Utne Editors Pick Their Favorite Stories of 2009

By Staff

Our mission is to highlight the best of the alternative press. What we have collected here is the best of the best of the alternative press. These are the stories we can’t shake. We’re thinking and talking about them months after they were published. These are the stories we will inevitably measure the stories of 2010 against. Enjoy!

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: So many months later, the bold, powerful arguments made in this excerpt from the outstanding eponymous anthology (published by South End Press in 2007) make their way into my thoughts and discussions about activism, philanthropy, and the nonprofit system–or nonprofit-industrial complex, as the members of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence prefer to call it. I’ll always be haunted by this line from Madonna Thunder Hawk: “Activism is tough; it is not for people interested in building a career.”–Danielle Maestretti

The Boil: What does one say about a story that begins with the discovery of “an alien nub on my left buttock, just inches from my exit hole on an isthmus of hair that juts into wallet territory”? John O’Connor’s uproarious Senegal-based tale of an abscess and a long-lost love is by turns tender and revolting; it surprises and delights throughout. We ran “The Boil” at five amazing (if at times pus- and blood-filled) pages in our March-April issue. I’ve never been more proud to work here.–Danielle Maestretti

Obscene Astronomy: Ah, Obscene Astronomy! This has to be one of the most cheerful and genuine pieces of writing we’ve published this year. Doug Reilly’s enthusiasm for astronomy–and sharing its curse-inspiring delights with passersby, through setting up his telescope on the street–is contagious, and the result is an essay that’s capable of reminding readers what awe and wonder feel like. Which, in my mind, makes it a perfect piece to revisit at the start of a new year. —Julie Hanus

The Lonely American: There’s been plenty written this year about loneliness, but little of it is as revealing as “The Lonely American.” In this excerpt from their book of the same name, Harvard psychiatry professors Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz get right down to illuminating the social impulses that have pushed us apart, from deep cultural myths (such as the self-reliant American) to more basic narratives that have slipped into daily life (“It’s too bad that we’ve lost touch, but that’s just the way it is”). —Julie Hanus

On Our Watch: By the time 2009 began, the word Darfur had become synonymous with violence, torture, death, and ethnic cleansing. No genocide has ever been so thoroughly documented while it was taking place, Richard Just wrote for the January-February issue. A persistent question remains: Why, in spite of the massive amounts of historical, anthropological, and narrative detail about the genocide that is available to the public could the world not put an end to it? Rather than allowing the violence to slip into the recesses of history, Just calls on people to both question the history and take action against the continuing suffering in Darfur. —Bennett Gordon

The Tao of War Photography: War correspondents are compelled far too often to share their thoughts and experiences. Sometimes it seems like every reporter who has heard a gunshot has a publishing deal to write about it. Yet we never hear from the photographers. The people with the cameras get closer and risk more than the people with the notebooks. Photographer Bruce Haley’s autobiographical “Tao of War Photography” is essential reading. It’s part training manual and part memoir. It’s mostly tragic and it’s a little bit hilarious. And it’s like nothing you’ve ever read. —Jeff Severns Guntzel

The Mountain that Eats Men: This year The Walrus brought us one of the most exciting pieces of travel narrative from Andrew Westoll and Jason Rothe. In “The Mountain that Eats Men,” the writer-photographer team relayed their harrowing descent into the belly of La Negra mine in Bolivia and illustrated the bleak and gritty realities of life as a miner with such artful depiction you’ll feel as if you’re tucked in their rucksacks (with a headlamp and face mask on, of course).–Elizabeth Ryan

The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce: from The Virginia Quarterly Review will haunt you. Ashley Gilbertson chronicles small-town soldier Noah Pierce’s struggle to overcome the posttraumatic stress disorder he faced following his deployments to Iraq. It serves as both a call to action and a constant reminder that damaged soldiers like Noah are returning home every day, and we’ve failed to provide the tools they need–and deserve–to cope with the lasting trauma.–Elizabeth Ryan

Der Indianer: Not only is this one of my favorite Utne Reader stories of the year, it’s one of our website’s most-read articles as well, clocking in among the top ten. Apparently, folks just can’t ignore the riveting question posed by the subheadline: “Why do 40,000 Germans spend their weekends dressed as Native Americans?” The answer touches on art, spirituality, nature, and gnarly issues of cultural appropriation, but in the end the tale’s appeal is simple: It’s just one of those “who knew?” stories. —Keith Goetzman

In Search of Silence: Who could resist going on a hike to one of the quietest places in North America, deep in the mossy, majestic Hoh Rainforest in Washington’s Olympic National Park? I certainly couldn’t, so I was a sucker for this tale about the Gordon Hempton and his One Square Inch of Silence, which aims to reclaim the importance of silence in a din-filled world. A quixotic quest, to be sure, but I’m cheering Hempton on. Quietly. —Keith Goetzman

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