Hoaxes by Curtis D. MacDougall (1940, Macmillan)
I should probably be reviewing On The House by John Boehner this week, but I don’t have enough use for the man to hand him money. Much like John Bolton, he had plenty of opportunity to exert influence and help stop Trump’s nativism from taking over his party, and again like Bolton he did nothing at the time when his actions could have helped. Bolton, at least, released his memoir prior to the election, and his refusal to accept left-wing views while still raking Trump over the coals and calling his competency into question may have swung some of the few thousand votes in key states. I may review Boehner’s book in the future, but for now I can’t justify the cash.
Instead I went into the past for Hoaxes by Curtis D. MacDougall. It’s long out of print, but with libraries opening up again it’s likely available for many – it was a minor success eighty and then again about sixty years ago, and it covers subject matter which rarely gets recycled.
The book attempts to be a comprehensive look at prominent hoaxes worldwide, and its ethnocentrism causes failure in that regard. Nevertheless it is an exhaustive look through the European and American history, with extra attention paid to newspaper reporting. The writing is a bit dry, with an overreliance on dense paragraphs common to nonfiction of that era.
Once a reader has acclimated to the style, the book is exceptional. The fairly exhaustive research by MacDougal provides what seems like an endless supply of anecdotes and examples, and amidst them he attempts to analyze the mentality of those who create hoaxes. From a time period before sociopathy was recognized, his efforts are missing some perspective and are likely wrong in some cases, but for the most part he provides insight into not simply the history of false news reports but the people who manufacture them, how they spread and what can be done to insulate ourselves against them.
Sadly, his recommendation on that final topic can be summarized as “learn from the past, and value all information enough to ensure its veracity.” He’s hopeful the book will aid in that regard but recognizes that human nature is against him. He was right, but the book remains worthwhile and interesting.
Fletch’s Fortune by Gregory McDonald (1978, Avon)
Every person who enjoyed the movie Fletch but wished there were fewer stupid disguises should read this book.
The movie – and the first book – contained plenty of humorous dialogue, a likeable protagonist and a tricky but satisfying mystery. This, the second book in the series, shares all of those traits while simultaneously managing to provide believable insight into the journalism profession. The conversations have the ring of honesty to them without providing recognizable analogues for any prominent reporters. This isn’t a covert takedown of Walter Cronkite, it’s an open attack on the business of journalism and the reader is left with the impression that attack is well deserved.
The characters speak as if they are distinct people with different personalities. If many of those personalities are fairly one-dimensional, at least they’re not interchangeable. This results in the humor being not simply clever, like that of Steve Allen’s fiction, but believable and funny.
There are even some shots taken at the political system.
It’s an enjoyable book which may inspire a little bit of thought and will likely inspire some smiles.
Programming note: Expect the reviews to disappear for a week or two some time in the near future. I’ve been asked to be first reader for a novel that an author’s been trying to complete, and I’m going to need to provide all my reading attention to that.