Favorite Essays of 2022
Every year, I keep a folder where I collect my favorite things that I read online from the previous year. Below are some highlights from 2022; mostly essays and profiles but a few interviews are thrown in here too. The list doesn’t include things I read in print — either in magazines or books — and only things easily accessible online. Happy reading!
For the better part of the last fifteen years, I’ve religiously read every New Yorker profile. It’s a form I love and constantly introduces me to new figures or helps me better understand people I’ve long admired. This year, I loved learning more about filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, editor and novelist Hanya Yanagihara, writer and farmer Wendell Berry, and filmmaker Robert Eggers.
Not in the New Yorker, but I loved the New York Times Magazine profiles on Noah Baumbach while he made White Noise and actor Jonathan Majors, who is having a moment right now, starring in a series of new Marvel films, but blew me away a few years ago in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Also in the NYT, I found myself returning to this interview with Brian Eno a few times since first reading it last month.
Antwaun Sargent’s tribute to Virgil Abloh was one of the best Abloh essays I’d read since his death. Vanity Fair also had a big profile on Sargent, the curator and writer who is seemingly everywhere right now.
Speaking of fashion, this piece on Thom Browne was a smart take on a designer I’ve long admired.
As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania, I spent entirely too much time reading about the John Fetterman / Mehmet Oz senate race. Unsurprisingly, New York magazine had two smart takes: Olivia Nuzzi explored the strangeness of Oz’s campaign and the always-great Rebecca Traister looked at the radical vulnerability of John Fetterman. More than any other result from this year’s mid-terms, the triumph of Fetterman made me the happiest.
I found myself thinking of this essay from William Davies, in the London Review of Books, on sociology and history, quite a bit this year:
History and historians now frequently perform the role to which sociology and sociologists once aspired: to narrate and contextualise the conflicts of the present. The anti-racist movements of the last decade, culminating with Black Lives Matter, have focused on raising awareness of colonial history, including the importance of slavery, empire and settler colonialism in the development of European capitalism. Thanks to this, it is no longer surprising to hear the origins of National Trust properties or the crimes of Cecil Rhodes discussed in the news. To take a second example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed reflection on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the often disastrous policy choices of the 1990s: ‘shock therapy’, which aimed rapidly to privatise and liberalise the Russian economy according to the dominant tenets of American economic thinking, resulted in economic collapse and a fall in life expectancy unprecedented in an industrialised nation-state. The ultimate beneficiaries were Vladimir Putin, who rose to power on a groundswell of resentful nationalism, and the oligarchs who gained ownership of privatised assets.
I highlighted so many passages from this smart essay by Alex Vuocolo on maintenance (from Noema, a new-to-me publication/journal) but here’s one: “That’s the difference between maintenance and repair. Repair is when you fix something that’s already broken. Maintenance is about making something last.“
Two essays I’m sure I’ll be assigning to students for years to come are Suzanne LaBarre’s Why Corporate America Broke Up With Design in Fast Company (I previously wrote about it here), and Jessica Swoboda’s reflections on criticism in public for The Point:
Why are junior scholars turning to public outlets before their senior colleagues—despite small financial gains, no guarantee of a career in that world and no certainty that their public writing will count for much, if anything, on an academic job market? For Joel Rhone, a graduate student, the motivation to write for more general audiences comes not only from his work on James Baldwin, but also from his interest in seeing what scholarship can become when it’s produced outside the bounds of academia. For Michelle Taylor, a junior research fellow, the reason she does it is, quite simply, because she wants to. But she also wants to help others experience a “moment of being.” For Anna Shechtman, who is completing a postdoc before becoming a tenure-track assistant professor, it’s because she wants to understand “the hum and buzz of implication” at work in various cultural products. And for Lauren Michele Jackson, who is on the earlier end of the tenure clock, it’s because she wants to have fun, go on a journey, and “make an assertive claim for what is there.” I use “want” with frequency here to echo Rhone’s belief that the reasons people become literary critics are incredibly personal—and therefore diverse—and persist even amidst an abysmal material landscape.
On the one hand, these scholars’ perspectives provide an expanded vision for what criticism could be. Scholarship needn’t, for instance, only be thought of as a form that’s produced within academia. One thread that emerged during several conversations but that didn’t make it into the edited transcripts is that the preparation and research required for a magazine essay isn’t all that different from the preparation an academic article requires. In fact, the editorial process writers endure when writing for magazines is often more rigorous, more intense, more thorough—though perhaps less demoralizing—than the editorial process scholars go through with academic journals. Scholarship also needn’t, they suggest, be produced under the beacon of detachment from the art object under evaluation, from the people and artists with whom you’re engaging, from your own desires and excitement for the claims you’re making, or even from the friends with whom you imagine you’re writing to or for.
For Outlook, Amitava Kumar wrote about how daily record keeping changed his life, a method I love as an avid journaler:
I was writing about my hometown of Patna, where rats had stolen my mother’s dentures and, the police claimed, drunk all the confiscated liquor. I don’t think I skipped even a day, and when the year ended, I had completed a short book. Every day I had turned to the back of my notebook, put down the date, and then made a mark.
The method was a success; I had now written a book by writing every day. I wasn’t going to give it up. In the minutes between classes, or on trains or in the waiting room at the paediatrician’s, I would write my daily words in a small brown notebook that fit in my pocket, and then count them to make sure I’d hit the target. Once I had done the work and drawn that small mark, it seemed possible to imagine I would spend my life writing.
Architecture writer Thomas de Monchaux had two essays on list this year: Against Demolition for n+1 and The Original Shock of the Pompidou Center for The New Yorker. de Monchaux is, I think, low-key one of the most thoughtful, provocative architecture writers working today. I read everything he writes.
Anna Wiener’s look at the intersection of real estate, venture capital, and baking is fascinating (and depressing). I love when David Remnick writes about Bob Dylan. Oscar Schwartz on Ted Talks is a must read.