It is, of course, tremendously difficult to narrow down an entire year in the increasingly vast world of great narrative journalism into a Top 5 list, but I am a sucker for lists, so I did it again this year after enjoying the process last year.
It was meant to be a quick reflection where I just wrote down the most memorable pieces I read this year. When I ended up with 26 stories in a list, I realized my process was probably flawed. But anyway, I managed to narrow it down to my top five and then some honorable mentions. Obviously, these are just the pieces that I read/loved/envied/imagined myself writing. There were many other great pieces I simply haven’t gotten around to reading yet.
My five favorite stories of 2012:
Portrait of the Artist as Postman, By Jason Sheeler, Texas Monthly: The headline and teasers for this story make it interesting enough. But they give nothing away about the head-spinning, gut-wrenching twist that makes it one of the most memorable character explorations I’ve ever seen.
The Honor System, By Chris Jones, Esquire: Perhaps the best part about this story is that it, in itself, participates in some misdirection. Until the end, when it asks you to open your eyes — if you really want to.
Marathon Man, By Mark Singer, The New Yorker: A story that gradually morphs from a mystery into a psychological study, with the marathon looming as the societal symbol of striving. “The marathon, no matter where it takes place, remains, as ever, a solitary pursuit in which every runner ultimately competes against himself or herself.”
The Norway Massacre Story, By Sean Flynn, GQ: There are few truly definitive stories of any given event these days (look no further than GQ and Esquire’s dueling coverage of the Zanesville animal escape). Flynn’s story is the story of this horrific tragedy. With the fate of nearly every character on that island in jeopardy, the story navigates the terror of the shootings with both a compelling sense of drama and a compassionate eye toward the victims.
The Yankee Commandante, By David Grann, The New Yorker: It’s becoming unfair at this point — very few writers can pull off this type of epic historical yarn. Within the context of a story that has a well-known ending, Grann finds a fresh, original story that stands strong on its own.
The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis, By Patrick Hruby, ESPN: A great story that is a revelation because of the design. If this is how stories can look on the Web, there are great things ahead.
The Consequences of Caring, By Bill Simmons, Grantland: A revelation from Bill Simmons as he continues to narrate the lives of sports fans — capturing the power sports hold in our lives even though they are just games.
We Are Alive, By David Remnick, The New Yorker: A rare glimpse into Bruce Springsteen, in a year where he somehow stole even more of the music spotlight a decade after his creative resurgence.
Malice at the Palace, By Jonathan Abrams, Grantland: Oral histories, especially those written by Abrams, made for some seriously good reading this year. Look forward to more of these tremendously detailed accounts.
Big Med, By Atul Gawande, The New Yorker: Gawande takes the nebulous world of medicine and gives people a parallel they can understand as he discusses how to improve medical efficiency. The parallel? The Cheesecake Factory.