Slate’s most popular stories of 2021 are a testament to readers’ boundless curiosity. The pieces on this list range from reporting on the supply chain crisis and the White House to long reads about mysterious inventions and Justin Timberlake. There are stories of global importance, and ones that are deeply personal. And a few that are both. Some made readers laugh, and many stuck in their minds long after they finished them.
While these stories cover all sorts of events, there is a throughline: Each reframes its subject, helping us look at the world (and Bernie Sanders’ mittens) with fresh perspective.
1. The Reason Wood Prices Are Completely Out of Control
Lumber was flying off the shelves at an astonishing rate during the pandemic. Looking at the inner workings of a sawmill can help explain one of the year’s gnarliest supply chain crises.
By Henry Grabar, May 7
2. I’ve Always Suspected “Cat Person” Was Based on My Life. Now I Know It Was.
“Kristen Roupenian’s viral story draws specific details from my own life. I’ve spent the years since it published wondering: How did she know?”
By Alexis Nowicki, July 8
3. The Dream of Florida Is Dead
The collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo complex in Surfside, Florida, happened shockingly fast, but the causes were brewing for a long time before the building came down.
By Mary Harris, June 30
4. How Justin Timberlake Came Undone
For years, Timberlake emerged unscathed from scandals while women in his orbit like Britney Spears and Janet Jackson were pilloried. How did his image finally fall apart?
By Maria Sherman, Nov. 18
5. Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education
The zillionth reason that higher education is in shambles.
By Jordan Weissmann, July 16
6. We Now Know Why Biden Was in a Hurry to Exit Afghanistan
The reason the longest war in U.S. history ended in such a chaotic scramble.
By Fred Kaplan, Sept. 29
7. Blake Bailey’s Students Worshipped Him. They Trusted Him. When They Grew Up, He Preyed On Them.
Before he became renowned as a literary biographer, Bailey was an eighth grade teacher. He wormed his way into his students’ personal lives—and used it all against them.
By Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead, April 29
8. He Told Me He’d “Wanted Me Since the Day We Met.” When We Met, I Was 12.
“Blake Bailey was my favorite teacher. Years later, he forced himself on me. Why did I seek his approval for so long?”
By Eve Crawford Peyton, April 29
9. Trump People Were the Worst Restaurant Guests, Too
“The perma-scowling almost-billionaire Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, became a regular despite what always seemed to be a vibe of great displeasure enveloping his presence when I approached his table.”
By Moe Tkacik, Feb. 3
10. It’s Time for USA Gymnastics to Take the Fall It’s Been Avoiding
USAG has tried to muscle through the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal. But that can’t last forever.
By Rebecca Schuman, Aug. 9
11. Netflix’s Latest Hit Continues an Argument Sci-Fi Fans Have Been Having for Decades
“Embedded in the narrative DNA of the new Netflix movie Stowaway is one of the most iconic and controversial science-fiction short stories ever published.”
By Laura Miller, April 27
12. A Reporter’s Takeaway From the Trump White House: “They Were Accidentally Transparent About How Stupid They Were”
A journalist looks back on covering the Trump administration—and what she’d change about her coverage, in hindsight.
By Aymann Ismail, Jan. 24
13. “I Think My Gmail Has Crashed”: The Teacher Who Made Bernie Sanders’ Mittens on Watching Them Go Viral
An interview with the designer of the Biden inauguration’s most coveted fashion accessory.
By Rachelle Hampton, Jan. 21
14. A Q&A With the Woman Who Installed These 2-Foot-Tall Address Numbers on Her House
“The overall look is ‘the circus came to town.’ ”
By Dan Kois, Aug. 13
15. In 2001, a Mysterious Invention Became a Viral Sensation—Then Went Down in Flames. I’ve Always Wondered: Was It All My Fault?
The tale of an eccentric millionaire, a scrappy young literary agent’s first big book deal, and how the promise of a tantalizing invention fell apart.
By Dan Kois, Aug. 1
These stories didn’t make the top 15 list, but they represent some of Slate’s most impactful reporting and essays of 2021.
Fear of the Rapture Consumed Everyone I Knew as an Evangelical Kid. It Took Me Years to See Exactly Why.
“As an evangelical kid, I was terrified of the rapture—and so was everyone I knew. Years after I left the faith, I wanted to understand the power it held over us all.”
By Joshua Rivera, May 2
Jordan Crowley Would Be in Line for a Kidney—if He Were Deemed White Enough
A stereotype about Black people’s health is making it harder for thousands of Americans with kidney problems to get the treatment they need.
By Jennifer Tsai, June 27
A Tennis Star’s Ex-Girlfriend Accused Him of Domestic Abuse. Why Hasn’t the Tour Addressed It?
Alexander Zverev is a rising star in the tennis world. His ex, Olga Sharypova, alleges that off the court he physically and emotionally abused her.
By Ben Rothenberg, Aug. 25
“Men’s Rights Asians” Think This Is Their Moment
“They became notorious for trying to harass Asian women off the internet. The racial trauma of the past year has only emboldened them.”
By Aaron Mak, Sept. 15
How Did Time’s Up Go So Wrong?
The Hollywood organization was formed to combat the issues raised by the #MeToo movement. Instead, its workplace became a microcosm of the very problem it was supposed to solve.
By Lili Loofbourow, Sept. 23
We’re Not Going Back to “Before Roe.” We’re Going Somewhere Worse.
The common refrain these days misunderstands what America looked like before the 1973 Supreme Court case—and how the rise of the religious right has changed our society.
By Dahlia Lithwick, Dec. 8