Favorite Essays of 2021
I’ve been an Instapaper user — the simple but nifty app that lets you save articles to read later (while stripping them of ads and extraneous design — for well over a decade. It’s allowed me to read more, longer, and wider than ever before and I always have at least a dozen unread essays, stories, and articles saved to fill my time when I sit down to read.
In Instapaper, I keep a folder of my favorite essays each year, saving them their as the year goes by, only to return at the end to see what caught my interest over the last twelve months. Collected below are a few favorite essays from 2021.
A perennial favorite — and a form of writing I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of — is The New Yorker profile. I’ve been reading these for as long as I can remember and there were some great ones this year. My favorite two, however, happen to be about my favorite television show of the year, Succession. Micheal Schulman on Jeremy Strong has been stuck in my mind since I read it and Rebecca Mead on the show’s creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong provides some great insight into the person who’s dreamt up this world.
Speaking of profiles, The New York Times Magazine has also published some incredible profiles this year. I especially loved reading Jazmine Hughes on Questlove and Jay Caspian King on Steven Yuen. And in T, I loved Ligaya Mishan’s profile of Japanese filmmaker and animator Hayao Miyazaki.
Perhaps my favorite ‘profile’ from the magazine, however, was this superb piece by Russell Shorts on Johanna Bonger, the wife of Theo van Gogh — Vincent’s brother — who we can credit for turning Vincent from an unsuccessful and unrecognized artist during his lifetime into one of the most well-known artists today:
The brothers’ dying so young, Vincent at 37 and Theo at 33, and without the artist having achieved renown — Theo had managed to sell only a few of his paintings — would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity. Instead, his name, art and story merged to form the basis of an industry that stormed the globe, arguably surpassing the fame of any other artist in history. That happened in large part thanks to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has only recently been uncovered. It is only now that we know how van Gogh became van Gogh.
Sam Anderson is one of my favorite writers and I am guaranteed to read anything and everything he publishes, no matter how little interest I think I have about the subject beforehand. Take his profile of basketball player Keven Durant, for example. I have little interest in basketball (I did at one time and this profile made me think I should get back to it) but he hooked me with his opening paragraph1:
Ok, why not, let’s start with the asteroid. Thirty-five million years ago, a giant space rock, two miles wide, came screaming out of the sky and crashed into Earth. It struck the eastern edge of the landmass we know today as North America. And it unleashed an apocalypse. The asteroid hit with the power of many nuclear bombs. It hit so hard that it vaporized itself and cracked the bedrock seven miles down. It incinerated whole forests, killed all life in the area, sent super-tsunamis ripping out across the Atlantic. You can still find remnants of the trauma (shocked quartz, fused glass) as far away as Texas and the Caribbean.
Where it hit, the rock left a scar: a giant smoldering hole more than 50 miles across.
There’s a new biography out on the German writer W.G. Sebald which I haven’t read yet but I did read two reviews of the book that I recommend: here’s Ben Lerner in the New York Review of Books and Lauren Oyler in Harpers. (I’m rereading Rings of Saturn for the first time in five years!)
I read a lot about work this year — as the pandemic raged on and work-from-home increasingly becomes the norm for the foreseeable future. I enjoyed Clive Thompson’s look at the cult of productivity and the quest to master our to-do lists. In Vox, Anna North wrote about the perils of parenting during the pandemic and America’s problematic obsession with work culture, a piece that resonated with my own pandemic-experience.
On the art, design, and architecture front, I enjoyed this moving personal essay from Anubha Momin on her mother, homes, and Frank Lloyd Wright. I commissioned and edited the piece so I might be biased, but Meg Miller’s meditation on artists who work with typography is excellent. I appreciated Mindy Seu’s short essay on collecting, sharing, and notions of ‘gathering’.
Not reading, but two podcast interviews I really appreciated were Ezra Klein talking to Tressie McMillan Cottom on beauty, work, merit, and writing and this Teju Cole interview from Between the Covers on fiction, care, and photography.