Day 256: Learn to love long-form

May 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

I knew when I came to Medill that I wanted to write narrative nonfiction, but was only vaguely familiar with famous nonfiction writers. As an English major, I’d always considered nonfiction writers second tier – failed Faulkners and Hemingways. I knew big names like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, but had read little of their work.

Back in January I posted five of my all-time favorite short stories. Well, this quarter in my magazine classes, I’ve had the privilege of reading some of the best prose ever written, and tonight I’d like to share five of my favorite long-form narrative nonfiction stories.

1. “Frank  Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese, Esquire 1966

The god of profiles takes on Old Blue Eyes. In the 70th anniversary issue of Esquire, this story was named the “Best Story Esquire Ever Published.” The sheer amount of reporting it must have involved just blows my mind. Talese is a god.

2. “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace, Gourmet 2004

The late, incredibly great David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008, probably could’ve populated all five slots on this list. Although most well known for his fiction, Wallace’s nonfiction rivals many career long-form writers. In this particular piece he somehow convinced the now defunct Gourmet magazine to let him compose a few thousand word treatise on the grotesqueness of a lobster festival in Maine, complete with a full page and a half of humorous endnotes.

3. “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod, Esquire 1998

Junod writes an intensely personal profile of Fred Rogers, best known as the Mr. Rogers of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” Who knew such a long piece about a little old man in cardigan could make you tear up more than once?

4. “The Ketchup Conundrum” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker 2004

I would love to spend an afternoon waltzing through the brain of Malcolm Gladwell so I could steal all of his story ideas. In classic Gladwell fashion, he takes the mundane (in this case, ketchup), and writes a fascinating essay on why Heinz dominates the market. I could’ve picked almost any Gladwell piece, but this one I particularly enjoy.

5. “The Things That Carried Him” by Chris Jones, Esquire 2008

This story speaks to our times, playing off the title of Tim O’Brien’s short story about the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried.” With explicit detail, Jones follows the body of a soldier killed in Iraq up until his casket is buried. Very moving.

Read at least one of them. I dare you.

For a more complete list, the blog Cool Tools has assembled links to the “Best Magazine Articles Ever” here:



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