I love to binge on some longform essays. When it’s dead at the library, and I don’t really have anything to work on, I will attack longreads.com. The longform essay is something of a disappearing art, but I think it’s a critical form for nonfiction. There are so many stories that don’t lend themselves to book length discussion, but that deserve more attention than a 500 word news piece. Into that void comes magazine writing. While magazines may be on shakier ground than they have been in the past, the authors contained in The Best American Magazine Writing 2013 serve as shining examples of the quality of the form.
With any collection, people are going to disagree about which items included are the best. For instance, my obsession with the LBJ-obsessed Robert Caro contributed to my love of “The Big Book” by Chris Jones. This essay details Caro’s practices in researching his four book long sweeping epic about the life and work of Lyndon B. Johnson. Jones shows Caro to be meticulous and driven and extremely devoted. Some of the best parts come from the comparisons of how time has passed and changed publishing and book production verses how Caro’s writing practices have remained steady for over 20 years. Though I’ve yet to work my way through Caro’s masterpieces, every time I read this essay, it inspires me to start them immediately.
There are themes that show up repeatedly in this collection. One major theme remains the psychological costs of war. “Did You Think About the Six People You Executed” by Robert Worth examines the fallout in Libya while “The Living and the Dead” by Brian Mockenhaupt follows a team in Afghanistan as they go about their daily patrols. Mockenhaupt’s story, intensely interesting even when describing stillness and waiting, personalizes the individual tragedy of war that all too often becomes nothing more than a statistic on the evening news. Other repeated themes include the problems of modern old age (dementia, prolonged life without quality of life, etc.), and the political battles that rage in America.
While every piece in this collection is masterfully written and deserves to be included, several of the older political pieces like Dahl Lithwick’s threesome, Ta-Nehisi Coates “Fear of a Black President” and Frank Rich’s “Who in God’s Name is Mitt Romney?” are a little dated, especially given that the election they refer to happened almost a year ago.
Each of these pieces are winners or finalists for awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors. As someone not very familiar with the different types of magazine writing, several of the distinctions didn’t mean anything to me, but that doesn’t really matter–everyone of these pieces is worth reading as they offer deep insights into worlds unseen, even if it is only for a brief instant.
JMF Rating: 9/10
‘Til next time,
Note: This book was received from NetGalley in return for an honest review.