Friday, November 25, 2022

Just The Facts?

The Lifespan of a Fact - Wikipedia 

"Thank God it's Friday" would be an extremely inappropriate way for me to begin a post these days. I never work Fridays any more but I do work every other Saturday, so it would be like saying "Thank God it's Monday". Or at least on alternate weeks it would.

This is exactly the kind of factual nit-picking that ruins a freestyling mood piece, isn't it? Not that I'm sayihg that's what this was going to be. It wasn't, as it happens. Still, if that kind of obsessive, almost ritualistic textual analysis either grates your teeth or zings your strings (Not a recognized expression.) then let me recommend a fascinating book I just read. 

Hang on. I left it downstairs. I'll just go get it. Maybe make yourself a coffee or something while you wait...

Okay, found it. Here we go. It's called "The Lifespan of a Fact" and it's by John D'Agata, author and Jim Fingal, fact-checker. That's how they're credited on the cover, lower case and all. But you can see that.

The book's ten years old, having been published in 2012 (Well, yes, it would be then, wouldn't it?) and it seems to be famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry. Okay, it does have its own Wikipedia entry so there's no seeming about it. Any doubt cast on its fame by that word is unjustified.

I warn you know, this is how you'll end up thinking if you read it. For a while you'll find yourself unable to read a single sentence without parsing it for logical inconsistencies, factual errors and all-round subjectivity. It's really annoying.

Even so, I heartily recommend it. I'd never heard of it before I took it out of a box at work. I was unpacking and receiving the day's delivery and this particular item stood out. It just looked odd.

It also had the expression "fact-checker" on the cover and I've been mildly intrigued by the whole concept of making a living by looking stuff up to make sure someone else hadn't gotten it wrong since I first came across the idea in a movie back in the 1980s. Now, which movie would that have been?

Let me think. It was set in New York but that really isn't going to help much. I'm borderline obsessed by anything set in New York. Have been since I was a teenager. I'm actually reading a book, Pineapple Street, right now that I only picked up because it's set in New York. 

Okay, not literally "reading right now", since literally right now I'm typing this sentence, although not as you read it, when I could be doing pretty much anything. Alright, not anything. Something that, at time of writing or reading, cannot be specified due to lack of information. Or a time machine. You see how this could so easily spiral out of control? Okay, let's move on...

I'm still trying to think what that movie could have been. Maybe Bright Lights, Big City, the adaptation of Jay McInerney's bratpack classic? 

Whoah! Yes! Got it in one! Now that's what I call fact-checking. Or memory. One of the two. Here's confirmation from the Wikipedia entry "The film follows one week in the life of 24-year-old Jamie Conway. Originally from Pennsylvania, Jamie works as a fact-checker for a major New York City magazine".

Of course, a real fact-checker like Jim Fingal wouldn't think much of anyone who used Wikipedia as a source. He says something disparaging about it somewhere in the book although I very much doubt I can find where and I certainly don't have time to look. You'll just have to take my word for it, something Jim hears a lot from John.

The thrust of the book is an existential wrestling match between reality and imagination, held in the venue where the two supposedly meet, namely literary non-fiction. It calls into question both the feasibility and advisability of sticking strictly to the facts when revisiting events that reportedly happened - and by using "reportedly" there I'm setting a trap for myself into which I don't intend to fall.

You can, if you like, (Fall into the trap, that is.) but I suggest you read the book first. I found it "provocative, maddening and compulsively readable", which exactly what Maggie Nelson is quoted as saying about it on the front cover. 

And who is Maggie Nelson? Wikipedia (Them again! I'd never get a job checking facts for a major New York City magazine with my sloppy methodology, that's for sure.) describes  her, entirely unhelpfully but quite probably accurately as "a genre-busting writer defying classification". 

Assuming she's been quoted accurately, which she certainly hasn't by me, as we'll find out if I ever get to the end of this sentence, she's also an adherent of the Oxford Comma. I am not. I have, therefore, excised said comma from the quote, meaning it's no longer a wholly accurate representation of what she said. But it keeps the meaning intact, I believe. 

This is the sort of thing Jim and John argue about, although not really, since neither of them appear to be grammar nazis. They do, however, dig in and scuffle over details that seem incredibly trivial to one of them but immensely important to the other. What's at stake is nothing less than the truth, only the problem is neither of them agrees on what the truth really is.

It doesn't help that the nominal subject of the essay John's trying to get past Jim so it can finally be published (It takes them seven years to hammer out an agreement.) is an incident whose exact details, in common with just about any past event, neither of them can ever unambiguously know.

Which might be kind of the point. I'm not sure. By the time I got to the end I found myself pretty much siding with both of them. And that's almost certainly the point.

Anyway, I felt like I'd learned a lot and maybe even grown a little. Intellectually, that is. I'm not any taller. Or at least I don't think I am. I didn't measure myself before and after reading the boook. Maybe I should have...

If I had to come down on one side or the other, though, I think I'd edge just a tad closer to John. Seeing Jim trying to nail down "facts" like whether a specific slot machine was or was not named after a short-lived televison game show made me realise I could probably afford to let a few more things go when I do the edits on these posts.

As John says, when Jim calls him on that one, "It really and truly does not matter that there was a short-running television show that could or could not have been the source for the name of this slot machine". Or maybe it does. I don't know.

I do know that I'm going to be thinking about whether or not things like that matter even more than I already was, every time I write one of these things, so thanks for that, I guess, John and Jim. 

It's a good read, all the same. I recommend it.

Oh, and by the way, this was supposed to be one of those "Friday Grab-Bag" posts, which is how I came to open with that "Thank God it's Friday" thing. 

Just look where that got me. Screw whimsy, eh?


  1. Ooo... I might have to check that book out. It might save my bacon, trying to figure out what to get my wife for Christmas, as she loves books along these lines.

    1. I really enjoyed it although I did literally swear out loud at the pair of them a couple of times. It's also very funny, which I don't think I mentioned. I'd like to see the play they made out of it, for which I see they've added a third character, someone who only appears maybe twice at the very beginning in the book itself.


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