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Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History Hardcover – September 5, 2017
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“With this rousing book, [Kurt] Andersen proves to be the kind of clear-eyed critic an anxious country needs in the midst of a national crisis.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A frighteningly convincing and sometimes uproarious picture of a country in steep, perhaps terminal decline that would have the founding fathers weeping into their beards.”—The Guardian
“A spirited, often entertaining rant against things as they are.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A provocative new study of America’s cultural history . . . In this absorbing, must-read polemic, Andersen exhaustively chronicles a development eating away at the very foundation of Americanism.”—Newsday
“Andersen exhaustively explores with wit and extensive research.”—HuffPost
“A staggering amount of research that’s both compelling and totally unnerving.”—The Village Voice
“A stunning, sweeping explanation of how we got to Trump . . . the most important book that I have read this year.”—Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC
“This is a blockbuster of a book. Kurt Andersen is a dazzling writer and a perceptive student of the many layers of American life. Take a deep breath and dive in.”—Tom Brokaw
“This is an important book—the indispensable book—for understanding America in the age of Trump. It’s an eye-opening history filled with brilliant insights, a saga of how we were always susceptible to fantasy, from the Puritan fanatics to the talk-radio and Internet wackos who mix show business, hucksterism, and conspiracy theories. Even the parts you think you know already are put into an eye-opening context.”—Walter Isaacson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci
“Kurt Andersen is America’s voice of reason. What is he—Canadian? The people who should read this book won’t—because it’s a book—but reality-based citizens will still get a kick out of this winning romp through centuries of American delusion.”—Sarah Vowell
“Fantasyland presents the very best kind of idea—one that, in retrospect, seems obvious, but that took a seer like Kurt Andersen to piece together. The thinking and the writing are both dazzling; it is at once a history lesson and an oh-so-modern cri de coeur; it’s an absolute joy to read and will leave your brain dancing with excitement long after you’re done.”—Stephen Dubner
About the Author
Kurt Andersen is the bestselling author of the novels Heyday, Turn of the Century, and True Believers. He contributes to Vanity Fair and The New York Times, and is host and co-creator of Studio 360, the Peabody Award–winning public radio show and podcast. He also writes for television, film, and the stage. Andersen co-founded Spy magazine, served as editor in chief of New York, and was a cultural columnist and critic for Time and The New Yorker. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon. He lives in Brooklyn.
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Fantasyland is, as the subtitle says, a 500-year history of the United States, recounted through a particular prism, and I find the thesis convincing and compelling. Andersen's premise is that from colonial days on, America, unlike Europe, has been shaped by people who have been divorced from reality, whether through religious fanaticism (think the Puritans) or prospects of riches (think the Roanoke colony or Jamestown settlers). And that tenacious grip on fantasy over fact has largely guided our nation's history, with new examples emerging in every era. In the aggregate, this elevation of the impossible, the absurd and the unsubstantiated, has repeatedly destroyed lives and gotten us to the sorry place we are today, where the holder of the highest office in the land routinely lies and gets away with it.
Fantasyland won't sit well with people who are deeply religious, as some of the other reviews suggest. Andersen takes repeated and precise aim at mainstream religion, as well as fringe sects like Mormonism and Scientology, He traces how various extreme elements and beliefs have come to influence politics, culture and education, among others. And he doesn't cut New Agey sorts any slack, either. But for those of us who reside mainly in the reality-based community, who believe in science and empirical evidence and view religious documents like the Bible as metaphorical, not literal, it is an important and valuable analysis of how we have come to the current pass.
Andersen is a gifted writer, and the book is often entertaining, although also alarming, especially as the narrative creeps up on the current disaster-in-chief and those who continue to support him, against all evidence. It is also a bit scholarly, in that he documents his sources, and sometimes gives more detail than you might want on certain topics.
But if you care about America and wonder how we've reached the point where intelligent, educated people nonetheless willfully ignore evidence and the weight of science, then Fantasyland will likely shed some light.
Five stars because it's a well-written and important book.
Seemingly every wacky episode in American history is included in Mr. Andersen's book. You'll find the Salem witch hunts of old, and the modern witch hunts accusing day care workers of ritual Satanic child abuse. Explorers looking for gold, and modern investors falling for get-rich schemes are in here. Gun rights advocates who fantasize about everyday citizens blowing criminals and terrorists to kingdom-come get a chapter. The beliefs of religious systems are a constant underlying theme of the book, and politicians and their antics are fully examined under the author's microscope. "Squishies, cynics and believers," the author calls us.
For the most part, the author takes a neutral tone as he examines his fellow Americans (although his disdain for people of faith becomes tiresome). But toward the end of the book, he starts to insert himself into the narrative. Bringing up Jodi Dean, a political scientist and professor at Hobart and William Smith, he calls out her "enthusiasm for untruths and her contempt for reason." "Dean celebrates practically every attitude and approach that appalls me," he writes. From then on, I noticed more of a judgmental attitude on the part of Mr. Andersen. I'm fine with him getting all judgy; it's just something I noticed. And I fully agree with his observation -- by examining the adult population that is besotted by Disney World -- that American adults have become increasingly infantalized, with their penchant for Halloween dress-up and their preference for created worlds rather than the real thing. (My spouse and I once took family members to England, and as we walked the streets of Castle Combe, surrounded on all sides by ancient, thatched-roof cottages, half-timbered houses and pretty English gardens, they exclaimed, "It's just like Epcot!" Sigh.)
In structure, the book is like 46 condensed theses strung together into book form. That's not a bad thing. It makes it easy to read and to consider the thoughts of each brief chapter. And, fortunately, the author is a much breezier writer than your standard issue academic. His prose is direct and easy to read, and he quotes other writers, philosophers, theologians and politicians extensively, which brings a breadth to his narrative that I appreciated. So, my fellow Americans, dig in and enjoy your whirlwind tour through Fantasyland!