Single-volume book on conspiracies
April 12, 2010 7:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a good book that discusses secret societies and/or conspiracy theories, but does so with at least some objectivity and academic rigor (footnotes, reliable sources, etc.)

Bonus points if it's a fun read. I really enjoyed "Men Who Stare at Goats" but would like something a little more in-depth.

This question arose because I came across "A Secret History of the World" at a large chain bookstore. It looks sort of intriguing, but most of the reviews complain that there are no footnotes to speak of. I suspect my best bet might be clicking around Wikipedia.
posted by mecran01 to Education (15 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
which "secret history of the world"? mark booth or laura knight-jadcyk?
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:55 PM on April 12, 2010

Arthur Goldwag's book is great, but has no index. I don't know what he was thinking. I got Mark Booth's book out of the library once and returned it in disgust.

Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch is a look at some case studies from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to 9/11 Truthers.
posted by lukemeister at 8:02 PM on April 12, 2010

Modern Occult Rhetoric by Joshua Gunn covers the theosophists and the Crowleyites very well and documented academic style. He teaches at U. Texas the last I heard.

I loved this book.

Revolutionary Brotherhood by Steven Bullock covers the Masons up to 1840 very well.

I would also be interested in an academic look at conspiracy theories. It seems to me that such a thing might be impossible to write. Maybe there is something from more of a literary criticism type bent, since unlike secret societies conspiracy theories are nearly complete fiction.
posted by bukvich at 8:07 PM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These look great, keep it coming. I'm lazy and wouldn't mind a single tome. I was referring to Mark Booth above, sorry. I'd just as soon avoid literary criticism, as I have had my fill of that genre. I agree that most conspiracy theories are fiction. The few that aren't are fascinating. I should add that I had a copy of Everything You Know is Wrong edited by Russ Kick. It was uneven, but had moments of excellence. My used copy smelled like stale cigarette smoke and I was unable to exorcise it so I gave it away.
posted by mecran01 at 8:18 PM on April 12, 2010

Maybe this? Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. This is more of a scholarly work, trying to answer the question why there are conspiracy theories. (Amazon link)
posted by AlsoMike at 8:29 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Them: Adevntures with Extremists by Jon Ronson might be of use to you, as might Everything Is Under Control - The Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories by Robert Anton Wilson.

Lobster Magazine has some books.
posted by Artw at 8:48 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Assassins of Memory, by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, is an academic work about Holocaust deniers (he also discusses other cases and gets into the idea of revisionist histories in general).

Available download here.

Was also going to recommend "When Prophecy Never Fails," mentioned above.
posted by scribbler at 8:49 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Haven't read it yet, but J.M. Roberts' The Mythology of the Secret Societies provides a history of the conspiracy theories about secret societies, which date back a ways, and it's written by a reputable historian.
posted by Zed at 10:50 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Voodoo Histories; I just finished reading it last month. As someone who hasn't had much exposure to non-US history, I found the coverage of European and Soviet conspiracy theories accessible and educational. While the majority of the book is a survey and criticism of conspiracy theories, the payoff at the end is a thoughtful meditation on the reasons they exist and the functions they serve.
posted by scatter gather at 11:07 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am halfway through Whiteout right now, and it is enraging, frightening, and a thoroughly entertaining read. I guess I can't really personally vouch for the book's accuracy, but it certainly cites a lot of what seem to be reasonable sources at the end of every chapter.
posted by zoinks at 2:29 AM on April 13, 2010

I'm sorry - I just realized you are looking for a more all-encompassing survey type of thing. Read the post title, self!
(I think you still might enjoy the book, though.)
posted by zoinks at 2:35 AM on April 13, 2010

Michael Barkun's Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America is pretty good. [Publisher info.] It's brief, well-researched, and wide-ranging. I found it too short to be honest, but it's a good jumping-off point for learning more about the field, and the bibliography and notes are very full.

I actually know a guy slightly who's currently writing his PhD thesis on conspiracy theories, and he's got a regularly updated blog on the topic—his archive of articles and conference papers is here, and the pieces are generally accessible and well-written. (There's a long review there of Voodoo Histories, for instance.) This could be worth a look for you, too.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:18 AM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many good suggestions above about particular conspiracies. 'Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition' by Karl Popper is about conspiracy itself. Not fun so here is an excerpt: "I think that the people who approach the social sciences with a ready-made conspiracy theory [...] deny themselves the possibility of ever understanding what the task of the social sciences is, for they assume that we can explain practically everything in society by asking who wanted it, whereas the real task of the social sciences is to explain those things which nobody wants – such as, for example, a war, or a depression. (Lenin’s revolution, and especially Hitler’s revolution and Hitler’s war are, I think, exceptions. These were indeed conspiracies. But they were consequences of the fact that conspiracy theoreticians came to power – who, most significantly, failed to consumate their conspiracies.)"
posted by eccnineten at 6:23 AM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not exactly what you asked for but I'm enjoying and learning a lot from A Legacy of Ashes, the history of the CIA. Alas I'm on the road so no link.
posted by mearls at 6:40 AM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Legacy of Ashes
posted by mecran01 at 8:32 PM on April 13, 2010

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