A simple example often illustrates a greater truth.
I waited over a month to receive The Library Book from my local library. I’ve enjoyed author Susan Orlean in The New Yorker, and the buzz swirling about her latest book made it a must-read for this library aficionado who’s written about the unique and benevolent role libraries play in our society and has visited hundreds of libraries across our nation, including one memorable afternoon at the Los Angeles Central Library, the institution at the heart of Ms. Orlean’s tale. I’m also a fan of immersive journalism: that literary cocktail of historical record and personal observation that serves up a thrilling plot of reality (always stranger than fiction) with memoir intimacy.
Ms. Orlean weaves the tragic 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire with a broader discussion of the nature and value libraries, embellished with personal anecdotes. I delighted in the concoction. Until, on page 11, a modest statistic struck me false.
Comparing her youthful library experience in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to bringing her son to a local library in Los Angeles, Ms. Orlean writes, “Decades had passed, and I was three thousand miles away…”
My knowledge of U.S geography is perhaps even deeper than my experience in libraries, but it doesn’t take an expert to know that Shaker Heights is not 3,000 miles from Los Angeles. According to Google, it is 2,363 miles. True, we often use the term 3,000 miles to express the coast-coast breadth of the United States, even though most major cities are a bit closer. If Ms. Orleans were talking Boston to LA (2,983 miles) or even New York to LA (2,775 miles), her three thousand mile number would satisfy. But Cleveland is not on the East Coast—it is solidly mid-West—and 2,363 cannot be rounded up to 3,000 in any mathematical system. Perhaps Ms. Orlean was bitten by a poetic sensibility. Perhaps she simply needs a more precise editor. Regardless, for me, that seemingly benign error cast a shadow over the rest of the narrative.
I grew suspicious of each statistic listed in The Library Book. If an easily determined distance could be exaggerated by more than 20%, what certainty did I give Ms. Orlena’s assertion that two hundred employees occupied the Central Library every day? Or that the fire raged for seven hours and thirty-eight minutes? Or that four hundred thousand books were destroyed in a single day?
The problem with Ms. Orlean’s misstating the distance from Shaker Heights to Los Angeles is not the error per se. It’s how this elementary mistake undermines every other fact. I found myself questioning the veracity of every passage until doubt eclipsed her elegant prose and I set The Library Book aside at page 85. I did not finish it.
In a world where attributions of fake news are rampant, where opinion is stated as fact, and belief masquerades as truth, we are surrounded by misinformation. Each erroneous fact is its own problem. Yet the more corrosive effect is how each error chips away at our faith in every statement until mistrust supersedes trust. In the Jenga pile of facts that supports narrative non-fiction, it takes only one or two sticks of errant information to topple an entire thesis into a pile of rubble.