The Lifespan of a Fact – book review and some observations

Last week I finished reading ‘The Lifespan of a Fact.’ John D’Agata, author. Jim Fingal, fact-checker. The core of the book is an essay by D’Agata about the suicide of Levi Presley in Las Vegas in 2002. But wrapped around the essay are comments by Fingal, who was asked by an editor to check the facts of the story. The final product is a discussion/argument between an essayist who wants to massage the story to make it more artistic, readable, and compelling, and a fact-checker who feels non-fiction, i.e. an essay, should be all true because readers are expecting things to be real and factual.

As a biomedical sciences librarian who has done some writing and teaches evidence based medicine, I tend to be on the side of the fact-checker. Which could be why I have so much trouble writing more than a 175 word book review. I don’t like to write anything that isn’t my opinion unless I have a reference to back it up. But, I can understand why someone might want to simplify a situation a bit to make a point.

I especially have a problem with science and medicine journalism that glosses over facts or outright lies to create an attention grabbing headline. Or doesn’t report on the full results of a study because they have an agenda. I think Fingal is right in the book when he writes that most readers expect the facts in any sort of non-fiction work to be correct, and most won’t investigate further to find the truth.

And I think this acceptance of a story as truth goes further – and includes things like Shakespeare’s plays. As I was finishing this book, I was also watching Shakespeare Uncovered http://www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/, specifically the Richard II and Henry IV and V episodes. The history plays of Shakespeare are taken as fact by most people but there are inaccuracies, mainly to do with not wanting to get the people in power at the time mad. But how many assume that Shakespeare if fact? This especially interests me because I love ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey, which refutes the picture of Richard III most people have. And of course now that Richard’s body has been identified, maybe a new picture will emerge http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-21063882

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