I’m fascinated by the outrage/sadness/shock surrounding the revelations about fabrications in the book Three Cups of Tea. I find it more compelling than I ever found the premise of the book, which I didn’t read. Here are my thoughts:
- Truth is important in nonfiction.
- But what is truth?
- If truth is memory: memory feels solid, but it is in fact fragile. It’s not nearly as robust as imagination, which routinely edits our memories of events. For example, we tend to remember ourselves as the central character in any circumstance, regardless of our actual importance at the time. We often incorporate bits and pieces from similar events we’ve experienced, or events we’ve heard about, or the reactions of the people with whom we share our memories with after the fact. Imagination can even turn memories into total fabrications. [Imagining Places After You Travel]
- If you believe that something is true, and it isn’t, are you lying?
- If truth is history: historians always create a past by writing it. History is not just there, awaiting the researcher’s discovery. Unlike a forgotten poem, the ruins of a cathedral, or a lost law code that might be uncovered, history has no existence before it’s written…historians do not discover a past as much as they create it; they choose the events and people that they think constitute a past, and they decide what about them is important to know. [From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods]
- “The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd.” [Janet Malcolm, in The Crime of Shela McGough, as quoted in The New York Review of Books 4/28/2011.]
- We all know this about truth, which is why it is such a relief to reveal someone who has created a blatant fabrication. We can point to it, condemn it and feel better about ourselves. “At least that’s not what I do”
- We are hypocrites.
- “Mortenson may have been wrong to tell lies and make up tales. But those who believed he had the answers to Pakistan’s problems were not fooled by Mortenson. They were fooled by their own thirst for easy solutions to cold, hard, and complex problems.” [Cup Half-Empty Foreign Policy]
- There’s no such thing as a story that is both simple and true.