Summer Reading: Our Favourites from 2014
For your summer reading pleasure: last month we compiled our favourite articles from the site, and today our writers share their top reads from 2014.
The surgery started at dawn on March 19, 2012. The face of a recently deceased 21-year-old man came off as one solid flap, skin, muscle, bone, nerves, blood vessels, tongue—everything as one piece. Rodriguez removed what was left of Richard's disfigured face, dissected down to the skull. He attached the new face midway back on Richard's scalp. He stabilized it with screws, tapped the jaw together, and finally draped the skin and sewed it down like a patch on a coat or a pair of jeans.
After shooting himself in the face at the age of 22, Richard Norris was left devastatingly disfigured. He stopped leaving the house. The mirrors in his house were covered, and on the rare occasion when he did venture into public, he wore a black mask to hide "his wide brown eyes and a swirl of nameless twisted flesh." It wasn't until he met Eduardo Rodriguez, a plastic surgeon from Baltimore, that he began to hope again - or so the story goes. Following a series of smaller skin grafts, Rodriguez proposed the most ambitious and dangerous procedure any surgeon had ever attempted: a full face transplant.
Rather than simply recounting this modern feat of medicine, or dwelling on the philosophical weirdness of being given another person's face, Jeanne Marie Laskas takes us beyond the hospital doors and the polished media narrative to Norris's mountaintop home and his life following the operation. What could have been yet another miracle story is instead unsettlingly dystopic, and the bleak reality of this success story raises questions around the sacrifices we make in the name of scientific progress.
You've seen it, too. You can probably picture it in your head: Tom Cruise, dressed in head-to-toe black, looming over a cowering Oprah as he jumps up and down on the buttermilk-colored couch like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Cruise bouncing on that couch is one of the touchstones of the last decade, the punchline every time someone writes about his career.
There's just one catch: It never happened.
I remember meeting a Tom Cruise impersonator a few years ago. He had the aggressive smile and jittery energy of someone who'd just mainlined two cans of Red Bull and it was perfect. He was perfect. Unhinged, enthused, impersonal - it perfectly captured modern-day characterisations of the man, and of course this includes his couch jump.
What's most fascinating about Amy Nicholson's piece (which threatens to gush all the way into fandom) is how the couch incident represents a turning point in celebrity culture. With the advent of the internet, celebrities could no longer manage their public image in the same way. They were more vulnerable to the public eye. Anyone on the street could take a photo and upload it online. And while Cruise would've been aware that he was being filmed for television, he could never have anticipated its longevity through history or the degree to which it would colour his public image. This was, after all, 2005. YouTube had launched only a couple of weeks prior to his appearance on Oprah, and for the first time in history, people could watch videos online without considerable cost to the website hosting it. The Star Wars kid had just gone viral and Cruise followed not long after, destined to be a misremembered forefather in the digital hall of shame.
So... Afghanistan still exists. James Meek at the London Review of Books explains how Britain fucked up in Iraq and moved out to redeem themselves in Afghanistan, only to fuck up there too (and not for the first time). Their actions were so naive, the locals figured the Brits must be fighting the Americans. The piece is bitter and seering, and credible. And feels like a small percentage of what's really going on.
Steve Braunias' election columns! Long pieces posted in real time, fantastic. Relive the hope.
I don't know who Jon Bois is. I don't know if he's America's most venerated writer of the moment, or a dude clinging on by his fingertips. Because: SB Nation, you know? My friend sent me this link and ever since I've been hooked on him and I don't know anything more than that.
What I do know is that every word he writes at the moment seems to sing with this fierce freedom. With the sense that he is perfectly attuned to this strange moment, the changing of the tides when all we've slaved so hard for as a species might take us to somewhere beautiful or to dust. This piece is about his quest to find out what might happen to basketball if from here on out the NBA drafted year after year of stubbornly awful players, using a computer simulation and some beautifully tragicomic clips. It's ridiculous and riveting, discovery and doom, journalism and junk. I don't even know what it is, really, but it's the most memorable piece of writing I read all year and I think anyone who likes breathing should read it and marvel.
Nadijah Robinson's 'Black Art Is Not A Free For All' was by far the most "oh, shit" paradigm-shifting thing I read in 2014. It's not that I was completely naive to the concept of cultural appropriation and exploitation of black art — the meteoric rise of Iggy Azalea pushed that conversation to the fore last year — it's just that this is the most beautifully written, compelling, single-source go-to I've read on the topic that tessellated and firmly solidified the urgency of those ideas for me. I've re-read it many times and every time it strengthens my resolve to examine myself more thoroughly and do better as a white person who has made money from writing about rap music before. It's a crucially important read and I would recommend it to any non-black person who benefits from black culture; i.e. every single one of us.
There were better written and much more immediately engaging things written in 2014, but this summary of a discussion with Electronic Arts chief creative officer Rich Hilleman is something that keeps bubbling to the surface of my mind. There's plenty of interest here: it's claimed 85% of people who play games don't consoles and there's some revealing comments about "hardcore" and casual audiences.
But what I keep coming back to is Hilleman's description of how he (and presumably how EA) derives useful information from the fan base. Basically in-game telemetry trumps whiners on the forums. Hilleman says the maligned gamer venting his or her guts out on the forums is really asserting their place in the hierarchy of the community. In other words: it's not about the gamer's relationship to the game/company, but about the gamer's relationship to other gamers. As a company, EA doesn't have a great reputation when it comes to keeping their fans happy, but in a year where the magical and communal headspace we call the internet became a dangerous bear pit of a place, Hilleman's assessment resonates.
I really loved this essay by former boxing manager Charles Farrell. I'm no big fan of pugilism, but one morning I read it on a whim and it stuck with me all year. Simple, evocative prose that somehow paints the world of the sweet science as both bleak and warm.
I like Ta-Nehisi Coates' Twitter presence for his discussion of Marvel comics and turn-based RPGs, but the best thing he (or maybe anyone in the world) wrote last year was 'The Case for Reparations' in the Atlantic.
There's nothing I could possibly add to this exhaustive, 16,000 word dissection of institutionalised racism and what that means in a post-slavery, post- Jim Crow, 'post-racism' USA. It demonstrates how subtle, ingrained and endemic white privilege is in a capitalist liberal democracy, by carefully showing the inverse: continued and pervasive repression, economic or otherwise, of black Americans in the 20th century.
The Tim Tebow Chronicles by Jon Bois (SB Nation). What is it? It's hard to say.
If you're familiar with Jon Bois' online escapades (the feats of Clarence Beefcake in Breaking Madden; the death of basketball in NBA Y2K) you'd expect sports, GIFs and wacko humour. And you get that. But The Tim Tebow Chronicles is on a grander and wackier scale.
Bois himself has described it, modestly, as "44,000 words of fan fiction about Tim Tebow" (a famous college quarterback who didn't cut it in the NFL). The Chroniclesimagines what Tebow's career might be like in the Canadian Football League. Except this isn't a kind of football anyone's familiar with (a javelin-ball inspired by the Nerf Vortex, mixed gender teams, no refs, playing fields that extend onto the street and beyond...).
Is The Tim Tebow Chronicles the future of online storytelling (it's six chapters include 108 illustrations and seven videos)? Or just an extended fever dream? Does it matter? I loved it.
Economic power is a needed development, of course, and one that can be used to leverage political power. But the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class.
Like many people, I came to Fredrick C. Harris's essay for Dissent on the 'rise of respectability politics' after Ferguson, Michael Brown, a factually inconceivable grand jury verdict involving a young man who palmed off stolen goods while singlehandedly punching a police officer, and the last rearguard action of "respectability politics" for a while. Robert Stephens II takes Harris's cudgel up well in the Jacobin, as America was faced with an insurrection too galvanising and disruptive to be turned into some homily about "pulling up your pants" and setting or following good examples. For Today In Tabs, the coda to Bijan Stephen's vivid autobiographical take hit the raw, beating heart of the matter, of the wedge driven between him and the people who look like him working as his office's janitors. But Harris can be read independently of any accusation that he wrote a hasty reaction or a hot take. Instead, it feels incredibly prescient - months later, the structure that had been smoothed over is exposed and the paeans to individual achievement over urban unrest ring hollow as tin on asphalt.
Runner-up to Christopher Scanlon in Overland on the most awful and demoralising form of pop psychology going, and its application in an East Melbourne call centre:
A recurring motif throughout Ally’s time at the call centre was the ‘Rainbow Connection’ (as in the song by Kermit the Frog). Employees were told they could retreat to the ‘Rainbow Connection corner’; the manual on dealing with customers was called the ‘Rainbow Book’; the preferred term for employment contracts was the ‘Rainbow Connection’. The implication: work was just one big extension of your social activities, seamlessly combining all the strands of your life – your work, your friendships and your personal values – into a single way of thinking. New recruits were even fed stories about how other employees had met their spouses while working the phones.
The best thing I read last year was a series of bleakly captivating articles investigating what it was like to go to bed hungry in the world's richest country. The author, Eli Saslow, won a Pulitzer in 'Explanatory reporting' for his work, and it's well-deserved; his pieces reach from the Appalachian mountains to New Mexican deserts, and unflinchingly trace the structures of power that end at empty stomachs or chronic obesity. Rather than writing off bureaucratic indifference and broken welfare policy as "too complex" to chart, Saslow speaks to the poorest of the poor, and then to the politicians in charge, to try and work out how things got this way, and how they might change. This one's my favourite, but you can read them all here.