men today.

We can find ways to work with the distinctive traits and powerful stories that already exist — risk-taking, strength, self-mastery, protecting, providing, procreating. We can recognize how real and important they are. And we can attempt to make them pro-social — to help not just men but also women, and to support the common good.

I think the best person writing long-form journalism today might be Jennifer Senior. I have never read a better piece than her prize-winning What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind, which explores our personal legacies from 911. This year, she wrote about the devastation that comes with losing close friendships. It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart slayed me. She wrote:

I started here; I end here (we all end here). It is amazing how the death of someone you love exposes this lie you tell yourself, that there’ll always be time. You can go months or even years without speaking to a dear old friend and feel fine about it, blundering along, living your life. But discover that this same friend is dead, and it’s devastating, even though your day-to-day life hasn’t changed one iota. You’re rudely reminded that this is a capricious, disordered cosmos we live in, one that suddenly has a friend-size hole in it, the air now puckered where this person used to be.

It’s writing that will make you grateful for those you love and have in your life.

These are just a few of my favorites and I’d love to hear yours.

* I realize these may behind paywalls for you. If you can’t read one and would like to, please email me at dabney grinnan at all about romance dot com. I’ll try and gift it to you.

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