David Brooks: Remembering the best essays of 2017
By David Brooks
The New York Times
Saturday, December 30, 2017
Those of us on the Decision Desk of the Sidney Awards faced a moral dilemma. Could we give a Sidney to an essay the title of which we couldn’t quote in a family newspaper? We decided that our mission, celebrating the year’s best long-form journalism, is more important than the staid and stifling morality of a patriarchal bourgeois neoliberal society.
So the first Sidney goes to Thomas Golianopoulos’ essay “(Expletive) That Gator” from BuzzFeed. The essay is nominally about the death of Tommie Woodward. He was out drinking beers at his local bar in Orange, Texas, when he decided to take a swim in the nearby bayou. Somebody warned him that a large gator had been seen in it days before. He shouted out the exclamation that is the title of this article, jumped in the bayou and was promptly killed by said gator.
But the piece is really an engaging description of a slice of American life that, when it is described at all, is usually done so in a patronizing anthropological manner. Tommie and his surviving twin, Brian, were manual laborers who went through life working hard, partying hard and doing crazy stuff. Brian worked in a shipyard and now installs air-conditioners and likes eating odd things. “You’ve ever eaten cat?” he asks. There was a big stray cat that kept hanging around bothering him so he killed and barbecued it. How’d it taste? “Oily, man. Oily.”
Golianopoulos beautifully captures the culture of the bar where the Woodwards hung out, Brian’s grief and a part of the country where people are fully eccentric and know how to take care of things on their own.
For demographic consistency, I’m moving next to Christopher Caldwell’s essay “American Carnage” in First Things. Caldwell writes one of the more comprehensive depictions of the opioid crisis. He captures how alluring the drugs are. “If a heroin addict sees on the news that a user or two has died from an overly strong batch of heroin in some housing project somewhere, his first thought is, ‘Where is that? That’s the stuff I want.‘” Caldwell explains how the crisis has touched even the small elements of life. Addicts need to make money to feed their habit. “Some neighborhood bodegas — the addicts know which ones — will pay 50 cents on the dollar for anything stolen from CVS. That is why razor blades, printer cartridges and other expensive portable items are now kept under lock and key.”
At this point, I’ll pause to recognize the two monster essays of the year. Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” in The Atlantic occupied readers’ time more than any other piece of English-language journalism on the internet this year. It’s about a woman who worked as a slave in modern America. When Tizon’s mother was a girl she spoke to a boy her father disapproved of. Her father announced she would have to take a beating as punishment. She told her father that Lola, the family slave, would take it for her. Lola silently stepped forward: “Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me.” Lola made no sound.
The other monster essay is Ronan Farrow’s portrait of Harvey Weinstein’s victims in The New Yorker that, together with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s work for The New York Times, sparked this national re-norming. Farrow’s piece is marked by its understated directness. “I just sort of gave up,” one woman told him, describing what it felt like as Weinstein forced sex upon her. “That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: People give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
I can’t stop telling people about the factoids I learned from Amia Srinivasan’s book review essay “The Sucker, the Sucker!” in The London Review of Books about the personality of octopuses. An octopus’ arms have more neurons than its brain, so each arm can taste and smell on its own and exhibit short-term memory. An octopus can change color to mimic other animals, but it cannot itself see color. So how does it know which color to change into? Good question.
Octopuses are curious but sometimes ornery. When researchers tried to train an octopus to pull a lever to get food, the octopus kept breaking off the lever. Octopuses try hard to escape from captivity, waiting for those moments when they aren’t being watched. One octopus persistently shot jets of water at the nearby aquarium light bulbs, repeatedly short-circuiting the electricity supply until it was finally released into the wild.
Lastly, Gary Saul Morson’s essay “Solzhenitsyn’s Cathedrals” in The New Criterion takes us back to one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Morson shows how spiritually ambitious Alexander Solzhenitsyn was. “Once you give up survival at any price, ‘then imprisonment begins to transform your former character in astonishing ways,‘” Morson writes, quoting Solzhenitsyn. It teaches friendship. You learn the most valuable thing is “the development of the soul.” And so Solzhenitsyn concluded, “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”
The second batch of Sidneys will be out on Friday — a child-friendly edition, sans expletives.