long reads

The Best Long Reads of 2016 by James Kelleher

There is much to celebrate as 2016 closes. The end of death, the peaceful resolution of all conflicts, and a pleasant, frictionless user interface design for our every brush with the glossy surface of The Deep State. But now, in this coming golden age of prosperity and geopolitical stability, let us take this opportunity to revisit some highlights of the year in writing on the internet. 

As ever, if you particularly enjoy any of the work linked here, consider throwing the publisher a bone by taking out a subscription, or cut out the middleman and send the author a fat cheque.

Our hospital body, all rivers of scars; the day-to-day form that we present to the world; the sacrosanct one we show to lovers – we create our own matryoshka bodies, and try to keep at least one that is just for us.

Blue Hills and Chalk Bones by Sinéad Gleeson, for Granta 

Why shouldn’t a gun be like a car—or food? If you need to know the history, you call a number and somebody’s got the information. If we have an E. coli outbreak, we don’t have much trouble getting to the offending bags of lettuce. Guns don’t work that way.

Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns by Jeanne Marie Laskas, for GQ

There is the whole class of kimo‑kawaii, or “gross-cute”, epitomised by Gloomy, a pink bear whose claws are red with the blood of his child owner, whom he habitually mauls.

The New Science of Cute by Neil Steinberg, for The Guardian

His delusions became increasingly florid but, as Waugh described it later, ‘it was not in the least like losing one’s reason… I was rationalising all the time, it was simply one’s reason working hard on the wrong premises.’

The Reality Show by Mike Jay, for Aeon

They were completely lost on the idea of a stranger harassing us over the Internet. It’s a feeling like you’re drowning, and the person doesn’t understand what water is.

The Serial Swatter by Jason Fagone, for The New York Times Magazine

The ultimate goal of the spectacular state is the restriction of the public sphere, where all ideas of culture and heritage are either filtered through – or respond to – the narrative of the state, ruled by a dictator who has developed a cult of personality.

Trumpmenbashi by Sarah Kendzior, for The Diplomat

Bro culture doesn’t care about heartbreak or subtlety: bro culture cares about having a good time.

How Bros Made The Charts All Sound The Same by Aimee Cliff, for The Fader

Machines don’t go wrong like humans do; they go completely wrong.

Attack of The Killer Robots by Sarah A. Topol, for Buzzfeed

Dreams, in short, are transient ‘trips’ and, when they forcibly and suddenly break through into waking life, they sometimes become visions or hallucinations.

Dreams and Revelations by Patrick McNamara, for Aeon

Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.

Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker by David Remnick, for The New Yorker

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.
By year two I concluded that I would never have the right answer, so I set about trolling the faculty instead. I aspired to adoxography, elaborate writing on trivial subjects.

The Girl in Your MFA by Roisin Kiberd, for Guts

Identity politics is not the sole preserve of minority voters. This election is a reminder that identity politics in America is a white invention: it was the basis of segregation.

Now Is The Time To Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for The New Yorker

I try to visualize the scenario, but it tests the limits of my open-mindedness. It is difficult to imagine supporting a pregnant woman’s injection-drug habit.

H.: On Heroin and Harm Reduction by Sarah Resnick, for n+1

Nobody ever goes broke overestimating the rage and misogyny of the average American male.

Travels in Pornland by Andrea Stuart, for Granta

When your goal is to make public benefits more accessible to low-income Americans, you are beholden to all sorts of things — laws, institutions, budgets — other than low-income Americans.

Code Cracking by Yiren Lu, for The New York Times Magazine

Polonium was a miasma, a creeping fog. It was found inside the dishwasher, on the floor, till, a coffee strainer handle.
How did this happen? How did we get here? Why does nobody listen to us, why does nobody care about us?

Brexit Blues by John Lanchester, for The London Review of Books

What time is it? Oh, God, I have to medicate.

You Want A Description of Hell? Oxycontin's 12-Hour Problem by Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion and Scott Glover, for the Los Angeles Times

Finally, I will be able to satisfy my constant yearning and uncontrollable desire to peer into other people’s lives. My voyeuristic urges will now be placed into effect on a plane higher than anyone else has contemplated.

The Voyeur's Motel by Gay Talese, for The New Yorker

Is there just something about very smart minds that leaves them vulnerable to religious conversion about AI risk, and makes them particularly persuasive?

Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People by Maciej Cegłowski, for Idle Words

The best long reads of 2015 by James Kelleher

Here are 28 of my favourite stories from the past year. The list is in no particular order, but the online incarnation of Paul Ford's colossal 38,000-word What is Code? deserves a particular shout-out for its ambition, humour and compelling execution. I'm still dying to get my hands on the print version, so if anybody has a spare copy, send it to my luxuriously-appointed ivory tower and I promise I'll post you something nice back.

We're only mid-way through December now, so I'll be updating this post to include any other gems that crop up over the next month. 

Data management is the problem that programming is supposed to solve. But of course now that we have computers everywhere, we keep generating more data, which requires more programming, and so forth. It’s a hell of a problem with no end in sight. This is why people in technology make so much money. Not only do they sell infinitely reproducible nothings, but they sell so many of them that they actually have to come up with new categories of infinitely reproducible nothings just to handle what happened with the last batch.

What is Code? by Paul Ford, for Bloomberg Businessweek.

The solitude of so many deaths wears on Mr. Plaza, the fear that someday it will be him splayed on the floor in one of these silent apartments. ‘This job teaches you a lot,’ he said. ‘You learn whatever material stuff you have you should use it and share it. Share yourself. People die with nobody to talk to.’

The Lonely Death of George Bell by N.R. Kleinfeld for The New York Times.

Video games aren’t for us the way football and finance aren’t for us: sure, there are girls who break in, and we applaud them for it at a comfortable distance. But where there is a welcome mat rolled out for men, there is only a bloodied stretch of briar for women.
What if Westboro had been wrong about everything? What if she was spending her one life hurting people, picking fights with the entire world, for nothing?

Unfollow by Adrian Chen, for The New Yorker.

The Kamikaze was the ride that brought people into a water park; the Lazy River kept them there. Soon, Wet ’n Wild’s marketing photos had swimmers paddling in the river, gazing up at slides that towered above them like the beehive towers of Martian civilization.

The Wet Stuff by Bryan Curtis, for Grantland.

Between Columbine and Aaron Ybarra, the riot changed: it became more and more self-referential, more ritualized, more and more about identification with the school-shooting tradition.

Thresholds of Violence by Malcolm Gladwell, for The New Yorker.

Society’s recipes for fulfillment cause a great deal of unhappiness, both in those who are stigmatized for being unable or unwilling to carry them out and in those who obey but don’t find happiness.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, for Harpers.

When Javier Bardem shoves open the car door, you hear the door handle stick for a moment before it releases. There are three distinct sounds of broken glass tinkling to the pavement from the shattered window, a small handful of thunks as he falls sideways to the ground, his laboured breathing, the chug of his boot heel finally connecting with the asphalt – even the pads of his fingers as they scrabble along the top of the window.
I did what I wanted, and it was freeing and painful. Painful because the end of my marriage was a private thing, and watching Thurston show off his new independence in front of audiences was like someone rubbing grit in a gash. My friendliness faded away as one city turned into the next, replaced by anger.

Kim Gordon on the Pain and Anger of Performing With Her Ex by Kim Gordon, for New York magazine.

Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.

The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo by Pamela Newkirk, for The Guardian.

David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees. The principle was violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument.

King David by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Atlantic.

’Price is nothing when it comes to fashion. It’s all about the style,’ she said, turning her head slightly to see if the reporter was writing that down.

38 Hot Sex Moves That Will Make You a Better Feminist by Noreen Malone, for New York magazine. 

With no food in their bellies and two doses of psychedelics every day, people are very strange. Bill is lying on his back on the grass. He’s waving his arms and legs in the air like an upturned beetle. Bill took what looked like a whole pint of mescaline this morning.
The fundamental script of traditional romantic love, found in most poetry and literature, is of men adoring women, reversing the usual disempowerment of women, even compensating for it. In the Western world, until the 1970s, this was romantic love: men adored women, and at the same time deprived them of social and economic power.

She Swoons to Conquer by Batya Ungar-Sargon, for Aeon.

Jean McConville put on a tweed overcoat and a head scarf as the younger children were herded into one of the bedrooms. The intruders called the children by name. A couple of the men were not wearing masks, and Michael realized, to his horror, that the people taking his mother away were not strangers—they were his neighbors.

Where The Bodies Are Buried by Patrick Radden Keefe, for The New Yorker.

Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.

The Agency by Adrian Chen for The New York Times Magazine.

The utter capitulation of London’s planning system in the face of serious money is detectable right there in that infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air.

The City That Privatised Itself to Death by Ian Martin, for The Guardian.

Participation in a game, any kind of game, gives you new ways of perceiving others. Victory only gives you new ways of perceiving yourself.

Even If You Beat Me by Sally Rooney, for The Dublin Review.

To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world.

The Doomsday Scam by C.J. Chivers, for The New York Times Magazine.

Rather than studiously following a worn path to fame, the kids get famous first, while a new infrastructure tasked with figuring out what to do with them gasps to catch up.

Sexts, Hugs, and Rock’N’Roll by Ellen Cushing, for Buzzfeed.

If I were directing a movie and I could tell Ali where to knock him down and Sonny where to fall, they’re exactly where I would put them.

How Things Break by Dave Mondy, for Slate.

Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.

The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz, for The New Yorker.

In a Strangelovian lair on the third subterranean level, Blatter holds executive committee meetings in a conference room with a floor of lapis lazuli. The room is lit by a round, crystal chandelier meant to evoke a soccer stadium.

A League of His Own by Tariq Panja, Andrew Martin and Vernon Silver, for Bloomberg Businessweek

There was some trial and error in trying to find the right girl, but eventually Scrooge found a 22-year-old whom he was able to take to Pink concerts and to plays and to movies before taking her up to his hotel or apartment to conduct the Weird Sex Thing he needs so badly that he cannot even wait till a third date before asking for it.

Searching For Sugar Daddy by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, for GQ.

After mujahideen reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood, for The Atlantic.

I wanted to see the next generation of Spain’s bullfighters, naively pining for the next Tomás, but of course, he was not there anymore than Madison Square Garden has offered the next Ali in boxing, or any of Madrid’s galleries offered the next Goya.

Last Breaths in a Spanish Bullring by Brin-Jonathan Butler, for SB Nation.

Then the fatigue sets in. You feel like a torn net through which the thoughts pass, hazily. You cannot speak or write or do. Starving doesn’t transform your life into one glorious act of self-expression. Starving silences who you really are.

There Once Was a Girl by Katy Waldman, for Slate.

The two women in niqabs quickly found two items that the sheikh approved of: matching sets of thongs and skimpy, transparent nightgowns, one in red and the other in blue.

Learning To Speak Lingerie by Peter Hessler, for The New Yorker.

The best long reads of 2014 by James Kelleher

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Here, in the year that the backlash against ‘long form’ began in earnest, is a list of the year’s best writing on the internet according to me. If you enjoy anything linked here, give the author a shout on Twitter and tell them so. 

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

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What has happened here, I suppose, is that a small shard of a fragmentary and difficult work of literature has been salvaged from the darkness of its setting, sanded and smoothed of the jagged remnants of that context. This is the process by which a piece of writing becomes a quote, a saying—a linguistic object whose meaning is readily apparent, useful, and endlessly transferable, like a coin in the currency of wisdom.

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These same parents have their own children full time at tonier daycare centers or with a nanny. They also often work far into the night themselves, laptops aglow, making their dimly lit homes look like aquariums. Yet many found it strange to have a child at a facility overnight. A number were surprised that such places even exist.

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I just wonder whether, in fact – the Internet won’t go away – but its magic will disappear. Our delight in screens that we can go like that with [AC scrolls with fingers] will disappear. It will become a functional local library, coupled with sort of weird people chatting online, and the stuff that you don’t know is true or not, and another culture will arise separately from it, which might go back a bit to books and newspapers.

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Walker’s analysis found that Brooke’s organs and tissues were developing at different rates. Her mental age, according to standardised tests, was between one and eight months. Her teeth appeared to be eight years old; her bones, ten years. She had lost all of her baby fat, and her hair and nails grew normally, but she had not reached puberty. 

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Just one character in Moominvalley is nasty: Little My. A tart and ruthlessly independent-minded philosopher, she’s the clenched fist incarnate. Given the milieu, however, those very qualities make her an important check on naïveté, a voice without whom the Moomins’ wishful optimism would go untested.

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As biotech companies pour billions into life extension technologies, some have suggested that our cruelest criminals could be kept alive indefinitely, to serve sentences spanning millennia or longer. Even without life extension, private prison firms could one day develop drugs that make time pass more slowly, so that an inmate’s 10-year sentence feels like an eternity. One way or another, humans could soon be in a position to create an artificial hell.

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No description, academic or otherwise, can quite do justice to the comedy that is bonobo sex. On a hilarity scale of one to ten, most animal sex trends quickly toward ten. Bonobo sex goes to eleven. Throughout the day, males and females, adolescents and elders alike greet one another sexually for apparently almost any reason—and do so with everything from a quick feel, to porn-style choreographies, to elaborately athletic couplings.

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The question is whether the strangeness of the idea will keep us from accepting it. If society rejects sleep curtailment, it won’t be a biological issue; rather, the resistance will be cultural. The war against sleep is inextricably linked with debates over human enhancement, because an eight-hour consolidated sleep is the ultimate cognitive enhancer.

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As soon as the joy factor of a game is high enough all the fake “pillars for success” like marketing, PR, data analysis and “giving people what they want” crumble away like the mere scaffolding they are. I love to bring up Minecraft as an example of this and it’s only somewhat because I enjoy the terror in mobile developers eyes when I do.

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The thing about being an unstoppable force is that you can really only enjoy the experience of being one when you have something to bash yourself against. You need to have things trying to stop you so that you can get a better sense of how fast you are going as you smash through them. And whenever I was inside the dinosaur costume, that is the only thing I wanted to do.

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All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. 

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Fear is deeply engrained in Israeli society. Fear of the Shoah, fear of anti-Semitism, fear of Islam, fear of Europeans, fear of terror, fear of extermination. You name it. And fear generates a very particular type of thinking, which I would call “catastrophalist.” You always think about the worst case scenario, not about a normal course of events. In catastrophalist scenarios, you become allowed to breach many more moral norms than if you imagined a normal course of events.

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I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.

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It all comes down, again and again, to the same problem: lonely boys who have no social skills who are wallowing in self-pity.

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Citizenship is the right to have rights, and our attitude to citizenship, as states and individuals, defines and produces our attitude to other human beings. As we accelerate into the 21st century and the third millennium, citizenship, or the lack thereof, is going to be one of the defining issues. 

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He had a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring or demanding. He talked as if the world needed him to talk and never to stop. Oddly for a dissident, he had no questions. The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.
As Wise became the face of Tupperware, sales and press continued to skyrocket. In 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. But as glowing as the magazine’s profile was, it contained warning signs about the future of her partnership with Tupper.

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“He’s not supposed to smoke,” his mom says. He can’t get sunburn. He can’t get a cold. He can’t drink. He can’t fall and risk injury. He can’t afford to tax his immune system at all. Even a cut could trigger rejection. It starts as a blotchy rash; it means his body is winning the fight to reject the transplant, and Richard has to be flown to the hospital to receive rounds of emergency drugs intravenously. 

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Here, after all, was a group that included many of the executives whose firms had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And they were laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark.

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The homicide numbers are especially important, says one cop: “You should see these supervisors, like cats in a room filled with rocking chairs, afraid to classify a murder because of all the screaming they will hear downtown.”
The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates by David Bernstein and Noah Isackson

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When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

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Bands now have default control of their exposure. It’s no longer necessary to pay people to pay other people to play your records on the radio, only to have those people lie about doing so. It’s no longer necessary to spend money to let people hear your band. It happens automatically.

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Lindsy Van Gelder, the New York Post reporter who coined the phrase “bra burning,” wrote in Ms. in 1974 that when she became a journalist, she “avoided the women’s-angle assignments through a maniacally macho willingness to cover train wrecks, riots, anything else, and an unfeigned ignorance of conventional women’s-pagey topics.”

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As Sierra Leone’s infrastructure has crumbled, the upper classes have hidden behind ever higher walls, bigger SUVs, and more powerful generators, grumbling but unwilling to engage – to all intents and purposes acting as if the Sierra Leone outside our walls was another country from the ‘Sweet Salone’ that we’ve inhabited.



The best long reads of 2013 by James Kelleher

image ere are 21 of my favourite long-form pieces from last year, in no particular order. I’m still in awe of the fact that so much great writing is so easily accessible and available to us, a lowly order of word-hungry parasites, for free. So if you get a kick out of anything you read on this list, support the authors and publications whatever way you can, whether that’s giving them a high-five on Twitter, buying a subscription, clicking manically on their sidebar ads, or signing them up for a seven-figure publishing deal. Especially that last one.

There are 21 of them because my team of high-powered internet attorneys have advised me that even-numbered lists are now illegal. 

“As you read, you slowly grow aware that the book’s real object of fascination isn’t the various sicknesses described in its pages, but the sickness inherent in their arrangement.”

Book of Lamentations by Sam Kriss

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“It’s only weird because we humans are weird, and because the reasons for our comforts and pleasures are so often obscure to us.” 

The Soft Bulletins by Mark O'Connell

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“The brutal fact was that by the early 1970s MI5 not only had very little to do - but also its political masters were beginning to question whether it might be seriously incompetent.”

Bugger by Adam Curtis

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“Who wants to be primarily known for breaking thousands of laws across a dozen states, just to beat some record that very few people care about? Worse: who wants to be known for dying in an attempt?”

Meet The Guy Who Drove Across The U.S. In A Record 28 Hours 50 Minutes by Doug Demuro

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“It always seems that successive generations of entertainers, bent on laughing people out of their follies and vices, remain optimistic about the power of anti-establishment comedy at the outset of their careers: it’s only later that reality kicks in.”

Sinking Giggling into the Sea by Jonathan Coe

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“His skin was paper white, in Georgia, in August. He hadn’t been out in the sun in months. Not only did he not understand the rules of baseball, he was, at the age of about 12, physically unable to throw an object.”

Go to Homeschool by Jon Bois

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“No one talked about it. No one talked about how they felt after anything. It was like an unspoken agreement that you wouldn’t talk about your experiences.”

Confessions of a Drone Warrior by Matthew Power

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“Litvinenko was finished. In fact, he was finished when he took that swallow of tea. There was nothing that could have been done for him. He was a dead man from that moment on. It was amazing he lasted as long as he did.”

Bad Blood by Will Storr

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“While once slow and hiccupping – marred by tragedy and ugliness of all kinds – the now seemingly unstoppable movement towards legal same-sex marriages in the US and elsewhere has induced in me nothing less than joy and amazement.”

Rah, Rah, Cheers, Queers by Terry Castle

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“For most boarders, the smell of the hospital and the sight of asylum wards vanished from their lives”

The Geel Question by Mike Jay

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“Even though Claire is bad at cooking, and believes in false God, and dresses like prostitute, with both ankles exposed, she is not so stupid a person.”

Sell Out by Simon Rich – Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4

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“I haven’t committed any of the murders I’ve been convicted of, and none of the murders I’ve confessed to, either. That’s the way it is.”

The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts: The Confessions of Thomas Quick by Chris Heath

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“This conflation of newsiness with news, share-worthiness with importance, has wreaked havoc on the media’s skepticism immune systems.”

The Year We Broke The Internet by Luke O'Neill

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“At what other moment in history could a serial killer identify middle-aged white men as his most vulnerable targets?”

Murder by Craigslist by Hanna Rosin

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“Traffic is interrupted, signals don’t reach their destinations, and the brain starts to quiet. Many people experience this as a contented swoon that silences inner chatter while giving a half glimpse of childhood; they are overtaken by sleep, like a three-year-old in a car seat.”

The Big Sleep by Ian Parker

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“A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all.”

On Smarm by Tom Scocca

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“The most aggressive companies will hire soft and hard scientists like myself, in addition to quantitative scientists, to optimize the exploitation of youth.”

Monetizing Children by Ramin Shokrizade

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“Mushrooms are bloodthirsty. The clues are in the common names: destroying angels, devil’s boletes, poison pies, beechwood sickeners.”

Last Supper by Cal Flyn

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“David Neumark, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, has shown that eight years after Wal-Mart comes to a county, it drives down wages for all (not just retail) workers until they’re 2.5 percent to 4.8 percent below wages in comparable counties with no Wal-Mart outlets. ”

The Forty-Year Slump by Harold Meyerson

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“Our contemporary equivalence between the self and its ever-­corrupting, malady-prone shell profoundly diminishes what it means to be a human being.”

Warning: I Will Employ the Word ‘Fat’ by Lionel Shriver

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“It doesn’t matter if people are aware of how I work, or even what I’m going to do, they still won’t catch it. While they’re trying to watch for it, I’ll be watching them.”

A Pickpocket’s Tale by Adam Green

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… and a bonus not-very-hidden track (please don’t tell the lawyers) in the form of my favourite essay of the year, Omens. It’s an 8,000 word monster, so make some room in your schedule for a mind-expanding romp through artificial intelligence, alien civilizations, quantum theory and the best way to survive the heat death of the universe. 

The problem is you are building a very powerful, very intelligent system that is your enemy, and you are putting it in a cage.

Omens by Ross Anderson