Our Favorite Essays of 2021
Many of which were published by outlets that didn’t exist a year ago.
I don’t know about you, but in these last days of the calendar year I make it a point to exercise every day, refill my color-coded ancient grain containers, and revel in the fact that I kept each of last year’s resolutions to a tee.
It’s about now, when everyone else seems to be in Turks and Caicos with a pre-Covid body, when it’s pouring rain in Los Angeles, when all the holidays have worn me out, that I want to pull on my sweats, resign myself to a diet of pretzels and red wine, and scroll on my phone without judgment.
Perhaps this sounds familiar. But before you waste a week of your life on TikTok, may we humbly suggest a highly subjective list of some of our favorite essays of 2021?
There’s a lot we’ve published here on Common Sense that we are deeply proud of—like this and this and this. So if you missed any of our pieces, you can read everything we’ve put out—and there was a lot!—here.
But below we are highlighting essays that weren’t published by us—essays that made us think, that provoked us, and often made us seethe with envy that we didn’t think to commission them ourselves. They stayed with us.
Some of them are from publications you’ve heard of or perhaps subscribe to. But half of the pieces here were published in places, like this one, that didn’t exist a year or two ago—the vanguard of what we strongly believe will become the new mainstream.
Surely we’ve missed some great ones, probably even by friends of ours. Please share them in the comments. We’d love to highlight a few more in TGIF.
Happy New Year. — BW
The old joke about The New Republic was that it was a Jewish magazine pretending to be a magazine about national affairs. Tablet is a magazine that covers the nation while pretending to be Jewish. It’s also one of the best damn publications in America right now. Editor in chief Alana Newhouse’s powerful and provocative essay, “Everything Is Broken,” is Exhibit A:
If Alana’s essay, published early in 2021, diagnosed a problem, then Liel Leibovitz, one of the best polemicists of our age, suggested a solution. “When I saw the left give up everything I believe in, I changed politically,” he writes. “You can, too.” If you identify as politically homeless, we suspect “The Turn” will resonate with you.
We thought we’d read everything there was to read about 9/11—and that nothing could possibly top Falling Man when it came to loss and grief and the ways in which we remember the dead. Then we read Jennifer Senior’s story about the family of Bobby McIlvaine in The Atlantic.
We were livid when we read these two essays by Walter Kirn, the essayist and novelist (“Up in the Air”). They were just so good, so on key, so attuned to all the inanities and insanities of America right now. We wished we’d published them.
Millennials who think they have to postpone parenthood until they discover the people they’re meant to be are getting it all wrong. Or so says Elizabeth Bruenig, in what was probably her most controversial column at The New York Times. (She now writes for The Atlantic.)
We feel great kinship with Unherd, a publication out of the United Kingdom that has managed to publish some of our favorite writers on their side of the pond (Julie Bindel, Douglas Murray) and ours (Kat Rosenfield, David Mamet). We were tickled by this essay by the great painter—and avid smoker—David Hockney.
We are big fans of Freddie deBoer, Marxist though he may be. In part, it’s because of his fearlessness of both subject matter and style. We often disagree with his takes—and his description of himself as “cool but rude” seems accurate—but we never miss his columns.
This personal essay published in Persuasion by Kiera Bell—a young woman in England who transitioned to become a man only to transition back—will be remembered as one of the signal moments in the ongoing debate about gender, sex, and what young teenagers know (or don’t know) about themselves. “I was an unhappy girl who needed help. Instead, I was treated like an experiment.”
We read a lot of statistics about the opioid epidemic. But we can’t think of an essay that made those horrible numbers more real than this one, published in Liberties, by Shawn McCreesh. It’s dedicated to the memory of his friends.
Caitlin Flanagan is one of the most incisive writers of our age—always thoughtful, always smart, always weaving between the spiritual and the funny. This, despite the fact that she has been living with aggressive cancer for two decades. This year, she started writing about it. Don’t expect treacly, carpe-diem platitudes from Flanagan. “I’ve seen some of the biggest bitches come in, and they’re still alive.”
Here’s to her health and our continued reading pleasure:
Speaking of: For decades, the Manhattan-based Pastor Timothy Keller has counseled the terminally ill. He’s been with them when they breathed their last breath, and he wrote a book, “On Death.” He thought he knew everything there was to know about mortality. Then he found out he had pancreatic cancer.
We’re told by the powers that be that systemic racism courses through every nook and cranny of America, that the only way forward is for white people to repent over and over and over. Wilfred Reilly, a recent Honestly guest, is here to tell us that things are actually much better than we might think.
The managerial classes would like to pretend that the pandemic will never end. (Or maybe they don’t want it to.) The masks, the triple-vaxxing, the endless hand-wringing, the finger-wagging. Truth is, says Matthew Walther, the rest of America has long since moved on. You can, too.
It is nearly impossible to have a sane conversation about Covid. If you say you support vaccines but oppose mandates and definitely think kids should be in school, will you be smeared as a science denier and an anti-vaxxer? Likely. So most people with nuanced views and an instinct for self-preservation just avoid the topic entirely. The novelist and essayist Paul Kingsnorth–whose fascinating personal journey from hardcore environmentalist to Christian is deserving of a film–just goes for it. On this and on everything he writes.
Shadi Hamid and Damir Marusic run the newsletter Wisdom of the Crowds. It’s one of the very few publications that takes ideas seriously, with essays on everything from the meaning of American exceptionalism to the importance of hypocrisy to the realization, discussed by Marusic in his piece below, that we are never going back to the world before Covid.
Antonio García Martínez is not just the author of the memoir “Chaos Monkeys,” which was published in 2016 and, several months back, led to his termination from Apple. He’s also shedding his secular skin and becoming a Jew.
The Successor Ideology—the term coined by Wesley Yang to describe the new illiberalism, the “successor” to liberalism—spent years incubating on campus. Then, in a matter of a year or two, it took over legacy media and the Fortune 500. 2021, Yang says, was Year Zero. (H/T to David Samuels, whose original piece with this title was one of our favorites of 2020.)
This year, long-time blogger Scott Alexander, formerly of Slate Star Codex fame, launched Astral Codex Ten, and it is brilliant. Alexander is a psychiatrist, but his posts often wade into philosophy, science and politics. The piece below, on why certain families somehow produce so many outstanding people, was one of our favorites.
The book-publishing business is ripe for creative destruction, and linguist John McWhorter showed what that might look like. He serialized his new book—the bestselling “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America”—in his newsletter.
In 2021, Andrew Sullivan argues, the media abandoned its mission. On one major story after another—the lab-leak theory, Kyle Rittenhouse, Jussie Smollett—they got it wrong in a really big way. In perhaps the most on-the-nose example of the medium being the message, he wrote this timely piece on his must-read Substack.
Perhaps the most urgent essay of the year was actually a speech that Abigail Shrier, the author of “Irreversible Damage,” delivered to a small group of Princeton students. Shrier’s message about living free in an age of fear was so stirring that we had to republish it. Read it. Read it again. And share it with every young person you know.
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