01 March 2012

Book Review: The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal

The Lifespan of a Fact is endlessly fascinating! I picked up an ARC of it from NEIBA last fall in an effort to increase my non-fiction reading. Let me try to explain how and why this book got published. Almost 10 years ago, John D’Agata wrote an essay called “About a Mountain” that was rejected for publication from various periodicals due to factual inaccuracies. Enter Believer magazine, who was willing to run the piece with a certain number of inaccuracies, as long as they knew exactly what they were and wouldn’t be surprised by anything post-publication. Believer puts their staff fact checker named Jim Fingal on the case, and over the next seven years the writer and the fact checker go back & forth, dickering about the nature of truth in an essay, where the line is drawn between journalism and narrative non-fiction, and out-and-out lying for the sake of Art. The result is this wonderful little book that prints both the relatively short article as well as much of the fact checking correspondence between John and Jim, which is sometimes aggressive, sometimes funny, and always interesting.

I had no idea until I read this book exactly what happens behind the scenes of any responsibly published nonfiction work. It’s clear to me now, though, that the fact checkers are the unsung heroes of the publishing world, no matter where we draw the line between journalism and creative nonfiction, and after reading this, I’ll never take them for granted again! The book itself has beautiful production values, printed in two colors on each page, with black being used for the original article and the verifiable facts, and a deep maroon for all of the parts that the fact checker challenged.
Sample page from book
NB: Norton published the book last week and it made the front page of the NYT Book Review.


  1. This sounds great. I think I'm going to add it to my wish list.

  2. Oh nerd love! It makes my heart so happy when the lowly fact checkers and proofreaders get recognition, because they are my people. My bottom-of-the-publishing-totem-pole comrades! And I love that they managed to make a thing like fact checking entertaining from an outside perspective.


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