How Do You Know if a Book Is True?
I’ve been reading Maud Newton’s Ancestor Trouble this week, and I wish I could describe what a pleasure it is. The dominant sensation is that I’m in good hands, that I know I’m going to read about things that are interesting and true, that I’m going to be exposed to ideas and perspectives that I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if not for reading the book.
One of the central themes of Ancestor Trouble is what we can come to know about ourselves when we look at the world through the lens of our forebears. The book wears its research lightly, but the depth and breadth of Newton’s inquiry is apparent in the text. Early in the book she discusses the family story of a great grandfather who killed a man with a hay hook, and lost his mind from the grief. Newton investigates this family lore through every possible avenue, eventually discovering as much of the truth as she’s able.
The reason you can trust what Newton is telling you is because it’s clear that she wants to discover the truth for herself above all, and she’s more than willing to convey when there’s no definitive answer.
In last week’s newsletter I shared the link to a story on the halting of the Dutch publication of The Betrayal of Anne Frank, a book which claimed to identify the individual who identified Frank and her family to Nazi authorities. Expert historians say that the central source of evidence for the book’s claims is simply not sufficient to support the conclusions.
Something similar, but more cringeworthy, happened to Naomi Wolf when the central premise of her argument in Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love was pointed out as fundamentally flawed in a live radio interview on the BBC.
Fortunately, these sorts of incidents are pretty rare. Most authors writing in good faith do not intend to get things wrong in their books. That said, it’s important to know that publishers do not go through a fact-checking process prior to a book’s publication.
In reality, there’s a huge range of trustworthiness when it comes to what you might encounter in a non-fiction book, and while we shouldn’t expect readers to spend vast swaths of their time vetting what they read at the source level, it does make sense to be at least a little bit mindful about what’s at work inside some of these books.
Books you can pretty much trust
First is books that are rigorously reported and documented. Here I’m thinking of books like Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Radical Right by Jane Mayer, or Bad Blood: Secrets and Lives in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. These books are by serious journalists adhering to the ethics of their profession, working with editorial support whose job it is to try to help the author get things “right.”
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe is another good example, where the author has done an exhaustive examination of the available primary and secondary evidence in service of their narrative. The books you can trust show their work in the sources and notes pages. If one was so inclined, the reader could do the legwork to trace the claims to the source.
Of course, the original reporting is often not available to the audience to check, but the best practitioners of this kind of work make their sourcing clear, while also having a strong incentive to be accurate and truthful in order to be able to continue to practice their trade.
However, I also think it’s important to remember that these journalists are not practicing “objectivity” per se. All of these books and others like them are putting forward a narrative about the subject. It’s clear from John Carreyrou’s reporting on Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes that he believes there’s sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that she engaged in fraud, a conclusion born out by Holmes’ recent conviction at trial.
But if you’ve watched any episodes of the television serial cover the same events, The Dropout, we experience a very different Elizabeth Holmes narrative, where additional background and context and the way it’s presented makes Holmes a much more sympathetic figure.
If you were Ayn Rand, you could take all the material Jane Mayer makes use of in Dark Money, and paint a tale of heroic capitalism, rather than rapacious exploitation of public goods for private gain. Where you’re coming from in terms of your underlying values can play a big role in how you view what you read.
A journalist’s job is to be accurate and fair, not objective. These three books are great examples of what putting those values into action looks like on the page.
But isn’t there dubious reporting?
Indeed. Just because a book is “reported” doesn’t mean it is accurate. Michael Wolff’s chronicles of the Trump administration have reporting in them that does not pass the smell test. Just because a source tells a journalist something doesn’t make it true.
Bob Woodward is a far more credible reporter than Michael Wolff, but his books are often heavily skewed by who talks to him, and his willingness to grant these sources anonymity. It’s become such a cliche that you can identify Woodward’s most important sources by seeing which players come off the best in the text.
Woodward is the high priest of access journalism, achieving such lofty stature that he barely needs to chase a source anymore, they come to him, knowing that it’s better to spin the events in their favor. This modus operandi is the default mode of Washington political journalists, and I think it’s bad for democracy. Maggie Haberman’s forthcoming Trump book will be an object example. Haberman regularly dropped what is known in industry parlance as a “beat sweetener,” a flattering story about an administration figure who she uses as a source. Here is one on Ivanka, another on Hope Hicks, still another on Kellyanne Conway. Lots of journalists will defend this practice as “how it’s done,” but to climb onto one of my favorite hobbyhorses, what about transparency? Ivanka, Hicks, and Conway have undoubtedly been anonymous sources for Haberman’s stories, many of which take the form of no more than palace gossip, time and again, a reality which is hidden from the readership.
I have a problem with that.
None of what Woodward says in his books is likely to be “wrong” per se, but he does not work scrupulously to fill in the full context of an incident. He’s conveying stuff people told him, nothing more, nothing less. This piece from a while back where a journalist writes about re-reporting Woodward’s biography of John Belushi (Wired), offers an interesting perspective on the Woodwardian method. In Woodward’s hands, the famous scene in the cafeteria in Animal House goes from a virtuoso performance by a comic genius (as those who were there and experienced it most closely testify), to an example of Belushi’s lack of discipline and preparation.
Does that mean we shouldn’t trust Woodward’s work? Not necessarily, but it does mean (in my opinion) that readers have an obligation to consider where a text may not be telling them the full story.
There’s also a lot of folks who pretend to be journalists, but are outright hacks. They’re not really worth thinking about because there is not enough good faith effort to even consider the dimensions of “truth” in their work.
What about “history?”
The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no such thing as a fixed history, and all history is an inherently interpretative act. A quality book of history is an attempt to say something true about stuff in the past, told through a particular point of view.
As with the other examples above, the story that comes out of the history may depend on the perspective of the person telling it. My friends Matthew Gabriel and David Perry have gotten some well-deserved attention for their new book, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, which is their effort to undo some of what they believe are misconceptions of what we think about when it comes to medieval history.
Howard Zinn’s famous A People’s History of the United States is not an attempt to “rewrite history” as its critics claim, but an attempt to tell history from a different point of view, namely of the people who have been largely dispossessed in the American system.
Same goes for the The 1619 Project, which some state legislatures have gone so far as to explicitly ban from school curriculum via legislation. There is nothing in The 1619 Project that requires you to accept its argument of the transatlantic slave trade marking an origin point for the United States of America. It is an idea ripe for discussion and debate and even revision, which is how history is supposed to work.
How boring would it be to just decide all this stuff has to be fixed in place forever?
Is Malcolm Gladwell full of crap or what?
In theory, we should have high trust in Malcolm Gladwell. He has a strong reputation. He writes for a publication (The New Yorker) known for its fact checking. He (mostly) provides sources for his claims. Readers gobble up his books and ask for more.
I think the reality is that Gladwell doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Take, for example, the 10,000 hour rule (10,000 hours of practice “is the magic number for greatness”) that Gladwell popularized. While there is a truthy core that makes sense - “practice makes perfect” - in reality, the concept has been debunked over and over again.
Some reviewers of Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Misfits, Underdogs, and the Art of Battling Giants believe he’s gone too far, mangling some of the underlying science in ways that are actively distorting.
He describes his approach as putting the story first in an effort to bring scientific research to an audience that otherwise might not be exposed to it:
“I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research … for ways of augmenting story-telling. The reason I don’t do things their way is because their way has a cost: it makes their writing inaccessible. If you are someone who has as their goal … to reach a lay audience … you can’t do it their way.”
Personally, I find this more than a tad disingenuous. Gladwell loves to find a study that confirms the story he would like to tell while deliberately leaving out other contradictory information, eschewing nuance for simplification that can be boiled down to easily consumable pop-psychology which audiences love because it makes a complex world seem a little less so.
Don’t get me wrong, I eat this stuff up as much as anyone. I’m a sucker for a good TED Talk, but we shouldn’t dogmatically embrace ideas that sand away the complexity of living on Earth.
You can ask why does it matter as long as what Gladwell is saying is true enough, but sometimes these ideas have real world implications. The 10,000 hour “rule” reinforces a notion that success is the product of dogged, even miserable hard work. Fine if true, I suppose, except that other research suggests that a big part of success involves actually enjoying what you’re doing. (Go figure.)
How does Gladwell get away with this, even though he writes for The New Yorker? One thing to keep in mind is that fact checking is a limited process. Fact checkers are not determiners of overall truth. They make sure that if something is quoted, it’s done so accurately, or that the details line up with the observable facts. If a scene in a story says it was raining the morning of June 12th, they make sure that it was indeed raining the morning of June 12th. But magazine fact checkers cannot check things they are not given. Stephen Glass famously exploited these vulnerabilities at the New Republic before being caught. The internet has made checking information much easier, but it’s not like we should trust every last thing we read on the internet.
No one in this equation - other than the hacks - is necessarily doing anything wrong. “Truth” is simply a difficult thing to determine.
There’s a lot of books that mix psychology, sociology, history, and economics in an effort to explain how the world works, and while most of these books hold some element of truth in them, they’re also just as likely to be wrong about something or other.
The biggest challenge, one Gladwell recognizes and exploits, is an asymmetry in terms of information dissemination between those who offer simplified narratives, and those who acknowledge complexity.
By nature, and by training, I’m team complexity, because I think that’s a more accurate rendering of the world. Eschewing complexity can cause real harm.
For example, for a brief period, the concept of “grit” (akin to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule) as a key component to student success took hold in education reform movements. Grit was popularized by psychologist and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Angela Duckworth, and for obvious reasons it was very attractive to school reformers. If we could teach one thing, “grit,” and everything else will fall into place, then how awesome is that?
Unfortunately, motivation and achievement is more complicated than simply inculcating the necessary amount of grit in individuals. Lots of people, including yours truly,were trying to point out the shortcomings of a grit mindset at the time of its meteoric rise, but we not only had a lot less cultural power, throwing up your hands and saying “it’s complicated” tends to get a lot less traction.
But here’s the god’s honest truth: it’s complicated.
I try not to despair about these things, but then just this morning, I read about the latest “Covid misinformation star” who has spun his willingness to peddle lies into a Substack newsletter that brings 3x more revenue per month than this one will earn in a year.
The truth is, there’s lots of people who are eager to be lied to, provided it’s something they want to hear. Maybe that’s a testament to the world we’re living in today, or maybe it’s human nature, or maybe it’s a combination of the two.
I don’t know. It’s complicated.
In my Chicago Tribune column this week, I spend some time pondering how you can find a lot of inspiration for how to live a happy, fulfilling (and even long) life from the life stories of comedians.
Also at the Chicago Tribune, Christopher Borrelli interviews Dr. Thomas Fisher about his new memoir of working in a Chicago emergency room, The Emergency: A Year of Healing and Heartbreak in a Chicago ER.
LGBTQ romance is “booming.”
Like Laura Miller writing at Slate, I’m a big fan of Mick Herron’s Slough House series. Miller has a great overview of the series and its pleasures, and a preview of the forthcoming TV series based on the books to boot.
The Washington Post shares “10 Noteworthy Books for April.”
Vanity self-promotion alert. For the Public Books website I was interviewed by Ryan Boyd about my views on teaching, of which I have many. I was also one of the people interviewed by Beckie Supiano in this Chronicle of Higher Education piece on redefining how we think about “rigor” in education.
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1. Three Girls From Bronzeville by Dawn Turner Trice
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5. Telephone by Percival Everett
Lauren G. - Chicago, IL (on behalf of a book club)
1. Syrup by Maxx Barry
2. I’ll Cry Tomorrow by Lillian Roth
3. The Violated by Vance Bourjaily
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Paid subscription update
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The Morning News Tournament of Books wrapped up this week. Click here to see who took home this year’s rooster.
I hope everyone has a wonderful week.
The stakes were especially high for Carreyrou, working at the Wall Street Journal whose owner, Rupert Murdoch had invested $125 million in Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes appealed directly to Murdoch to halt Carreyrou’s reporting. He had to get it right.
Even Angela Duckworth ended up eschewing much of what was done in schools in the name of developing grit.
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