Top 10 books about lies and liars

·7 min read

Why do you believe what you believe? Do you know? Do you wonder? We always wonder why we believed the lie. But have you ever wondered why you believe the truth? People tell you the truth all the time, and you believe them; and if, at some later point, you’re confronted with evidence that a story you believed was indeed true, you never question why you believed it in the first place.

But maybe you should.

We’re living in the information age and its transmission has become light-speed and imperceptible. Our world is built and sustained on empires of information; lies, truth, perception, opinion, some useful, some damaging, some inspiring, some manipulating; how can we understand which is which, and what is real and for what purpose we’re being presented with them? And is this even a novel problem? Our individual reality has always been built upon faulty perception, spackled together with suggestion and expectation, plastered over with biases and then airbrushed by consensus. The truth is that belief shapes our lived reality as often as our lived reality shapes our belief and somewhere in this crucial distinction lies the answer to the question: why do we believe?

My new book The Truth About Lies is a history of lies and famous swindles, which endeavours through evolutionary psychology to decode the phenomena and mechanics of belief: why we lie, why we believe and how, if at all, the acts differ. It proposes that some of our most cherished institutions are versions of those same well-worn cons and challenges the classic notion of the “sucker”. It aims to question everything you thought you knew about what you know, and whether you really know it.

Compelling stories about lies aren’t simple or straightforward or moralistic. Real lies and their repercussions aren’t simple; they don’t just destroy, they create. They’re dualistic by nature and infinitely complicated. You can’t separate truth from lies in neat lanes, as convenient as that would be. They don’t work that way, and neither do we. And all the best writers (and liars) know that. Here are 10 of my favourites.

1. The Complete Works of Shakespeare
Have you ever noticed how every play Shakespeare wrote hinges on lies? Some more than others. Particularly the comedies such as Twelfth Night or As You Like It. People lie, misunderstandings abound, hilarity ensues. But the tragedies and romances all hang on lies and liars as well. I know Romeo and Juliet is the obvious example, but I didn’t love it. Now Othello, that was an interesting love story about liars. Beyond the more complicated motives you have to ask, who was actually in love with whom? I’m not sure there’s a consensus on that.

2. The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers
So how do we work? Well, inconsistently, and with a great deal of contradiction according to one of the brilliant evolutionary theorists of our time, who argues that self-deception has been selected for on every level of biological life, from the microscopic, to us, the readers, because to lie to others we must first possess the ability to lie to ourselves. The Folly of Fools is evolutionary biology at its best; dense with bench science and psychology, yet wonderfully readable.

3. The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova
Also wonderful, but definitely not a beach read. The Confidence Game is dense. Konnikova breaks down exactly how and why con artists manage to do what they do; and she gets granular as hell in the process. By way of explaining the criminal mind and method, she tells the story of possibly every liar, thief and con artist in the last few centuries – and it’s intense. I disagree with almost all of her conclusions about the bigger whys, but Konnikova operates on a whole different level; her mind is a machine. I would not go up against her in a pub quiz.

4. History’s Greatest Lies by William Weir
This one’s a compendium and, while it might help you in a pub quiz, I wouldn’t describe it as dense. For example, only seven prisoners actually lived in France’s Bastille prison when it was stormed in 1789, and they lived in relative comfort. Another one? Paul Revere didn’t warn anybody on his famous midnight ride – he got captured by the British first. It’s a fun read, full of surprising historical misconceptions.

5. The Bible
I’ve never read such a pack of lies in my life. Even the title is a whopper. Christianity alone has at least 450 totally different versions (50 different versions just in English). The Bible indeed.

6. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
And while we’re on the subject of gods and liars, this book isn’t really about them. They’re just in it. It’s about a road trip across America, a war between deities, and a truly epic con job. And the real magic is in how deftly Gaiman examines what it means to be a fool, what it means to be a liar, and what it means to be an American.

7. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
This one’s a very different examination of what it means to be an American, but just like American Gods, everyone in this story is a liar. And likewise, it’s a story about a lie; in this case, the lie of America. That old chestnut that told us we could mess up and just start over. We could be anything or anyone we wanted. We could do anything, have anything, say anything, we could just make it all up as we went along, and it wouldn’t be lying – because America. None of it was ever really true though.

8. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee
To get drunk and assault your dinner guests is human, but to invent a child and continue with the fiction for decades is … a bit much. We all tell ourselves lies, but George and Martha really go for broke. Their dinner party starts out uncomfortably then rapidly descends into a drunken nightmare, exposing not only their own lies and self-delusions, but their young guests’ as well. Disguised as play about a boozy, deteriorating marriage, it’s actually an allegory about truth, illusion and the wreck we make of the world when we refuse to distinguish between the two.

9. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Big Brother knows all, see all, controls all and can create or disappear information at will. The gist of Orwell’s dystopian novel is unpleasantly familiar, can’t put my finger on why. Orwell wrote that “myths that are believed in tend to become true”, and that fascist abuses of power have a way of becoming outright abuses of reality. That sounds scary; I’ll have to see what Facebook says about it.

Related: Top 10 books to help you survive the digital age

10. The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Two stage magicians become obsessed with each other at the turn of the century in London and do terrible things to each other, themselves and reality in general. A hundred years later their great-grandchildren try to unravel what happened between them. Written in the form of letters back-and-forth between them; the novel’s told from the perspective of multiple narrators, all utterly unreliable. It’s a story about multiple perspectives and illusions, about secrets and lies; and a truth far worse than fiction.

  • The Truth About Lies: A Taxonomy of Deceit, Hoaxes and Cons by Aja Raden is published by Atlantic. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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