I am not aware of any other general history of conspiracy theories (although they certainly could exist), so that alone – for me – makes this worth checking out. Aaronovitch is a careful researcher, but his writing style is sometimes a bit dry. The chapters can be read individually for those intrigued by specific conspiracies (JFK assassination, death of Princess Diana, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, etc), but the book as a while will be an interesting trip for many.
After reading several of the negative reviews, I thought a more pointed one was needed in response to clear a few things up for those who have not read the book.
First off, the book is very well written and in a fast-paced, easy to read styles. It's not boring (regardless of agreeing with the author or not), nor is it overly long.
That being said, it brings me to my main point: this is not a scholarly, historically exhaustive work of research; it is an investigative look into how conspiracies begin and the people who latch on to them. Does that mean that it's not researched? No, there is a fairly extensive bibliography, and he has clearly documented his sources. However, it is not done in the way a historical textbook would do so -- but there again, it's not written from that point of view.
The key to remember here -- and this is for those negative reviewers who so adamantly want to hold on to their theories -- is the theme of how these theories get started, and why they become popular. This is of special interest to me because it is clear that there has to be a motivation for believing in most conspiracy theories; one has to *want* them to be true at some level for them to get off the ground, otherwise they wouldn't due to the incredible lack of factual support.
But here we come to the famous rebuttal offered up (which I have seen in the reviews here): "We are just asking questions. That's why it's a 'theory' and it's not perfect. But you have to admit that ____ and ____ don't add up!" This statement -- or a similar form -- is offered up every time a conspiracy theorist is confronted with hard facts. And this book addresses that exact issue, rather than going down the road of saying "here's this reference, and this one, and this one, and this one..." The fact is, any story in history, if viewed long enough and from enough angles (if I stand on my head and close one eye) can be a questionable occurence that looks "suspicious." I think if one investigated hard enough, they could probably find evidence suggesting that the NFL is fixed, politicians are really aliens, the military is spying on cats, that Jews are actually Chinese and that your own Mom is not who she says she is.
For those of us who have actually held a security clearance and worked in government, however, this book is quite refreshing and right on the money -- as much as we would like everyone to believe that we can pull off some grand conspiracy and keep huge secrets, we're just not that capable. Really, I wish it were different.
And to answer the question of why I gave it four stars instead of five, well...it's not that it wasn't good, I just save the five-star rating for something that really sets my hair on fire. If I throw those things out with every book I like, it hurts the credibility of the rating system. That's how I roll.
Mixed feelings about this review of recent conspiracy theories in modern history. Some chapters impressed me and some less so. The chapters on recent British conspiracies particularly left me uninterested. Initially I had little positive to junk but the book did grow on me.
It's probably our own fault if those of us who like to judge a book by its cover find this one a bit less juicy than we might have hoped. In this case, though the topics covered are often juicy enough, Aaronovich's evident presumption that conspiracy theories are always BS takes a lot of the narrative sauce off the ball. It may be the reason why his research seems a bit sloppy at times (he mentions Samuel FB Morse as having written a virulent anti-Masonic book in 1835; actually it was a virulent anti-Catholic book, not the same thing at all,) not to mention superficial. He seems, for instance, to swallow the Warren Report hook line and sinker, and to dismiss the notion of a JFK assassination conspiracy in terms that make you wonder if he ever really studied the subject. An approach this atheistic is bound to throw out many a baby with the bath.
My own approach learned to be a bit more agnostic a long time ago. The reality seems to be that on the one hand, from time to time, conspiracies (eg the JFK assassination) really do happen. On the other hand, sh** happens too, all the time (eg 9/11, Iraqi WMDs, death of Princess Diana,) and may often look like conspiracies to those with sufficiently vivid imaginations who need to get out more. And all too often (eg the BK/MLK assassinations,) you just plain can't be sure one way or the other, for a long time to come, if ever. In the end I suspect it's generally less a matter of hard evidence than of shrewd individual intuitive faculties and worldly experience, and the proneness of all of us to see or not see what we want to see or not see and disregard the rest.
Aaronovich starts with a couple of old chestnuts that one might wish had been put to rest a long time ago, ie the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Holocaust, and which might make you think you're in for some heavy sledding before he ever gets into the good stuff. Before he's done, however, this tends to work out better than expected. His Protocols discussion, in particular, strikes me as the best analysis I've ever read on this particular subject and, taken together with the Holocaust discussion, really does lay some solid groundwork for all the matter to come. He touches base on pretty much everything you might expect; FDR Pearl Harbor foreknowledge, McCarthy era paranoia, lone assassins or otherwise, the Marilyn Monroe murder, Diana car crash, DA VINCI CODE/HOLY BLOOD HOLY GRAIL, etc. etc, all the way up to 9/11 and beyond to the Tea Baggers, etc. Along the way, the many milestones he misses or dismisses, sometimes rather selectively, may cause misgivings for buffs on these subjects, until we remind ourselves that the book is only some 350-odd pages long after all (with 30-odd additional pp of pretty good notes/biblio/index, it should be noted.)
In the main, there seem two defects, from my point of view. One is that Aaronvich being British, the perspective of the book is quite British, with a considerable section devoted, for instance, to the suspicious death of Hilda Murrell, an interesting case bearing some analogies with the death of American Karen Silkwood, but unfamiliar territory for most Americans. The other is its skeptical underpinnings. A need to get out more would seem to apply as much to Denyers as to Believers, in this as in every other field of inquiry. In the end, I wasn't quite sure just what Aaronovich's takeaway message to me was about the whole conspiracy business, yet was not left with any sense that the author had completely wasted my time. It's an interesting read withal; I was disappointed, but only mildly so.
Conspiracies are not only garbage, but as Aaronovitch makes so clear, dangerous. A reflection of our own fears of our impotence, conspiracies take on their own lives poisoning history by defecating on the present, to the ruin of the future. Everyone should read Aaronovitch's book, a cold shower for the overheated.