Someone in one of my reading groups mentioned this book and I checked it out. It looked like it was right up my alley (at least for the moment) and was even endorsed by Walter Isaacson (a favorite writer of nonfiction), so … What’s a good reader-girl to do? – It’s excellent yes!!! Especially the end of it.
From the publisher:
“Over the course of five centuries—from the Salem witch trials to Scientology to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, from P. T. Barnum to Hollywood and the anything-goes, wild-and-crazy sixties, from conspiracy theories to our fetish for guns and obsession with extraterrestrials—our love of the fantastic has made America exceptional in a way that we’ve never fully acknowledged. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams and epic fantasies—every citizen was free to believe absolutely anything, or to pretend to be absolutely anybody. With the gleeful erudition and tell-it-like-it-is ferocity of a Christopher Hitchens, Andersen explores whether the great American experiment in liberty has gone off the rails.
Fantasyland could not appear at a more perfect moment. If you want to understand Donald Trump and the culture of twenty-first-century America, if you want to know how the lines between reality and illusion have become dangerously blurred, you must read this book.”
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History
by Kurt Andersen
2017 / 480 pages
read by Kurt Andersen – 19h 31m
rating: 9.75 / politics-current events
First – despite the subtitle and the publisher’s statement, this is not really a history book at all – it’s current events, nonfiction.
Okay – yes, Andersen starts with the medieval Holy Roman Catholic Church and their use of relics as examples of historical fantasy relevant to America’s history, and then he goes on to the Reformation when Martin Luther got into the act. Luther thought that every believer was basically on his own to interpret the Bible – And there it was – the Bible in the vernaculars of the peoples because Gutenberg had the printing press newly up and running as of about 1440. And a whole new world was available via the Mayflower and its Separatists, believing as they saw fit, beginning in about 1620. So here come the folks for their “city on a hill.” But that background is necessary in order to weave the rest of the narrative and really give it historical context.
The fact of American’s wide open spaces where a man could move and become anything or anyone. Our hucksters like P.T. Barnum and salesmen with snake oil or swampland real estate plus television and Disneyland are another element. These all contribute to our propensity for mixing fantasy with reality.
So after pretty much managing to get the first 400 years in the opening chapters of the book, the bulk has to do with the 20th and 21st centuries and the strange goings on after the 1960s. The 1950s really were different – they seem normal. But that’s also when Disneyland opened and televised cowboys became the new normal.
It makes for a fascinating whole because it works into how we got to where we are today – “Haywire.” And where we are today, in the post-Trump era, is the main thrust of the book.
It’s basically a polemic against what seems to be a widespread contemporary disregard for fact-based evidence and real thinking. Andersen is speaking up for science if you will, or the truth as its known – at least get the facts. Truth cannot be just whatever feels right and the idea of “alternative facts” is ridiculous. Andersen really dislikes the idea spouted for decades now, “I can believe anything I want to.” Fine – but if it doesn’t jive with reality as we know it, then …
Andersen is a clever and funny writer who, unlike most writers, does a very good job at narration, too, even if it is a tad on the dramatic side. It sure kept me listening and even going back in some places in case I missed something.
The best part is in the last chapter where he provides answers or suggestions to the dilemma. Some basics on how to deal with the issues as they come up in our lives, anyway.
There were parts in the middle where it seemed to slag a bit, where the material became redundant with example after example after example. It was all written wonderfully well and the examples were all excellent but still, there were so many!
Much of the book focuses somehow on the fringes of religion and religious experience but Andersen explores the other venues for fantasy – advertising and consumer issues, health issues, colleges and universities and the media. It’s all full of exaggeration, hyperbole, and outright lies from the purveyors of fantasy, along with some of their money-making opportunities, but not always – sometimes the fantasizers are true believers themselves. In the last chapters he gets to the internet – and Donald J. Trump.
Profit-motivated media only enlarges the problem – fantasyland is entertainment, televised news is entertainment – and the American people seem to want entertainment more than truth and reality. But that’s not new – as Anderson says – “history doesn’t repeat but … it rhymes.” We keep seeing the effects of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity like that preached from Calvary Chapel which is mentioned several times. Conspiracy theorists eat it up – that’s part of why it’s there.
Andersen’s main idea is that we’ve been set up for believing nonsense from our earliest beginnings and how the US is somewhat more susceptible to that fantastical thinking than other countries. Our religious underpinnings from Luther through the Pilgrims, the Revivals, the Scopes Trial and so on, provide a big clue.
But the bulk of the book is taken up with showing how that setup has developed in the past 60 or so years. He shows that we’ve become a nation of nonsense believers. It would seem the “National Fantasy Industrial Complex” thrives and right-wing nuts of the Christians variety are the best customers although Andersen also addresses the issues of the left wing from conspiracies of 9/11, vaccines and capitalism abounding.
Over and over and over – a distrust of experts, a willingness to believe conspiracies, wanting to believe whatever feels good, stubborn fundamentalist “faith-based” Christianity, etc. It all comes together and what people believe these days doesn’t have to makes sense – making sense sometimes works against the ideas of some of these people.
It’s a long book and seems more scattered than well organized – and it’s hard to take it all in any long spell of reading.