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The Lifespan of a Fact

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  1,239 ratings  ·  233 reviews
Now a Broadway Play.

An innovative essayist and his fact-checker do battle about the use of truth and the definition of nonfiction.

How negotiable is a fact? In 2003, after publishing his book of experimental essays, Halls of Fame, John D’Agata was approached by Harper’s magazine to write an essay for them, one that was eventually rejected due to disagreements related to its
Paperback, 128 pages
Published February 27th 2012 by W. W. Norton Company
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Max Mallory I read the actual article parts first upon each page turn, then the fact-checking afterwards. I flipped back and forth a couple time to refresh my mem…moreI read the actual article parts first upon each page turn, then the fact-checking afterwards. I flipped back and forth a couple time to refresh my memory on the statement in question sometimes.

P.S. I'm pretty sure I'm in your class :P(less)

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Average rating 3.85  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,239 ratings  ·  233 reviews

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Mar 07, 2012 rated it it was ok
As of the writing of this review, I am the only person to give The Lifespan of a Fact fewer than three stars. This, I think, is clearly a case of a book preaching to its choir. Those who choose to read a (windy) transcript of a dispute between an essayist (John D'Agata) and a fact-checker (Jim Fingal) on the struggle between fact and truth are perhaps predisposed to 'enjoy' it. It isn't a book likely to be discovered by an audience uninterested in its themes.

Accurately or not, I would tend to c
Jan 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2012
Quick edit(3/22/12): In surveying some of the professional reviews out there (and on here), I've been surprised by one strand of criticism in particular, the heart of which seems to stem from this line on the back cover: "This book reproduces D’Agata’s essay, along with D’Agata and Fingal’s extensive correspondence." It has since emerged that the quotes we get from Fingal and D'Agata have been edited/selectively chosen/made up wholesale for the sake of this book/etc., thereby beefing up the inte ...more
Clint Barker
Oct 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I taught this book to a class of high school students last semester. Those students, like many of the reviewers here, eventually discovered that the dialogue between the two authors was not as genuine as the book's cover would lead a person to believe.

The students, however, took it a step further in a project to fact-check the book--that is, to fact-check what Jim Fingal wrote about John D'Agata's essay. This makes perfect sense: if Jim Fingal was willing to change the details of his dialogue wi
Carrie Poppy
Jan 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Nov 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
LORD Chancellor
. Now, sir, what excuse have you to offer for having disobeyed an order of the Court of Chancery?
. My Lord, I know no Courts of Chancery; I go by Nature’s Acts of Parliament. The bees – the breeze – the seas – the rooks – the brooks – the gales – the vales – the fountains and the mountains cry, “You love this maiden – take her, we command you!” ’Tis writ in heaven by the bright barbèd dart that leaps forth into lurid light from each grim thundercloud. The very rain pours
Dec 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Okay, so this miiiiiight not get five stars from me if I didn't know Jim personally (and think he's pretty much a wonderful human being). But in terms of reviewing MY experience reading it, totally five stars. I laughed out loud literally dozens of times. I love the whole concept, and it was so well-executed. And beautiful! I think the way they did the layout is incredibly clever and effective and cool.

In a funny sort of way, I think this is a great book for people who love great character arcs
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fact checking can be mind numbing. I know. I've done it professionally. I've also been the writer on the other side of the table. In my experience, most writers are happy to have their articles fact checked, and to talk through any discrepancies that arise. I always was. It gave me the chance to make sure I was saying exactly what I wanted to say (even after going over the words in multiple edits), and it provided a safety net against a lawsuit if I should happen to get something wrong (we're al ...more
Dec 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This should be required reading if you want to talk about essays. Unless you think it is a book about fact-checking. In which case: go away.
Kaethe Douglas
Feb 27, 2012 marked it as stricken
I've done fact-checking. Working with D'Agata is apparently impossible.
Jul 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Why do you think this was presented as an email exchange? How well would you say this form works in the piece? What important questions do they raise about the nature of truth and creative nonfiction? Who do you side with? Why?

What happened in Vegas
I am a huge fan of the original Believer magazine essay that was turned into this book that was then turned into a Broadway play! What’s not to like? It’s absolutely hilarious.

I believe the original exchange was by email, and so they decided just to
Tracy Towley
Dec 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
Did I like The Lifespan of a Fact? That's a hard question to answer and I'm scared if I do answer it Jim Fingal will come tear my words apart and show the inaccuracy in every tiny little opinion I have.

What I can tell you is that I've never read anything even remotely like this before. The premise is that John D'Agata has written an essay about the suicide of a 17-year-old boy named Levi, and Jim Fingal has been hired to fact check it.

D'Agata's written an . . . essay I'll guess we'll call it? A
Jan 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Wow. Let's just start with that one word.

Moving on, this slim "book" is unlike anything you've ever read. It's a sort of companion piece to the astoundingly good About a Mountain (also by D'Agata). About a Mountain was originally an essay that was later fleshed out into a book. The Lifespan of a Fact is the story of that original essay but really it's about fact-checking, but no, it's really really about truth vs. accuracy, but seriously it's really really really about Art and Literature and th
John Vanderslice
Feb 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the oddest engaging books I've ever read. If you try to explain to someone what it's about it's hard to get across how interesting it is. And informative. The reader learns a LOT about the life and diligence of a magazine fact checker, the extent to which a checker must needs go in order to check literally every single fact in an essay. And Jim Fingal--who, truth be told, wrote most of the words that appear in this book--comes across as an incredibly diligent fact checker. However ...more
Michael Kokias
Feb 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: recontextualize
A funny and fascinating look at the relationship between accuracy and truth, and what that means when it comes to the genre of Nonfiction. It took a while to get used to the style, and the way to read this is something I had to experiment with. But it was well worth the effort.
Sayantani Dasgupta
Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
From the format to the subject to every sentence, D'Agata has written a masterpiece. I'm in awe of this work and I know I'm going to teach it soon.
Kurt Ostrow
Apr 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Two self-identified "terminally overeducated dudes" hash out the nature of truth and fiction, as mediated through one very sad essay about suicide in Las Vegas. I found the jaunty macho repartee to be grating for most of LIFESPAN. But after a 100 pages of John and Jim's quibbling and sparring over so much minutia, I really felt the payoff of the earnest extended back-and-forth between them. And the fact that John's essay turns on itself in section 8 of 9 really walloped me (I said out loud, "Fuc ...more
Dec 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: those interested in "creative nonfiction" or the problem of facticity
Recommended to Richard by: knowing John D'Agata's work on Yucca Mountain and the essay in question
I read this book quickly on a train to New York the day I saw the play developed from it.

I sympathized with the fact-checker in the book (just yesterday I was skimming old senior theses with my pages of commentary); in the play he comes across as densely earnest, hence a comic if exasperating foil for both author and editor. How important is clinging to the accurate fact? For the journalist, everything; for the artist, not much. That is why damning books and films that are not nonfiction works r
Aug 13, 2020 added it
read for book club—so good! and so many things to think about from John and Jim. My friend and I are actually John and Jim respectively, so it was fun to argue with her about who is in the right or wrong.
Charles  Beauregard
Feb 08, 2018 rated it it was ok
It is good as a (thought) experiment but it has a very narrow audience (those involved in publishing) which I happen to not be in.
Oct 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
so interesting and i still dont fully understand it
Kevin Kindred
Apr 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was an unusual, fascinating, and highly engaging read. It's heady, nerdy stuff, so judge accordingly. Makes me want to see the play.
Mar 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, a2bc
I’ve been holding off on writing about The Lifespan of a Fact until my new book club could discuss it – and also because I still have a lot of questions about the specific nature of the book.

Let me back up.

A couple of months ago, there were several interesting publishing stories in the news. Since I was ostensibly working for/with a publisher and since publishing was my dream job back in the day, these stories piqued my interest. First: the questions of intellectual property related to 50 Shades
Mar 15, 2012 rated it it was ok
In recent years, there have been a number of scandals involving news agencies and their staff fudging or adjusting reports or manipulating photographs in order to present a story more dramatically or in a way that will increase the attention-grabbing factor. And in the age of the Internet, almost anything can, and will, be checked against the sources (whether those are reliable sources or not). In this short book, John D’Agata, author of an essay and Jim Fingal, a doggedly determined fact-checke ...more
Mark Schlatter
Aug 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
I ended up not liking this book at the start and liking it much better at the end. The basic format is an essay by D'Agata (found in the center of each page) with fact checking on the essay by Fingal around the periphery (with responses by D'Agata). What drives the book is that D'Agata has written what many people would call nonfiction --- a rambling piece centered around the suicide of a Las Vegas teen. Except D'Agata sees himself as an essayist, not a nonfiction writer, and he sees no need to ...more
Emily Crowe
Nov 04, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book is endlessly fascinating! Let me try to explain how and why this book got published. Almost 10 years ago, John D’Agata wrote an essay called “About a Mountain” that was rejected for publication from various periodicals due to factual inaccuracies. Enter Believer magazine, who was willing to run the piece with a certain number of inaccuracies, as long as they knew exactly what they were and wouldn’t be surprised by anything post-publication. Believer puts their staff fact checker named ...more
Mar 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"John: Jim, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe those aren't the only two options available? That maybe there is a third (or even a fourth or fifth or sixth) alternative? That our understanding of the world can't be categorized into either "fictional" or "historical" slots--with nothing in between? We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance."

John D'Agata argues, more lucidly than anyone else I've encountered,
Sharman Egan
Mar 15, 2012 rated it did not like it
Be aware before you buy this book that it, like the essay that forms the basis for it, is more fiction than fact (according to an article on and interviews with the authors). If you believe the Poynter article, that's not disclosed anywhere in the book or the promotional materials.

To W.W. Norton & Company: I want my money back: $17.95 + 10% tax + $3.95 shipping. Total = $25.89

P.S. Of course, I didn't actually pay the full $17.95 price, nor did I pay sales tax or shipping. And the fi
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
This one bounced from one nightstand to the other as a great, and humorous, reminder that facts are not as easily defined as one may think. As a former copy editor, and current editor and writer, I have to assume that some of the liberties taken with the "facts" were invented for the purposes of the story -- to help make a point. Because, if not, then I would be appalled that anyone would twist a "fact" to this extent.

Nov 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
I was genuinely surprised by this book, I thought when I first opened it up that I was going to hate it because it appears super weird on paper. I decided to read the book by reading the essay in its entirety and then I went back and re-read it with all of the fact-checking. I think I liked the book so much because I did this approach. I'd never had much experience with fact-checking prior to this novel, I knew that it existed but I never understood how truly vital the job is. This was fascinati ...more
Elizabeth Schlatter
May 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Short and interesting book that examines how an essay (nonfiction, in theory) gets written and edited. The book is formatted with the article in the center of each page, surrounded by columns of the author & editor's conversations (I'm presuming emails). The exchanges are fascinating and I kind of can't believe they "aired their dirty laundry" so to speak. It's such a smart idea for a book, and eye-opening. I'll never read an article of this type in the same way again. ...more
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John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame: Essays, About a Mountain, and The Lifespan of a Fact, as well as the editor of the 3-volume series A New History of the Essay,, which includes the anthologies The Next American Essay, The Making of the American Essay, and The Lost Origins of the Essay. His work has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Litera ...more

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