The Books Briefing: What Makes Falsehoods Captivating

Fakes and facts: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A light show creates the optical illusion of a vortex in Riga, Latvia, in 2014.
A light show creates the optical illusion of a vortex in Riga, Latvia, in 2014. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

Fyre Fest, Theranos, catfishing, cons, fake-news claims both false and legitimate: The 2010s have been a decade of seemingly unprecedented uncertainty about what’s real. Books by Lee McIntyre and Farhad Manjoo describe the rise of what Manjoo calls “a post-fact society,” in which the internet plays a particularly catalyzing role.

But while modern technology may have fostered the spread of misinformation, the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write that our tendency as humans to convince ourselves that we’re right no matter what the evidence shows has deep psychological roots; indeed, as the anthropologist Pascal Boyer writes, prioritizing beliefs over facts was part of human evolution. At the same time, cultural anxieties about knowing whom and what to believe have their own centuries-long history, Geoffrey C. Bunn’s book about the lie detector reveals.

Real historical hoaxes are a source of inspiration for writers such as Dexter Palmer and Peter Carey, who use the stories of a woman who claimed to have given birth to rabbits and of an editor dazzled by a fictitious poet, respectively, as jumping-off points for novels that explore the dynamics of belief. And a novel by Uwe Johnson set during a year in the protagonist’s life shows how the process of collecting and parsing information can become a source of strength.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The lie detector in the age of alternative facts
“The device, [Geoffrey C.] Bunn suggests, is in many ways a work of science fiction that lurks, awkwardly, in the present reality—a machine that has been, from the beginning, in dialogue with pop culture and its myths.”

📚 The Truth Machine, by Geoffrey C. Bunn

What an 18th-century birthing scam reveals
“[Dexter] Palmer never introduces the possibility that Mary might be telling the truth. Nor does he try to explain why she and her husband, Joshua, would perpetrate such a weird hoax. His interest lies with those who fall for it—or who decide to fall for it.”

📚 Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, by Dexter Palmer

The decades-old novel that presages today’s fight for facts
“Part of Gesine’s charm as a narrator, and how she earns the reader’s trust, is the way in which her own fallibility, readily acknowledged, provokes a hunger—for both the truth of her past and the truth of the world she inhabits now.”

📚 Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, by Uwe Johnson

A novel of fabulous forgeries
“There’s lots in My Life as a Fake for scholars to have fun with—questions about identity and authenticity and the cultural anxieties of a colonial society. But [Peter] Carey’s hand is as light as a pickpocket’s, and unless you're looking for such things, you won’t see them at all.”

📚 My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey

Why facts alone can’t counter false beliefs
“The inherent contradiction of false knowledge is that only those on the outside can tell that it’s false. It’s hard for facts to fight it because to the person who holds it, it feels like truth.”

📚 Respecting Truth, by Lee McIntyre
📚 Minds Make Societies, by Pascal Boyer
📚 Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
📚 True Enough, by Farhad Manjoo

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

This week’s question comes from Camila, who’s leaving behind a job and a life she loved: “Do you have any book recs for me to help out with dealing with unexpected life changes, accepting, and moving on?”

First, memoirs: Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply describes a devastating loss that left Levy struggling to make sense of the way her life had collapsed. It’s a raw, honest, wrenching read. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb (who also writes our Dear Therapist advice column), is similarly candid but more humorous, describing Gottlieb’s experiences both giving and receiving therapy after a sudden change upended her world.

The characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story collection Interpreter of Maladies and Imbolo Mbue’s novel Behold the Dreamers deal with the disillusionment and sense of loss that can come with starting one’s life over in a new country. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven offers a bit more escape from reality, imagining humans rebuilding their sense of meaning after a killer virus wipes out most of Earth’s population. You might also try Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, a collection of meditative poems on nature and its cycles that begins, “At the end of my suffering / there was a door.”

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. She needs to pick up In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, before her neighborhood bookstore closes.

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