This is the time of year when people and publications offer their picks of the best books for summer reading. As you might guess, I’m a non-fiction type of guy. Sure, The Lost Symbol or The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest make for fun reading at the cottage, but they hold little for the accuracy-inclined. So what’s a corrections hound to read when the sun is out and they want to shine a light on errors and accuracy? I have a few suggestions.
Below is my list of the best summer books for Regret The Error readers. (I won’t be so bold as to put my own book on this list, but I’m also not foolish enough to pretend it doesn’t exist.)
The Big Picture: Books With Context and Background
The Vanishing Newspaper – This book by noted journalism scholar Philip Meyer includes data from the most comprehensive study of U.S. newspaper accuracy—but don’t let that scare you off. It’s also an essential and insightful treatise on the future of newspapers, and the role that accuracy and credibility play in that future.
Human Error – James Reason is the godfather of the study of human error. He’s helped devise some of the best prevention strategies, which are used by airlines, nuclear power facilities and other businesses. This is his major work, and it lays out the cognitive processes that often lead humans astray. Want to understand why errors occur? Read this book.
Why We Make Mistakes – This slim, amusing, and enjoyable tome is by Pulitzer-winner Joseph T. Hallinan, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal. It marshals the available science and other information to explain the mistakes to which humans often fall victim. Though not focused on journalism—it more looks at human behavior—it helps us understand why and where we go wrong. A very enjoyable read.
Being Wrong – This is a new book by journalist Kathryn Schulz that I have yet to read. My sense is that it takes a similar approach to Hallinan’s, but I’ll have to crack its spine this summer to find out. You can read an excerpt here.
Light Reading: Fun and Funny
Kill Duck Before Serving – This is an entire book full of amusing and unfortunate and amusing New York Times corrections. Plus, it has an enjoyable and informative foreword by the venerable Allan M. Siegal.
Only Correct: The Best of Corrections and Clarifications – Ian Mayes, the legendary former reader’s editor (ombudsman) of The Guardian, collected the paper’s best corrections in one place. Enjoy.
For Fact Hounds
The Fact Checker’s Bible – If, like me, you’ve always wanted to know the history of magazine fact checking in the United States, this book is for you. It’s also for anyone who wants to know how the pro checkers at The New Yorker and other places go about their work. (The author, Sarah Harrison Smith, is the managing editor of The New York Times Magazine and a former fact checker at The New Yorker.) Chock full of resources and how-to advice, it points you toward reliable sources for checking different material.
The Checklist Manifesto – Written by New Yorker staff writer and surgeon Atul Gawande, this book offers a detailed and incisive look at why checklists are such a powerful force for error prevention. I’ve written about the power of checklists and how they can be used to prevent factual errors, and this book is a must for anyone serious about preventing factual errors.
Hard News – The now-classic story of the Jayson Blair scandal, by Seth Mnookin. A fast-paced inside look at the players, the scandal, and the paper’s massive investigation into Blair’s skullduggery.
The Deeds of My Fathers – I was lucky enough to receive an advance proof of this new book, and it’s a rollicking good read. While telling the story of the birth and heyday of the National Enquirer, it also includes lots of gangsters, famous politicians, and some interesting content about how the weekly handled (or didn’t) accuracy and fact checking in its early days. (Read this previous column to see how the Enquirer handles these issues today.)