This morning, a wonderful essay by the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard hit the Internet courtesy of the newly re-branded New York Times Magazine. The piece, called “My Saga, Part 1,” is the first half of a beautifully disheveled look at the United States through the eyes of an outsider. Alexis de Tocqueville is the obvious comparison, but Knausgaard’s eye looks inward as much as it looks outward, and his writing is propelled by its own introspective rhythm, rather than a few observations about a sprawling nation he’s trying to explore in a week.
When I finished reading, it didn’t take long before I had jumped headfirst into the magazine’s longform archive, where I stumbled upon features both familiar and strange. So, in honor of the relaunched New York Times Magazine — read about the changes here — this seems like a good time for an overview of the post-Millennium era, selecting one piece from each year after 2000. We’ll start with the present.
2015: “My Saga, Part 1” by Karl Ove Knausgaard
What it’s about: As mentioned above, Ove Knausgaard was commissioned to write about America from an outsider’s perspective, and his journey started in Newfoundland, the site where the first Europeans first stepped foot on North American soil.
Excerpt: “I stood there without moving for a long time, looking out to sea. The silence did something with the landscape. Usually, something is making a sound. The wind sweeping across the land, whistling past every ridge or rise it encounters. Birds squawking or chirping. And the sea, the constant soughing, night and day, that sometimes in a storm turns into roaring and hissing.
But here everything was still.
All sounds belong to the moment, they are part of the present, the world of change, while the soundless belongs to the unchanging. In silence lies age.
A thousand years is no time at all, I thought.”
What it’s about: This is a profile of Maria Bamford, one of our funniest—and most troubled—comedians.
Excerpt: “Things Bamford likes to talk about candidly include the fact that she has disabling bouts of anxiety and depression, that she has contended with a form of O.C.D. called “unwanted thoughts syndrome” and that during her childhood, those unwanted thoughts came in the form of constant worries she might kill her own family or sexually molest animals. And while her comedy routinely traverses more everyday subject matter — she mimics her stalwart Minnesotan parents with devastating precision; she deftly does bits about emojis, online dating and her deep lack of interest in cooking — all of it seems anchored, one way or another, in Bamford’s psychological fragility. When she does her stand-up, when she acts on television and most notably in several web series she has written and starred in, she plays an exaggerated version of herself — a tremolo-voiced woman with a stunned expression, trying to navigate a world of people whose confidence is appreciably higher than her own.”
What it’s about: A study of Diedrik Stapel, one of academia’s greatest frauds.
Excerpt: “His enemies were targeting him because of changes he initiated as dean, Stapel replied, quoting a Dutch proverb about high trees catching a lot of wind. When Zeelenberg challenged him with specifics — to explain why certain facts and figures he reported in different studies appeared to be identical — Stapel promised to be more careful in the future. As Zeelenberg pressed him, Stapel grew increasingly agitated.
Finally, Zeelenberg said: “I have to ask you if you’re faking data.”
What it’s about: The anxiety-ridden life of a police informant in Atlanta.
Excerpt: “According to White, some of the officers he worked with were particularly tough. Unlike the uniformed police of the Red Dog Unit (the name has come to stand for Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia), White’s handlers were plainclothes and were free to roam the entire city in search of bigger fish. They ruled by intimidation and enjoyed manhandling those they ran up against on the street, White said. He saw them beat people and said that he was roughed up himself more than once when, in order to protect his identity (they said), the cops arrested him and slapped him around right along with all the real suspects.”
What it’s about: War makes for strange bedfellows, as the U.S. alliance with corrupt, violent Afghani police demonstrates.
Excerpt: : “But selectively arming portions of any given population, no matter the precautions, can be risky business in Afghanistan, and the question looming darkly over the military successes of the A.L.P. — which Petraeus credited to the fact that “no one protects their home like a homeowner” — is what other purposes might their American-supplied guns and training find, especially after foreign troops leave the country. One highly positioned Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was not optimistic. “When you have a headache, you take pills,” he told me. “Some pills will cure your headache but damage your stomach in the process. That is what we have with the A.L.P. The local police are a temporary solution. Long-term, they are poison.”
What it’s about: An essay on the author’s endless search of a therapeutic cure.
Excerpt: “To this day, I’m not sure that I am in possession of substantially greater self-knowledge than someone who has never been inside a therapist’s office. What I do know, aside from the fact that the unconscious plays strange tricks and that the past stalks the present in ways we can’t begin to imagine, is a certain language, a certain style of thinking that, in its capacity for reframing your life story, becomes — how should I put this? — addictive. Projection. Repression. Acting out. Defenses. Secondary compensation. Transference. Even in these quick-fix, medicated times, when people are more likely to look to Wellbutrin and life coaches than to the mystique-surrounded, intangible promise of psychoanalysis, these words speak to me with all the charged power of poetry, scattering light into opaque depths, interpreting that which lies beneath awareness. Whether they do so rightly or wrongly is almost beside the point.”
What it’s about: Michael Lewis, arguably America’s most compelling nonfiction author and certainly one of its most successful, writes about NBA star Shane Battier and the unique, almost immeasurable way he succeeds among superior athletes.
Excerpt: “Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” Morey says. “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”
What it’s about: Carr, the New York Times legend who passed away earlier this month, released this excerpt from his memoir The Night of the Gun. It’s a short tale of addiction, and the life he led in the ‘80s.
Excerpt: “Where does a junkie’s time go? Mostly in 15-minute increments, like a bug-eyed Tarzan, swinging from hit to hit. For months on end in 1988, I sat inside a house in north Minneapolis, doing coke and listening to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and finding my own pathetic resonance in the lyrics. “Any place is better,” she sang. “Starting from zero, got nothing to lose.”
What it’s about: A profile of the filmmaker Michael Haneke, master of psychological terror.
Excerpt: “It’s not a little disconcerting, given the remorselessness of Haneke’s films, to come face to face with the director’s goofy side. Neither he nor Gearhart, who turned 12 in May, seemed the tiniest bit bothered by the presence on a nearby set of a perfect facsimile of the boy’s headless body, artfully arranged against a blood-spattered living-room wall. Later, when I mentioned the tense atmosphere during that day’s shoot, Haneke sighed and brought a finger to his lips. “We have a saying in Austria,” he said, his smile not entirely hidden behind his snowy beard. “The sewage is up to our necks already — whatever you do, don’t make waves.”
What it’s about: What does it mean to live in a world where a company can sell pre-packaged apple slices?
Excerpt: “Not since the canneries of the early 20th century have food processors sought merely to preserve perishables. Processing foods now means redesigning them, making them easier to eat for a population that is steadily less willing to go to any trouble at all. Given the childhood obesity epidemic and the longstanding economic troubles of America’s apple growers, boosting the apple’s performance so that it could, as an industry observer explained, “stand up to ordinary use,” was a doubly urgent project. By making a healthful, fresh fruit that looks and acts more like a bag of chips, a handful of companies like Crunch Pak may have finally figured out a way to compete with the hassle-free junk foods that blazed into this era of hyperconvenience.”
What it’s about: In a stunning piece of journalism, Rubin revisits the jurors from one of the most famous trials in American history, when the killer of a young black boy was exonerated by an all-white jury from Mississippi.
Excerpt: “You see, I wasn’t interested in talking to Till’s cousins and other members of the local black community, the people who had been there with him at the store, who had witnessed or heard tell of his abduction and had worried that they might be next. Those people had been interviewed many times already; I knew what they had to say, empathized with them, understood them. The people I wanted to interview were those with whom I couldn’t empathize, those I didn’t understand. I wanted to sit down with the men who were complicit in what I considered to be a second crime committed against Emmett Till — the lawyers who defended his killers in court and the jurors who set them free. I wanted to ask: How could they do it? How did they feel about it now? And how had they lived with it for 40 years?
I talked to four of them. They’re all dead now.”
What it’s about: A view of white-collar crime through lens of…bagels.
Excerpt: “His economist friends thought he had lost his mind. They made oblique remarks (and some not so oblique) about “a terrible waste of talent.” But his wife supported his decision. They had retired their mortgage; the last of their three children was finishing college. Driving around the office parks that encircle Washington, he solicited customers with a simple pitch: early in the morning, he would deliver some bagels and a cash basket to a company’s snack room; he would return before lunch to pick up the money and the leftovers. It was an honor-system commerce scheme, and it worked. Within a few years, he was delivering 700 dozen bagels a week to 140 companies and earning as much as he had ever made as a research analyst. He had thrown off the shackles of cubicle life and made himself happy.
He had also — quite without meaning to — designed a beautiful economic experiment. By measuring the money collected against the bagels taken, he could tell, down to the penny, just how honest his customers were. Did they steal from him? If so, what were the characteristics of a company that stole versus a company that did not? Under what circumstances did people tend to steal more, or less?”
What it’s about: A profile of Victor Bout, thought to be the world’s largest arms trafficker.
Excerpt: “Last February, months before I met with Bout, I went to Kiev. The year before, Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, had been caught personally directing illicit weapons sales. From 1998 to 2000, Kuchma’s bodyguard, a former K.G.B. employee and Ukrainian intelligence officer named Mykola Melnychenko, had bugged the presidential office and then turned over tapes to an opposition member of Ukraine’s Parliament. The tapes caught Kuchma apparently approving the sale of four world-class radar systems to Saddam Hussein for $100 million and ordering the director of Ukraine’s intelligence agency to ‘’take care of’’ a Ukrainian journalist who had been following the government’s connections to illegal arms sales. Two months after that conversation, the journalist, Georgy Gongadze, vanished. His headless, acid-scorched corpse was found in a forest glade two months later. He was one of at least three Ukrainian journalists and five members of Parliament who died in the last few years under mysterious circumstances.”
What it’s about: Essentially, an essay on coincidence.
Excerpt: ”’‘The really unusual day would be one where nothing unusual happens,’’ explains Persi Diaconis, a Stanford statistician who has spent his career collecting and studying examples of coincidence. Given that there are 280 million people in the United States, he says, ‘’280 times a day, a one-in-a-million shot is going to occur.’‘
Throw your best story at him — the one about running into your childhood playmate on a street corner in Azerbaijan or marrying a woman who has a birthmark shaped like a shooting star that is a perfect match for your own or dreaming that your great-aunt Lucy would break her collarbone hours before she actually does — and he will nod politely and answer that such things happen all the time. In fact, he and his colleagues also warn me that although I pulled all examples in the prior sentence from thin air, I will probably get letters from readers saying one of those things actually happened to them.”
What it’s about: Returning to the sporty side of things, the great Pat Jordan chronicles the second act of Clemens’ career as the best pitcher of his generation, and a man who has made his share of mistakes.
Excerpt: “Clemens has his own personal vocabulary that has often made him the butt of sportswriters’ acerbic columns, as if to prove he is less than a brain surgeon. He uses words like ‘’fillier’’ and ‘’recorrect,’’ and once said of himself, ‘’I’m the goodest guy you can find.’’ Once, a Boston paper infuriated him by running his quotes verbatim for days on end to make him look foolish, which he isn’t. He’s just what he claims to be, ‘’a country boy’’ who has spent most of his life playing a child’s game. Clemens thinks it’s the sportswriters who are the stupid ones.”