May 14, 2017


The best podcast series released in 2017 so far is a non-fiction investigative series, looking at how external forces are creating change in a space that has a character of its own, a history that has shaped it into what it is now.

That podcast series is not S-Town, the widely popular and infinitely-discussed audio novel from the makers of Serial and This American Life. The best podcast series released this year is Containers, an audio documentary hosted by Alex Madrigal about container ships, cargo ports, and global trade.

I’ve long had a fascination with container ships and portlands, and about how almost every single thing we interact with on a daily basis has been stored and transported in one of those ubiquitous containers. I was an early backer of The Container Guide when it launched on Kickstarter years ago, and was recently interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for a piece on container fanboys”; my interview didn’t make the final piece, but here’s a snippet of what I shared:

Often, on vacations, especially to port cities, I’ll venture away and roam in the shipyards. Sometimes that has meant jumping a few fences (should I be admitting that?) but mostly, people don’t really mind as I stroll through the rows of Maersk and Hapag-Loyd (and others) containers, admiring the history written on them.

For me, that’s the real appeal of a container: to look at the dings, scratches, bumps, rust stains, and to know that all of this patina has come not just over time, but over geography. A container tells the story of where it has been, what it has carried, and who it has met through the markings on its exterior, and no two are alike. The character of the container is in its travels, and trying to piece together that character is what makes me excited to roam the rows at the shipyard.

Every container has a story, a story I will never know, but one I can make up in my head just by looking at it. That’s the magic, a temporal and geographic magic, of the container.

It’s easy to forget just how much of our lives are dependent on containers, the ships that carry them, and the ports where they are loaded and unloaded. That’s why Containers is such a brilliant series: it not only reminds us that our entire system of global trade is built upon the container, but that if we’re going to see truly disruptive” innovation, we’re probably going to see it on the high seas, first).

S-Town was an entertaining podcast, but I didn’t find it enthralling in the way I was supposed to.

Instead, I found it somewhat excessive, somewhat indulgently divulging. The narrative structure was beautiful, but I felt distanced by the story, by the characters, by the perspective shone upon the town. I enjoyed listening to it—I finished the whole series in two days—but I wasn’t enraptured, and it hasn’t lingered; S-Town was a beautiful piece of prose, but not a memorable cultural artifact.

Aaron Bady, in Hazlitt, recently looked at S-Town in a way that made me feel even more uncomfortable about the series than I already was:

For all its magnificent intricacy and beauty, the show he produced is a work of creative non-fiction, not public-interest journalism. The difference matters. S-Town is literary, explicitly patterned after novels, and utterly successful at what it does—as an exploration and imagination of character, it is engrossing and deeply moving. But it doesn’t pass muster as journalism; it is, at best, journalism-adjacent. […]

Clocks are built: clocks have a purpose, and when they break, they can be repaired. A life is not so simple, and neither is a town. Every story hides three more, and each of those stories cover over a dozen others. Stories may be like clocks, but lives are like time: they vary depending on how you look at them, and can be measured in any number of wildly different ways, each uniquely true and utterly irreconcilable. A clock takes the vast infinity of time and makes it into a simple continuum of numbers. Like a clock, a story is a machine for excluding everything that isn’t part of it.

A story is a machine for excluding everything that isn’t part of it.” Words worth remembering, repeating.