Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Some Sort of Hoax Device

I picked up a beaten up copy of this for a few pesos at Under the Volcano Books, an English language book store in Mexico City, and I've slowly been dipping into it ever since. It's the kind of book you can gobble up quickly or just taste every once and awhile, I think it's even readable out of order. But having traveled with me through Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador and Northern Peru, the poor old paperback has nearly disintegrated. They wouldn't accept it when I tried to exchange it for a Flann O'Brien book at Cafe Fuisones in Chachapoyas, Peru, saying it would make their library look too ugly.

Anyway, the book is a remarkably fun survey of hoaxes throughout history. Because it was published in the 40s and revised in the 50s, it tends focus on the early 20th century and for me it was particularly enjoyable to read about hoaxes of this period from the perspective of the early 21st century. It also has some great overlaps with Banvard's Folly by Tom Collins, another favorite of mine from this subgenre of nonfiction. And of course Orson Welles and many other familiar personages make cameos alongside a lot of more obscure folks who I intend to learn more about now that I have their names. Some of my favorite characters and titles to appear in here include the Fortsas Catalog; Spectra: A Book of Poetic Exposures by Anne Knish and Emanual Morgan aka Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner; Biographical Memoirs of Historical Painters by William Beckford; Memoirs of Li Hung Chang by William Francis Mannix; The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Boothe by Finis Bates, Gaston Means and his hoax biography of President Harding (Means was recently immortalized by the always wonderful Stephen Root in HBO's Boardwalk Empire); the trickster Etienne Leon aka Baron de Lamothe-Lagon; the eccentric Philip Yorke aka Lord Hardwick, the 'disumbrationist' Paul Jordan Smith; Allan Bradley, the Giant of Hedgehog Harbor; Sir John Hill, physick and male midwife; regular appearance of names like Williston Fish, Fairfax Downey, Clemente Giglio that amuse even devoid of context.

From a more critical standpoint, I'll say the book functions more like a laundry list of hoaxes than the author seems to have intended. The book is split in two halves - the first attempts to explain why we fall for hoaxes, and the second intends to show how they succeed. Both rely on voluminous examples, but the first half includes a lot more clear analysis of things like the different kinds of incentives that drive people to fall for hoaxes. The second half contains numerous amusing examples of hoaxes and accompanying trivia organized by topic, but there is little analytical work to elucidate 'how they succeed,' and in fact I have a difficult time recalling what this half set out to do even though I read through it far more recently than the first half. At least the final chapter is a little more purposeful in how it shows the ways hoaxes spread and survive debunking.

The other problem with the book is how it plays fast and loose with the definition of a hoax. At the beginning it defines a hoax quite generally as a deliberately concocted untruth accepted by some segment of the population. The problem is that this definition seems to include a whole lot of myths, legends, scams and other forms of lying or storytelling that may dilute the unique character of a hoax. The author plays lip service at times to unraveling the distinctions between some of these sub-types of lies or fictions, but mostly misses out on clarifying matters, preferring to cast a wide net for his laundry list, to the extent that he even includes a lot of items that don't fit his definition in that they weren't 'deliberately concocted.' Though I'll say after reading the book it's pretty clear a hoax doesn't have to be deliberately concocted to cause a great deal of mistaken beliefs.

But these criticism matter little if you're looking for a lot of entertainment and laughter and/or for a simple survey that might point you in many useful directions for deeper exploration of the subject at either the primary or secondary level of sources.