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Snowy journey, with journalism

I got stuck on a train between New York and Albany last night as a storm pounded the Hudson Valley. Fortunately, Amtrak’s warnings about service on the Empire Line were sufficiently dire that I used my layover in Penn Station to cache supplies: pretzels, diet pepsi, and enough reading material to keep me entertained until we arrived (which didn’t happen until almost 3am.)

Fortunately, I’d stumbled onto Conor Friedersdorf’s extraordinary The Best of Journalism (2009) through Metafilter. I’m not usually a huge fan of “best of” lists – they tend to be group curated and often reflect more about the group’s composition than any underlying characteristics of the works chosen. But this is an idiosyncratic, personal list, and it’s clear from some of Friedersdorf’s choices that we’ve got some tastes in common. (For one thing, he’s a big enough This American Life fanboy that he may already have downloaded the new Adam WarRock track, “That’s So Ira Glass“) I found enough good reads in the stories I downloaded that I’ll now try anything that Friedersdorf recommends on his Twitter feed, JournoCurator.

The gems of last night’s reading:

– I’d read about the disturbing evidence that repeated head traumas suffered by football players were leading to a disproportionate number of disabled and suicidal former NFL stars, especially offensive lineman, and that a new syndrome – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – had been diagnosed. (The New York Times has had excellent coverage on the topic from Alan Schwarz.) But I hadn’t heard about the brilliant, persistent young Nigerian neuropathologist who tracked down the story and didn’t give up, despite a flood of efforts to insult, ostracize and generally marginalize his work. Give it up for Dr. Bennet Omalu, and for Jeanne Marie Laskas for telling his story in “Game Brain” for GQ.

– Mark Groubert pokes through a pile of abandoned possessions on an LA streetcorner and finds himself drawn into the mysteries of the man who left them behind. The story is intrusive, intimate, somewhat transgressive and very moving. Groubert watches four discarded DVDs which include home movies and follows a young Frenchman from Christmas in a Paris suburb in the 1970s through adolescence, a move to Los Angeles, a descent into depression and drug addiction. Using the clues found in the “Box of Broken Dreams“, he identifies the man and interviews him about his decision to leave LA. I alternated between being uncomfortable with Groubert’s voyeurism and moved by the narrative he uncovered, more or less the same set of emotions raised by “The House on Loon Lake“, a beautiful This American Life that begins with teenagers trespassing in an abandoned house and ends with an odd sort of family reunion. (Both pieces have multimedia components – House on Loon Lake features a wonderful set of sepia photographs, while the LA story includes a video trailer.)

– I like Michael Lewis. I really like Iceland. (My wife and I spent our honeymoon there, and I often fly to Europe via Reykjavik, hoping to get stuck for a day through a missed flight.) I’m not sure what I think of Lewis’s take on the Icelandic financial crisis – and its connection to gender – but it was a fascinating read.

Lewis travels to Iceland to untangle the global banking and real estate crisis from a country that’s been hit far harder than the US has. Parts of his diagnosis are fascinating and compelling: by figuring out how to private its fish stocks, Iceland securitized cod and turned fishermen into financiers. Other aspects seem a bit simplistic and, perhaps, too neatly rooted in a couple of unpleasant encounters he had with overly aggressive Icelandic men: basically, he concludes that the crisis was the result of testosterone-laden, culturally isolated, naïve guys convincing themselves that they had a god-given talent for finance. One wonders whether he’d have reached different conclusions had he run into one less drunken idiot.

There’s half a dozen articles I still need to get through and others in Friedersdorf’s recommendations that I liked, but not enough to write up. It was a terrific reminder of the values of good curation in the sea of online writing.