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The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata & Jim Fingal

2012/03/16

In recent years, there have been a number of scandals involving news agencies and their staff fudging or adjusting reports or manipulating photographs in order to present a story more dramatically or in a way that will increase the attention-grabbing factor. And in the age of the Internet, almost anything can, and will, be checked against the sources (whether those are reliable sources or not). In this short book, John D’Agata, author of an essay and Jim Fingal, a doggedly determined fact-checker, debate, argue, and yes, fight, over truth versus accuracy, and whether the form of essay-writing should be held to journalistic standards.

The design of the text itself is rather confusing at first, as the body of the essay is printed in the center of each page, with the fact-checker’s commentary and dialogue with the author printed footnote-style around the borders of the page. It’s a little difficult to read straight through, but this isn’t the kind of book that you’d want to just read flat out anyway. The fact-checker is extremely thorough, to the point of nitpicking, and though I wholeheartedly support his efforts, I do feel for the author, whose irritation with the whole process shows through.

The back cover of this books reads, [this] “is a brilliant ad eye-opening meditation on the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy,’ and a penetrating conversation about whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.” This is an extremely high-blown and overly wordy way of saying, “here is a writer and a fact-checker arguing over their work;” as a librarian and an employee of a community college where we struggle daily to introduce the concept of information literacy to our students, I lean strongly towards the case of the fact-checker, whose attempts to track down and cite the references of the author are often futile. However, I wouldn’t put this book on any must-read lists, simply because the dialogue between the two tends to drag on and even becomes disillusioning after a while.

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