The Top Five Longreads of 2011

One year ago today, I published my post on the best longreads of 2010. Today, I bring you my list of the best longreads of 2011. It’s been another amazing year for long-form journalism, and it’s hard to whittle down the list to just five entries. Nevertheless, these five pieces stood out in my mind:

(1) “The Man Who Played Rockefeller” [Wall Street Journal] – first highlighted in this post, I wrote: “riveting, at times unbelievable, account of how a German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter came to the United States at the tender age of 17 and proceeded to climb up the ranks of society. But he did it through conniving tactics, playing cool, and always acting the impostor.” It is already on my short list for best long read of the year.

When he entered the magnificent Gothic church in early 1992, the former Christopher Crowe had a new name and a meticulously researched persona to go with it. “Hello,” he greeted his fellow worshippers in his perfectly enunciated East Coast prep-school accent, wearing a blue blazer and private-club necktie, which he would usually accent with khaki pants embroidered with tiny ducks, hounds or bumblebees, worn always with Top-Sider boat shoes, without socks. “Clark,” he said, “Clark Rockefeller.”

(2) “The Assassin in the Vineyard” [Vanity Fair] – I am a huge fan of reads that involve mystery, espionage, and crime. This piece by Maximillian Potter, which I first highlighted here, is far and away one of the most thrilling short reads I’ve read in 2011. In that post I wrote:

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Thoroughly engaging and entertaining read.

(3) “The Epidemic of Mental Illness” (Part I) and “The Illusions of Psychiatry”(Part 2) [New York Review of Books] — this two part series, written by Marcia Angell changed my perspective on depression, the medicine used to treat it, and the field of psychiatry in general. I point out both reads because they are meant to be read in order (Part I then Part II).

Reviewed in Part I are books by  Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat. A notable paragraph of skepticism from Part I:

Do the drugs work? After all, regardless of the theory, that is the practical question. In his spare, remarkably engrossing book, The Emperor’s New Drugs, Kirsch describes his fifteen-year scientific quest to answer that question about antidepressants. When he began his work in 1995, his main interest was in the effects of placebos. To study them, he and a colleague reviewed thirty-eight published clinical trials that compared various treatments for depression with placebos, or compared psychotherapy with no treatment. Most such trials last for six to eight weeks, and during that time, patients tend to improve somewhat even without any treatment. But Kirsch found that placebos were three times as effective as no treatment. That didn’t particularly surprise him. What did surprise him was the fact that antidepressants were only marginally better than placebos.

I thought I’ve read a fair amount of skepticism in Part I. And then I read “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” which totally transplanted my thoughts on psychiatry from one mindset to another.

While Carlat believes that psychoactive drugs are sometimes effective, his evidence is anecdotal. What he objects to is their overuse and what he calls the “frenzy of psychiatric diagnoses.” As he puts it, “if you ask any psychiatrist in clinical practice, including me, whether antidepressants work for their patients, you will hear an unambiguous ‘yes.’ We see people getting better all the time.” But then he goes on to speculate, like Irving Kirsch in The Emperor’s New Drugs, that what they are really responding to could be an activated placebo effect. If psychoactive drugs are not all they’re cracked up to be—and the evidence is that they’re not—what about the diagnoses themselves?

(4) “Gilad Shalit and the Rising Price of an Israeli Life” [New York Times] – of all the longreads I’ve read this year, I think this one most likely escaped a lot of people’s radar. The story is about Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in June 2006 and didn’t gain his release from captivity until October of this year. The author of the piece, Ronen Bergman, offers why he is an authority on writing about this controversial subject:

I have covered Israeli hostage and M.I.A. cases for more than 15 years, including the covert ways in which Israel’s powerful espionage agencies operate to bring soldiers home alive or dead. Over that time, the issue has come to dominate public discourse to a degree that no one could have predicted. Israeli society’s inability to tolerate even a single soldier held in captivity results in popular movements that have tremendous impact on strategic decisions made by the government. The issue has become a generator of history rather than an outcome of it.

Perhaps more than any other issue in the last five years, the politics behind negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit embroiled the country of Israel. This is a must-read piece that offers an eye-opening perspective.

(5) “The Man Who Sailed His House” [GQ] – Michael Paterniti writes a remarkable story of a Japanese man named Hiromitsu who survived the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Not only is the story incredible, but so is the narration (you here are this man, experiencing the catastrophe in the present):

At two forty-six, something rumbles from deep in the earth, a sickening sort of grinding, and then everything lurches wildly, whips back, lurches more wildly still. The cut boards stacked along the wall clatter down, and your first move is to flee the shed, to dive twenty feet free onto open ground and clutch it, as if riding the back of a whale. Time elongates. Three minutes becomes a lifetime.

When the jolting ends, stupefaction is followed by dismay—and then a bleary accounting. Already phones are useless. The boss, Mr. Mori, urges you to rush home to check on your wife and parents, but fearing a tsunami, fearing a drive down into the lowlands by the sea, and trusting the strength of your concrete house to protect your wife and parents, you at first refuse. There are ancient stone markers on this coast, etched warnings from the ancestors, aggrieved survivors of past tsunamis—1896, 1933—beseeching those who live by the water to build on the inland side of their hubris or suffer the consequences.

Originally featured in this post.

I think 2011 was another excellent year for long-form journalism. I highly recommend checking out the Longreads Tumblr for more “Best of 2011 in Longreads” posts. Finally, check out my #longreads tag on this blog for more reading.

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