The Top Five Longreads of 2011 (So Far)

I am a huge fan of Longreads. I am a yearly subscriber and often use the #longreads tag on Twitter and Facebook to point out superb longform articles. At the end of last year, I published a post highlighting the top five longreads of the year. It is still the most popular post here on Reading By Eugene.

After  I published that post, some people commented that the list was too short — I could have easily made a top ten list, or at least included five honorable mentions. That is all true, and I will probably follow this advice at the end of 2011 with my (what I now hope to be) annual longreads round-up.

Until then, I’ve decided to highlight the best longreads of the first half of 2011. Here they are, in no particular order.

(1) “The Clock in the Mountain” [The Technium] — amazing story by Kevin Kelly of a clock being built in Texas, designed to last ten thousand years:

There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Most times the Clock rings when a visitor has wound it, but the Clock hoards energy from a different source and occasionally it will ring itself when no one is around to hear it. It’s anyone’s guess how many beautiful songs will never be heard over the Clock’s 10 millennial lifespan.

Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants was the last book I read in 2010. Highly, highly recommended.

(2) “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.”

(3) “The Assassin in the Vineyard” [Vanity Fair] – what can I say? 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.

(4) “The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See” [Men’s Journal] — truly an incredible story of how one man, Daniel Kish, has learned to see. How? By learning echolocation (what bats use to navigate):

Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy — Kish is now 44 — he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke. But Kish, I can confirm, is completely blind.

He knew my car was poorly parked because he produced a brief, sharp click with his tongue. The sound waves he created traveled at a speed of more than 1,000 feet per second, bounced off every object around him, and returned to his ears at the same rate, though vastly decreased in volume.

But not silent. Kish has trained himself to hear these slight echoes and to interpret their meaning. Standing on his front stoop, he could visualize, with an extraordinary degree of precision, the two pine trees on his front lawn, the curb at the edge of his street, and finally, a bit too far from that curb, my rental car. Kish has given a name to what he does — he calls it “FlashSonar” — but it’s more commonly known by its scientific term, echolocation.

(5) “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?

One of Marcia Angell’s conclusions in that piece:

At the very least, we need to stop thinking of psychoactive drugs as the best, and often the only, treatment for mental illness or emotional distress. Both psychotherapy and exercise have been shown to be as effective as drugs for depression, and their effects are longer-lasting, but unfortunately, there is no industry to push these alternatives and Americans have come to believe that pills must be more potent. More research is needed to study alternatives to psychoactive drugs, and the results should be included in medical education.

So that’s my top five list of longreads of the first half of 2011? I mentioned honorable mentions at the beginning of the post, and I’ll include three of them below.

Honorable Mentions

(1) “What Happened to Air France Flight 447?” [New York Times] – a spectacular recounting of the Air France flight from Rio de Janiero to Paris, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009.

(2) “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” [Guernica Magazine] – a revealing look at what some call a slave business for interns on the campus of that magic place, Disney World:

“We’re not there to flip burgers or to give people food,” a fast-food intern said. “We’re there to create magic.”

(3) “The Brain on Trial” [The Atlantic] – my most recently featured long read, this piece by David Eagleman is a controversial read, in which, Eagleman argues that how the human brain is wired ultimately determines how people will act. There is no such thing as free will.

(4) “The Possibilian” [The New Yorker] – speaking of David Eagleman (see above), this is a fantastic profile of the scientist. What did a brush with death teach Eagleman about time, its perception, and the brain? Find out in this fascinating article.

Time isn’t like the other senses, Eagleman says. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are relatively easy to isolate in the brain. They have discrete functions that rarely overlap: it’s hard to describe the taste of a sound, the color of a smell, or the scent of a feeling. (Unless, of course, you have synesthesia—another of Eagleman’s obsessions.) But a sense of time is threaded through everything we perceive. It’s there in the length of a song, the persistence of a scent, the flash of a light bulb.

(5) “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” [Awl] – I love Wikipedia. It’s my primary source to look up facts and yes, even current events. In this piece, Maria Bustillos goes in depth discussing its merits. I like this paragraph:

There’s an enormous difference between understanding something and deciding something. Only in the latter case must options be weighed, and one chosen. Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic. Rather than being handed an “authoritative” decision, you’re given the means for rolling your own.


So there you have it. Top five long reads of the first half of 2011, plus five honorable mentions. It’s been a great year for #longreads so far, and it was tough to weed this list down to five (and it will be even harder to do so at the end of the year!). At least one or two of the pieces I mention here will be in my top five list at the end of the year. Of the best long reads I mentioned here, which one do you think already deserves that recognition? If I didn’t include a longreads post which you’ve thoroughly enjoyed and think should have made my list, please, do not hesitate to leave a comment below.

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