Big Lies: From Socrates to Social Media

Mark Kurlan­sky; Eric Zelz, illus.

  • Review
By – October 31, 2022

Infor­ma­tion swirls around us at an ever-increas­ing pace: We lis­ten to the news on radio or TV, we read mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers of every stripe, we car­ry mul­ti­ple inter­net sources in our pock­ets, and the age-old rumor mill con­tin­ues to turn at unthink­able rates. But not all sources agree with each oth­er, and it is a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge to decide whom to believe. Nuggets pre­sent­ed as fact may be incor­rect or slant­ed; the fine line between opin­ion and truth becomes blurred. If this is con­fus­ing for adults, it is far more so for young peo­ple. How can we teach them to sort fact from fic­tion, per­sua­sion from infor­ma­tion? Mark Kurlan­sky puts these issues in per­spec­tive so that stu­dents can sift through the noise and begin to form their own beliefs.

In a con­ver­sa­tion­al man­ner, Kurlan­sky delves into his­to­ry, soci­ol­o­gy, and relat­ed dis­ci­plines in an attempt to make order out of chaos. He reminds us of Descartes’s admo­ni­tion to ques­tion every­thing, of Orville’s famous epi­gram that includes the phrase telling the truth is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary act,” and of Isaac Bashe­vis Singer’s Gim­pel the fool who believed what­ev­er he was told. He com­pares human­i­ty to the ani­mal world, cit­ing ani­mals’ decep­tive behav­iors — such as aggres­sion, mim­ic­ry, and cam­ou­flage — that ensure their safe­ty. This rich­ly tex­tured work also draws on the Bible, mod­ern adver­tise­ments, politi­cians both ancient and mod­ern, dic­ta­tors, and, sig­nif­i­cant­ly, social media.

Kurlan­sky devotes much space to anti­semitism, focus­ing on the Drey­fus Affair, the Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion, and geno­cide through­out the ages. He also dis­cuss­es the uses of nation­al myths, the peri­od of the Cold War, and the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the use of Wikipedia due to its unique his­to­ry and structure.

This book fea­tures humor, art, fas­ci­nat­ing side­bars, and an over­all engag­ing tone. It would be a tremen­dous asset to a class­room or library, aid­ing teach­ers and librar­i­ans in pre­sent­ing impor­tant edu­ca­tion­al con­cepts and spark­ing pow­er­ful stu­dent discussions.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions