The Essay List


The Sidney Awards 1
  • Op-Ed page
  •  Ron Unz’s searing, sprawling, frustrating and highly debatable piece, “The Myth of the American Meritocracy,” in The American Conservative. It wins the first of the 2012 Sidney Awards, which go to the best magazine essays of the year. 
  • If you start reading “The Innocent Man,” a two-part series on this case that Pamela Colloff wrote for The Texas Monthly, you will be propelled along by indignation at the arrogance and stupidity of the entire law enforcement system.
  • two outstanding essays this year on Bruce Springsteen. 
  • Mitt Romney’s religion generated a tide of commentary. One of the more humane and nuanced pieces was “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon,” written by Walter Kirn for The New Republic.
  • In “A Life Worth Ending,” in New York Magazine, Michael Wolff describes the case of his own mother, the once great talker and wit, who has lost many of her faculties. He writes, “When my mother’s diaper is changed she makes noises of harrowing despair — for a time, before she lost all language, you could if you concentrated make out what she was saying, repeated over and over again: ‘It’s a violation. It’s a violation. It’s a violation.’ ”
  • Raffi Khatchadourian told the amazing story of how Dallas Wiens lost his face in a construction accident, and then how a community of doctors and others rebuilt it. The article, “Transfiguration,” in The New Yorker describes the spiritual transformation of Wiens as much as the science of his physical one.

The Sidney Awards 2
  • Op-Ed page
  •  The drugs that treated schizophrenia as a biological disorder did not work well. Tanya Marie Luhrmann notes in an essay, “Beyond the Brain” in The Wilson Quarterly, that model has failed.
  • Walter Russell Mead’s “The Once and Future Liberalism” in The American Interest certainly encourages what the award was designed to do i.e. encourage people to step back at this time of the year and look at the big picture.
  • Today we are awash in exclamation points and affiliation symbols and sentiment more generally. This transformation has been nicely analyzed by Pamela Haag in “Death by Treacle” in The American Scholar.
  • Jaroslav Flegr believes parasites transmitted by cat feces have altered his brain. Kathleen McAuliffe tells his story in “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” in The Atlantic. Men infected in this way tend to wear more rumpled clothes and have fewer friends. Infected women wear nicer clothes and have more friends.
  • The Thought Police” by Paul Berman in The New Republic, on how radical Islamist thugs used intimidation to defeat Arab liberals in their struggle for the future of the Middle East.
  • The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. One gets the sense that the inhumanity of our prisons will be regarded with disbelief by future generations. This essay surveys the scene.
  • The Writing Revolution” by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic. About a school on Staten Island that improved its academic outputs by teaching its underprivileged students the nuts and bolts of writing.
  • Broken BRICs” by Ruchir Sharma in Foreign Affairs. Everyone assumes that the rising economies of Asia and elsewhere (BRICs, Brazil, Russia, India, and China) will own the future. Sharma challenges this thesis.
  • The Education of Dasmine Cathey” by Brad Wolverton in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This humane article takes us into the world of one midlevel college football player, who, among other things, tried to teach himself to read.
  • Honorable mentions
    • Atonement,” by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, about an Iraq war veteran who seeks out the family he harmed
    • The Meme Generation,” by Matt Labash in The Weekly Standard, about the impact of the Web’s viral-content culture on America
    • In Nothing We Trust,” by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton in National Journal, about how Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great;
    • Happyism,” by Deirdre N. McCloskey in The New Republic, about the creepy new economics of pleasure;
    • Not Fade Away,” by Robert Kagan in The New Republic, about the myth of the American decline.


The Sidney Awards 1
  • Op-Ed page
  •  The first winner is Peter Hessler’s New Yorker article, “Dr. Don: The life of a small-town druggist.” It is a profile of a man named Don Colcord who lives in Nucla, Colo., and serves that community medically, spiritually, financially and beyond.
  • Wesley Yang  “Paper Tigers” in New York Magazine interviews dozens of young Asian-Americans who, unsatisfied with good grades alone, are trying to learn things like how to be more assertive and how to make trouble.
  •  Steven F. Hayward  in Breakthrough Journal notes that conservatism is failing on its own terms. The conservative base, the white middle class, is experiencing stagnant wages and social decay.
  • Robert Boyers’s essay, “A Beauty” in the journal Agni, lingers in the mind. It is about Boyers’s late friend, the writer Charles Newman, who was astonishingly handsome.
  • Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker. In May, wrote “Creation Myth” on the creativity chain — the differences between theorists, inventors and implementers. 
  • Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker. In February, he wrote “The Order of Things,” a devastating takedown of the U.S. News and World Report and other college and university rankings.
  • Sandra Tsing Loh delivers a bracing look at menopause in her Atlantic essay, “The Bitch Is Back.” “I am fast losing patience with the day job of motherhood,” Loh writes. She also describes periods of “crippling, unreasoning gloom.”
  • Alan Lightman writes in “The Accidental Universe” in Harper’s that the existence of life is so incredibly improbable that there can be only two realistic explanations: Either there is a God who designed all this, or there exist many, many different universes, a vast majority of which are lifeless.
The Sidney Awards 2


The Sidney Awards 1
  • Op-Ed page
  •  a Vanity Fair piece by Michael Lewis called “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds.” His large subject is the tsunami of cheap credit that swept over the world and “offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge.”
  • In The End of Men  in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin gathers the evidence, showing how women are beginning to dominate the information age.
  • In Fortune, Beth Kowitt had an eye-popping piece called “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s.” 
  • Sam Anderson superbly captures the everythingness of Franco’s life in a New York Magazine piece called “The James Franco Project.” It is a story of manic labor masking the man’s enigmatic core.
  • William Deresiewicz delivered a countercultural lecture at West Point. He told the cadets how to combat the frenetic, achievement-obsessed system in which they were raised.  published in The American Scholar as “Solitude and Leadership.” 
  • Darin Wolfe wrote a piece in American Scientist, called “To See for One’s Self,” about the decline of the autopsy
The Sidney Awards 2
  • Op-Ed page
  • In The American Interest Lawrence Rosen asks: What does corruption mean?  Understanding Corruption 
  • But in The Truth Wears Off in The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer reports on something strange.  “It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”
  • Charlie LeDuff’s essay “Who Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones” in Mother Jones packs a special power. It starts with a killing of a little girl in a police raid, then pulls back to the idiotic murder of a teenage boy that precipitated the raid — that murder victim may have smirked at his killer for riding a moped.
  • In an essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Demographic Future,” Nicholas Eberstadt describes the coming global manpower decline.
  • Tyler Cowen wrote a superb, counterintuitive piece on income inequality for The American Interest called “The Inequality That Matters.” 
  • Adam Gopnick wrote a fresh piece on Winston Churchill for The New Yorker called “Finest Hours.”
  • Anne Applebaum wrote a chilling essay on central Europe in the 20th century called “The Worst of the Madness” in The New York Review of Books. 


The Sidney Awards 1

  • David Rohde does not get a Sidney for his unforgettable series on being held captive by the Taliban. (ineligible because it appeared in The Times)
  • Atul Gawande’s piece, “The Cost Conundrum,” in The New Yorker, was the most influential essay of 2009
  • David Goldhill’s “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” in The Atlantic, explained why the U.S. needs fundamental health reform. 
  • Jonathan Rauch’s delightful essay, “Fasten Your Seat Belts — It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Flight,” in The National Journal.
  • David Grann’s “Trial by Fire” in The New Yorker. Grann investigated the case of Cameron Todd Willingham
  • Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard,  “A Rake’s Progress” was a sympathetic and gripping profile of Marion Barry,
  •  S. Frederick Starr’s “Rediscovering Central Asia,” in The Wilson Quarterly, is an eye-opening look at what once was.

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Web site links for additional reading

  • Arts and Letters Daily is the center of high-toned linkage on the Web. 
  • The Browser is a trans-Atlantic site with a superb eye for the interesting and the profound.
  • Book Forum has a more academic feel, but it is also worth a daily read


The Sidney Awards

  • Michael Lewis,whose essay “The End” appeared in Portfolio magazine.
  • “The Unwisdom of Crowds,” in The Weekly Standard, by Christopher Caldwell
  • “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” which appeared in The Atlantic, by an anonymous writer, Professor X, 
  • March 12 issue of The New Republic, John Judis gave us an early, brilliant explanation of the Barack Obama phenomenon.


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The Hookie awards Part 1

The Hookie awards Part 2