Beautiful Brains David Dobbs Essay Contest

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My top 12 longreads of 2011

By Ed Yong | December 24, 2011 10:35 am

The wonderful site Longreads is collating people’s picks of the best long features of the year. Some say that the internet is triggering a renaissance for long-form writing and I very much agree. Over the past 12 days, I’ve been tweeting my picks and the full list should be up soon. Here it is:


The world of science offers great opportunities for journalists to flex their writing muscles by fusing rich storytelling and reporting with deft explanatory skill. After all, what could make for better stories than intelligent people trying to understand how the world works?

Here are my top dozen stories from the year, originally tweeted as daily treats in the run-up to Christmas. Yes, I know everyone else has picked five, but we bloggers hate word restrictions – I’ll pick my Top 67 of 2011 and you’ll like it. Each of these features left a firm impression so, taking my lead from Jodi Ettenberg, each choice comes with a note about where I was when I read it.

Here they are, in no particular order:

The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus by Adam Rogers (Wired; read at my desk during an uneventful work day)

This is a superb whodunit featuring James Scott, the Sherlock Holmes of fungus – an old-school scientist in the modern world, trying to solve the mystery of the “angel’s share”. It’s packaged with confident wit and vivid, sensory prose (check out that lede), and Rogers finds space to take in a brief history of distillation and a look at the dying art of mycology. The best piece about fungus you’ll likely ever read.

Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind? by Susan Dominus (New York Times, read in a Lake District cottage)

Tatiana and Kristina Hogan are four-year-old twins, joined at the head. Over the course of five days spent with their family, Dominus asks whether they share their thoughts and senses. It’s a moving and thoughtful piece about neuroscientists struggling to explain a bizarre phenomenon, and a family raising their unique members. It is also, of course, a portrait of two extraordinary girls. By the end of the piece, you feel privileged to have met them, if only in words.

A man-made world, by Oliver Morton (Economist; read in an Islington cafe)

There is a staggering density of ideas in this piece about humanity’s impact on our world. In sentences, Morton encapsulates issues that other writers could dwell on for entire books.

The Possibilian by Burkhard Bilger (New Yorker, read on a Boston subway train)

Bilger tells the story of time-lord David Eagleman, a man who collects jokes and anecdotes, chucks volunteers off tall buildings, counts Brian Eno as a research collaborator, and studies how our brain perceives the passage of time. It is a nigh-perfect blend of solid protagonist, fascinating science, and rich, biographical reporting,

The Mouse Trap, by Daniel Engber (Slate, read on a plane to Cairo)

To write one great feature about laboratory rats may be regarded as skill; to write two looks like vanity; to write three looks like genius. In this trinity of long-reads, Engber discusses why our reliance on fat, lazy rats might be holding back medical progress,  how a strain known as Black-6 came to dominate research, and how a blind naked “anti-mouse” could be our secret weapon against cancer.

Number One with a Bullet by Rowan Jacobsen (Outside, read in Heathrow airport)

In India’s lush Kaziranga National Park, a new policy allows rangers to shoot wildlife poachers on sight. As a result, rhinos and tigers are thriving. Jacobsen introduces us to guards, conservationists and poachers to find deeper stories beyond a simple heroes-versus-villains narrative. This is essentially a superlative piece of war reporting, but with tigers.

Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult Worldby Amy Harmon (New York Times, read in Heathrow airport, immediately after Jacobsen’s piece)

Autism gets a lot of column inches, but usually in the context of silly controversies and far-off medical promises, none of which tell you anything about people with autism themselves. For that reason, Harmon’s take on Justin Canha, a young autistic man trying to find his place in the world, is wonderfully refreshing. It’s eye-opening, compassionate, and features a masterful use of dialogue. It took a year to report, which shows.

E.O.Wilson’s Theory of Everything by Howard French (Atlantic, read on the Victoria Line between Vauxhall and King’s Cross)

How do you write a worthy profile of E.O.Wilson, a man whose work spans decades and whose own writing is tinged with greatness? Apparently, you ask Howard French. Controversies over Wilson’s latest theories notwithstanding, French crafts a portrait of an inspirational figure, entranced by nature at the age of 82 as a boy would be at the age of 8. It also has the year’s best final line.

Deep Intellect: Inside the mind of the octopus by Sy Montgomery (Orion; read in bed)

Octopuses must be some of the easiest animals to write about captivatingly. They have acute intelligence, alien physique and a wondrous array of superpowers. But Montgomery does much more with this piece, which invites you to consider what life must be like with an utterly different mind and body. She is less narrating a natural history programme as inviting you to meet a friend. By the end, you get the feeling that Montgomery has slightly fallen in love with the octopus and that it’s really quite okay if you have too.

The Human Lake by Carl Zimmer (Loom, read on a bus heading for Waterloo)

The best science writers can see their beat through wide-angle lenses, finding common themes that run through seemingly disparate areas. This is a prime example of that skill – a long-form blog post that goes from the residents of a Connecticut lake to those within human intestines, told in Zimmer’s trademark simple-but-beautiful brand of storytelling.

Beautiful brains by David Dobbs (National Geographic, read on my sofa)

Starting with a great lede where his boy-racer son gets thrown in jail, Dobbs unpicks the impulsive, maddening teenage brain in his standard mix of pithy explanations and colloquial flourishes. You’re not reading a piece in National Geographic; you’re sitting by a campfire while a professor tells you a story.

What Made This University Researcher Snap? by Amy Wallace (Wired, read in a burrito joint)

In 2010, scientist Amy Bishop gunned down six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama. Just over a year later, Amy Wallace explores what made her snap. It is consistently gripping, often chilling, and frankly impossible to stop reading after the segment about her brother. It’s also the type of piece that is so intensely reported that it almost hurts to think about the rest of the iceberg.





Click image to purchase

Libby Cataldi. Stay Close: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction. New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 2009.  

Dina Kucera. Everything I Never Wanted to Be: A Memoir of Alcoholism and Addiction,
Faith and Family, Hope and Humor.
 Downers Grove: Dream of Things, 2010. 

William Cope Moyers with Katherine Ketcham. Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.

David Sheff. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Barbara Cofer Stoefen. A Very Fine House: A Mother's Story of Love, Faith, and Crystal Meth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

Chris Volkmann and Toren Volkmann. From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking. New York: New American Library, 2006.  
Kristina Wandzilak and Constance Curry. The Lost Years: Surviving a Mother and Daughter’s Worst Nightmare. 
Santa Monica: Jeffers Press, 2006.


Carolyn M. Ball. Claiming Your Self-Esteem: A Guide Out of Codependency, Addiction, and Other Useless Habits. 
Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 1991. 

Melody Beattie. Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.
2nd ed. Center City: Hazelden, 1986.

Melody Beattie. The New Codependency: Help and Guidancefor Today’s Generation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Angelyn Miller. The Enabler: When Helping Hurts the Ones You Love. 3rd ed. Tucson: Wheatmark, 2001. 
Practical Guidance

Beverly Conyers. Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, and Recovery. 1st ed. Center City: Hazelden, 2003.

Beverly Conyers. Everything Changes: Help For Families of Newly Recovering Addicts. Center City: Hazelden, 2009. 

Joe Hersanek. Why Don’t They Just Quit? What Families and Friends Need to Know About Addiction and Recovery.
2nd ed. Loveland: Changing Lives Foundation, 2010. 

Debra Jay. No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. 
New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. 

Debra Jay. It Takes a Family: A Cooperative Approach to Lasting Sobriety. Center City: Hazelden, 2014.

Jeff and Debra Jay. Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention. 2nd ed. Center City: Hazelden, 2008.

Frances E. Jensen, M.D. with Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.

Katherine Ketcham and Nicholas A. Pace, M.D. Teens Under the Influence: The Truth about Kids, Alcohol, and Other Drugs—How to Recognize the Problem and What to Do About It. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

William Cope Moyers. Now What? An Insider’s Guide to Addiction and Recovery. Center City: Hazelden, 2012.

Sam Quinones. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015.

Charles Rubin. Don’t Let Your Kids Kill You: A Guide for Parents of Drug and Alcohol Addicted Children. 
Petaluma: New Century Publishers, 2007.

David Sheff. Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.  

Andrew T. Wainwright and Robert Poznanovich. It's Not Okay to be a Cannibal: How to Keep Addiction from Eating Your Family Alive. Center City: Hazelden, 2007.

John E. Whitcomb. The Sink or Swim Money Program: The 6-Step Plan for Teaching Your Teens Financial Responsibility. 
5th ed. New York: Viking Adult, 2001.
Spirituality and Inspiration

Pema Chödrön. Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2012.

Pema Chödrön. The Fearless Heart: The Practice of Living with Courage and Compassion. Boston: Shambhala Audio, 2010.  

Pema Chödrön. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997.

Kevin Griffin. One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. Emmaus: Rodale, 2004.

Katrina Kenison. The Gift of an Ordinary Day: a Mother's Memoir. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009.

Jack Kornfield. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor, 1995.

Anne Lamott. Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.

Anne Lamott. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Anchor, 2000.  

Christopher Kennedy Lawford. Moments of Clarity: Voices from the Front Lines of Addiction and Recovery. 
New York: William Morrow, 2009. 

Barbara Sinor, PhD. Tales of Addiction & Inspiration for Recovery: Twenty True Stories from the Soul (Reflections of America). 
Ann Arbor: Modern History Press, 2010.  
Al-Anon Literature

Alcoholics Anonymous
, (The Big Book). 4th ed. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001.

Courage to Change: One Day at a Time in Al-Anon II
. Virginia Beach: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1992. 

How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics. Virginia Beach: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1995, 2008.

One Day at a Time in Al-Anon. Virginia Beach: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1968, 1972, 2000.

Paths to Recovery—Al-Anon’s Steps, Traditions, and Concepts. Virginia Beach: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1997.
News Articles

"A Federal Prosecutor Takes on The Heroin Scourge That Claimed His Son," by the Associated Press. Los Angeles Times,  January 8, 2017.

“A Pain-Drug Champion Has Second Thoughts,” by Thomas Cantan and Evan Perez. WallStreetJournal,
December 15-16, 2012. 

“Beautiful Brains,”by David Dobbs. National Geographic, October, 2011.

"A Small-Town Police Officer's War on Drugs," by Benjamin Rachlin. New York Times, July 12, 2017.

“The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” by Patrick Radden Keefe. The New Yorker, October 30, 2017.

"Heroin's Small-Town Toll, and a Mother's Grief," by Deborah Sontag. New York Times, February 10, 2014.

“Addiction Treatment With a Dark Side” by Deborah Sontag. New York Times, November 16, 2013.   

"No Family is Safe From This Epidemic," by James Winnefeld. The Atlantic Monthly, November 29, 2017.

"Iceland Knows How to Stop Teen Substance Abuse But The Rest of the World Isn't Listening," by Emma Young. Mosaic Science, January 17, 2017.


The Anonymous People. Directed by Greg Williams. 4th Dimension Productions, 2013.

Generation Found. From the creators of The Anonymous People, 2016.
Behind The Orange Curtain. Directed by Brent Huff, 2012. Winner of the Metropolitan Film Festival NYC, 2012.

The Addiction Project. This centerpiece film in HBO's "Addiction" campaign  features insights from experts on trends and treatments, 2007.

Pleasure Unwoven: A Personal Journey about Addiction. Directed by Kevin McCauley, M.D. DVD. The Institute for Addiction Study, 2009. 

The House I Live In. Directed by Eugene Jarecki, 2012. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize, Sundance Film Festival 2012.

The Other Side of Cannabis: Negative Effects of Marijuana on Our Youth. OSC Independent Film project. 
Best Feature Documentary of the Sunset Film Festival, Los Angeles 2015.

Unguarded. Directed by Jonathan Hock. An Emmy nominated ESPN film, 2011.

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