Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire
by Kurt Andersen (Random House, $30)
No, Kurt Andersen’s latest book is not specifically about the Trump era, said Kevin Canfield in the San Francisco Chronicle. Andersen, a novelist, NPR radio host, and founder of Spy magazine, began digging into America’s propensity for mass delusion two years before Trump announced his White House bid, and our 45th president figures prominently only in the last chapter. Still, Andersen’s “rousing” history of hucksterism and credulousness proves “a persuasive work of diagnostic journalism.” In Andersen’s view, Americans have insisted on their right to believe whatever they want since the Pilgrims sighted Plymouth Rock, and the country’s foundational commitment to religious freedom has metastasized in recent decades into a dangerous penchant for embracing lies and fantasies. Hold on tight, though, because Andersen has a hummingbird mind, and “it can be hard to keep up.”
When you finish and close the book, however, you’ll see past and present “connected by an invisible thread,” said Hanna Rosin in The New York Times. Those noble Pilgrims, Andersen reminds us, were “a nutty religious cult”; they vowed to hang any Quakers who got in their way and they insisted that feeling something to be true made it so. Plenty of commercial hucksters—from P.T. Barnum to Oprah Winfrey—also march across the book’s pages, and 1960s narcissists and relativists are blamed for promoting a find-yourown- reality ethos that kicked America’s delusionary impulse into overdrive. Still, Andersen’s analysis “goes wide rather than deep.” He makes a strong case that our culture, with all its conspiracy theorists, plastic surgery addicts, and people who talk to angels, has lost its grip on reality. But it’s hard to share Andersen’s confidence that we’re capable of reeling in the crazy.
But Andersen is at least as delusional as most of his targets, said James Bowman in The Weekly Standard. Though some of his indictments are deserved, he winds up labeling as fantasists everyone who’s not a secularist and progressive; he suffers, in short, from “the fantasy of the intellectual that of all the rival systems competing for our attention, his alone is reality-based.” In blaming Christian belief for spawning all of America’s forays into magical thinking, he “could not be more wrong,” said David Jimenez in TheFederalist.com. If anything, the post-1960 collapse of mainstream religion has encouraged the proliferation of loony alternative worldviews. “Ultimately, conspiracy theories and fantasy best thrive when genuine faith—with its awareness of the sinful frailty of every believer—recedes from a culture’s shores.”