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The Fact-Catcher In The Rye

This article is more than 6 years old.

A few years ago, a just published book caught my attention. By author David Shields, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” contains 618 squibs ranging from one word to a page or so. Many of these brief, witty sayings blur the line between truth and falsity.

A few examples:

“The life span of a fact is shrinking. I don’t think there’s time to save it.” (Page 21)

“All the best stories are true.” (Page 52)

“It is difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” (Page 60)

“Something can be true and untrue at the same time.” (Page 136)

“There are no facts, only art.” (Page 204)

For readers who make it to the end of the first 200 pages, there is a shocker: Despite the name on the cover, many of these quotations do not come from Shields’ himself. He is actually quoting, without acknowledgement, dozens of authors. Essentially, Shields turns out to be a curator, not an author. At the insistence of the lawyers at Random House, his publisher, Shields was compelled to acknowledge most of the sources in the final pages of the book.

How can the same person attempt to shatter classical notions of truth, accuracy and objectivity, and then, just a few years later, ask us to believe that he is now a reputable chronicler of history?

At the time I encountered this idiosyncratic volume, I was completing a book of my own on the concept of “truth” in the age of Twitter and “truthiness” (Stephen Colbert’s inspired term for material that is not true but that has been repeated so often it is considered to have attained the status of truth). In “Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed,” I contend that it is difficult nowadays to ascertain truth, given the welter of information and misinformation both on line and off. However, if one takes time and is scrupulous and probing, I contend it is more possible than ever before to uncover the truth.

In my book, I ask, what — if anything — in “Reality Hunger” is true? If one takes Shields’ postmodern view seriously, the entire search for truth and accuracy is hopeless, a fool’s errand.

Fast forward to today. Shields is now the co-author of the just published “Salinger.” This 700 page tome claims to be the “official” book companion to a new documentary about the famously reclusive author.

In its most groundbreaking revelation, the book claims Salinger left a large number of unpublished writings. In its most sensational, it claims he only had one testicle. As if to demonstrate the validity of these claims, Shields and his co-author, Shane Salerno, report that they have conducted over 200 interviews, in a nine year period, and that the never-before-seen manuscripts have been authenticated by two independent experts.

Despite these claims, and use of words like "official" and "documentary," the skeptic in me can't help but wonder: How can the same person attempt to shatter classical notions of truth, accuracy and objectivity, and then, just a few years later, ask us to believe that he is now a reputable chronicler of history?

Certainly we know of authors who produce both fiction and non-fiction. So it stands to reason that perhaps, in this most recent project, Shields is simply wearing his historian hat?

But, no. In “Reality Hunger,” he did not simply lay out two realms — fiction (made up) vs. non-fiction (actually happened). He questioned the very validity of claims that certain statements can be non-fictive — that is, actually true, while others are fictive, made up, imagined. He did not just blur the boundary, he exploded it. Fully donning postmodernist garb, he declares that we should “get over” traditional dichotomies of true and false, reality and fantasy, and non-fiction and fiction.

Talk about the child who murders his parents and then pleads for mercy, on the grounds that he is an orphan. This postmodern line, as developed by certain philosophers and critics and trotted out by Shields, seems a parallel – “truth and falsity don’t matter,” the postmodern thinker asserts, “they don’t mean anything, except when I want them to.”

Certainly we know of authors who produce both fiction and non-fiction. So it stands to reason that perhaps, in this most recent project, Shields is simply wearing his historian hat?

I am in the process of reading Shields’ Salinger book, but I don’t know what to make of it. As I turn the pages I’m distracted by questions: What’s been truly verified? What’s a shrewd guess? What’s been made up out of thin air?

And to make matters more confusing, the book contains 12 “conversations with Salinger,” a set of squibs and quotations attributed to various authorities, including Salinger himself. Suddenly we are thrust back into the “Alice in Wonderland” world of “Reality Hunger” — why should we believe the contents of any of these conversations?

As an academic, calculated skepticism is part of my job. But, for me, it traces back even earlier. In the proper and dutiful German Jewish home I grew up in, my parents and grandparents were fond of the German saying, “Wer einmal luegt, dem glaubt man nicht, and wenn er auch die Wahrheit spricht.” Translation: “He who lies once, we don’t believe, even when he tells the truth.”

This program aired on September 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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