Apparently Old Abe Carried a Cell Phone Too

Bill O’Reilly’s been in the news lately, and not the way you think. He (and a cowriter, Martin Dugard) recently published a book about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and it has been trashed, in the words of one reporter, by at least two Lincoln experts.

Not for bad writing—for bad research. Factual errors! (And poor documentation.)

One wonders how not one but two authors make mistakes about, oh, one of the most revered presidents in the history of the United States (and one of the most written about: according to one expert, more than 16,000 books and articles have been written about Lincoln—125 volumes on the assassination alone). He’s an American icon, for the love of Pete! How do you get the facts wrong?

The errors are so egregious, apparently, that Ford’s Theatre, a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service—and the place where our sixteenth president was assassinated—refuses to carry it in the book shop.

You can read the entire list of errors the NPS cites here. Some of them are minor, but as historian Edward Steers Jr. says in his review of the book,  “If the authors made mistakes in names, places, and events, what else did they get wrong? How can the reader rely on anything that appears in [the book]?” One of the worst mistakes, I think, is the mention of meetings in the Oval Office—although the Oval Office wasn’t built until 1909, during the Taft administration.

Editing such a book must have been a pill. I’m so glad it wasn’t me. But I’ve had to make some tough stands with authors and their publishers when I have come across claims that felt “off” and subsequently proved they were. (Your Editor has a pretty well-developed Rotten-Denmark Detector, as we’ve discussed.)

And that’s what I’ve been wondering in all this: where was the editor?

Yes, the author is presumed to be the expert and is expected to have done his homework; the editor can’t be expected to do all the research over again. However, the editor should question everything. When I edit nonfiction, a lot of my time is spent fact-checking. I certainly investigate every single citation (that is, footnote) if it is online; I often search through published books when they are available. (Honestly, I’m surprised the book didn’t go through a separate fact-checking phase before editorial began. It’s got a big-name author and I’m sure the budget could have handled the additional expense.)

But the citations are actually the problem in this case: there aren’t any. Instead there’s a bibliography. I understand this is more a work of “popular” history and footnotes scare off some readers and slow down the rest. But there are ways to document where a specific piece of information came from that don’t involve tiny numbers and print. Steers believes the list leaves out important primary resources.

This isn’t the first unfactual book that’s made it into print (James Frey, anyone?) but when I watch two friends of mine devote hours, days, weeks of time researching for a work of historical fiction (I can’t wait to write about this but for now I’ll keep mum), I am appalled by this shoddy research and shoddy editing.

Note: Since I wrote this Salon’s issued an update.

Tweet: How do authors make mistakes about 1 of the most revered presidents in US history?
Tweet: A book trashed by Lincoln scholars for factual errors. Where was editor?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

2 Comments

  1. Beth Bates says:

    Excellent post, Jamie. I’d be happy to fact check for them next time.

  2. […] get tired of me leaving notes like: Actually, he didn’t say that. It’s been proven here. Or: I can’t verify that Lincoln was ever in Paris, can you? Or: If we do the math here, it makes Candy sixty years old when she gave birth to our protagonist. […]

  3. […] to invest your precious time in a biography, choose a trusted, respected author (not, for example, Bill O’Reilly), someone who will lead you to primary sources and make interesting interpretations that fit with […]

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Telling the Truth on 14 December, 2015 at 11:03 am

    […] get tired of me leaving notes like: Actually, he didn’t say that. It’s been proven here. Or: I can’t verify that Lincoln was ever in Paris, can you? Or: If we do the math here, it makes Candy sixty years old when she gave birth to our protagonist. […]

  2. By Mozart and the Nature of Creativity on 11 April, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    […] to invest your precious time in a biography, choose a trusted, respected author (not, for example, Bill O’Reilly), someone who will lead you to primary sources and make interesting interpretations that fit with […]