A Neglected Art Form

12.31.14 10:45 AM ET

The Best Columns of 2014

The Daily Beast picks the top offerings by the nation’s columnists, from Charles Blow’s first-rate prose to Roger Cohen’s elegiac tones to Mary Schmich’s artful misdirection.

Every year, we catalogue the best columns of the year here at The Daily Beast. Amid a sea of year-end Best Ofs in songs, movies, and books, the column is still a strangely neglected American art form, despite the democratic proliferation of online opinion.

But probably because we co-edited the Deadline Artists anthologies with our friend Jesse Angelo, we feel a fidelity to the form. And so we compiled this list through conversations with colleagues and social media crowd-sourcing. It’s necessarily nothing less than subjective and therefore listed alphabetically to avoid any further ranking confusion. There isn’t any artificial Pritchard Scale for determining excellence in column writing—there’s just gut and feel and memory: The stuff that sticks to your synapses months later.

In the interest of ratcheting up the objectivity, we’ve avoided naming anything that appeared in The Daily Beast (if we had, Mike Daly’s work would have repeatedly infiltrated the list, along with other hometown favorites).

A few minor notes, born of reflection: Traditionally, the best columns are dominated by politics—its most popular topic. But this year, there was a palpable exhaustion around the political arena, especially compared to the high-intensity elections of 2008, 2010, and 2012. Instead, the majority of this year’s list focuses on the personal rather than the political. It’s more evidence of the rewards that come from taking the risk of intimacy.

Charles Blow—Up From Pain

Charles Blow, in an excerpt from his extraordinary autobiography, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, proves why he is a rising star of The New York Times opinion section. From a start creating innovative graphics-driven op-eds with commentary based on data and charts, Blow has evolved into a first-rate prose stylist; here, Blow describes the searing emotions, including a history of abuse, that haunted his upbringing in a tiny Southern town and his eventual coming to terms with his bisexuality.

David Carr, the irreverent media critic, turns his eye on his employer and describes the wrenching internal politics that led to the sacking of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. Unlike others at the Paper of Record, Carr isn’t afraid to denounce the rough handling of Abramson, his friend. “How did our workplace suddenly become a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones?” He asks. “It is one thing to gossip or complain about your boss, but quite another to watch her head get chopped off in the cold light of day.”

Roger Cohen—The Great Unravelling

In “The Great Unravelling,” Roger Cohen provided a pessimistic perspective on the global events that were shaping our world in the fall of 2014—ISIS beheadings, Putin’s essentially unchallenged aggression, and the spread of Ebola. With elegiac tones and the sweep of history, Cohen challenged readers to recognize the story of our times as if it were written by future generations. The result was sobering, bracing, and ultimately heartening—because it hammered home the reality that we are not passive observers but participants in the history being written in real time.

Father’s Day is always greeted with a cavalcade of treacly tributes, but Mary Curtis managed to make her father come alive on the page—not by portraying him as a saint, but something of a magician. With profane wit and sparkle, she paid homage not to the steady, responsible side of fatherhood, but the playful, enlivening role that fathers can pass on to their kids by communicating the simple delight of life. That’s a trick in itself—a shimmering gift that lives on after death.

Carl Hiaasen, the long-time voice of southern Florida, takes a long, hard look at the 2014 showdown between former governor Charlie Crist and his successor, Rick Scott, and pronounces a plague on both their houses. Marshaling an army of damning facts on the candidates' shameless pandering, unseemly grubbing for corporate contributions and contempt for public scrutiny, Hiaasen urges voters not to stay home—even though, in his words, "obviously this election isn’t about picking the best and the brightest. It’s about picking the candidate who is the least dangerous to Florida’s quality of life."

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Sometimes a column has the economy and rhythm of a short story. Dave Lieber achieved that in his sketch of cold courtroom vengeance, signifying nothing: “He sits in a courtroom watching his trial for capital murder. I sit behind him. He killed my friend.” It is a love and hate story. Elmore Leonard couldn’t have done it any better.

Columnist Harry Siegel, a street-smart kid from Brooklyn, gets a sex worker to talk frankly about the difficulty of selling her body for $600 an hour. The strain, Siegel discovers, is not on the woman’s body, but her emotions: “I just wish they’d stop needing me to make them feel deeply desired,” she says. “If I start to burn out, it’s not from too much sex. It’s from empathizing with too many people who are unhappy.”

Rachel Swarns—For a Worker With Little Time Between 3 Jobs, a Nap Has Fatal Consequences
 
Longtime Times reporter Rachel Swarns inaugurated the paper’s new “Working Life” column with a bang, delivering the heartbreaking account of Maria Fernandes, a young woman who literally worked herself to death while holding down three jobs at fast-food restaurants for barely more than New Jersey’s $8.25-per-hour minimum wage. Swarns gives us an unflinching look at the miserably low pay on which so many Americans are trying to build their lives and dreams.
 
Dave Weigel—Calling All Sad Clowns
 
Dave Weigel is one of the best political columnists working today—smart, funny and incisive, with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. But perhaps his most powerful column this year was personal, not political—a semi-reluctant rumination on his own struggles with depression after the suicide of Robin Williams. It was a coming-out story of sorts told with self-effacing un-sentimentality. His bracing honesty was nothing less than brave and it achieved a quality that defines great art—by taking the risk of intimacy, he made us all feel a little less alone.
 
Mary Schmich—Chicago Violence: The Repetition of Horror

Amid the numbing gun violence of daily life in “Chiraq,” Mary Schmich—the belated but much deserved Pulitzer Prize winner—reached back into the archives to provide perspective on the troubles. With artful misdirection deployed in the necessary economy of a newspaper column, she detailed the murders of innocents two decades before that could have been ripped from today’s headlines. Her coda was haunting: “In the Tribune archives for Monday, April 25, 1994, I found other news of violence. There were stories of distant strife, in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland, and those stories had the whiff of a different era. Today, Bosnia is not at war. The genocide in Rwanda is over. Ireland has found a certain peace. But in Chicago, the story stays the same.”