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Publisher's Summary

A razor-sharp thinker offers a new understanding of our post-truth world and explains the American instinct to believe in make-believe, from the Pilgrims to P. T. Barnum to Disneyland to zealots of every stripe...to Donald Trump.

In this sweeping, eloquent history of America, Kurt Andersen demonstrates that what's happening in our country today - this strange, post-factual, "fake news" moment we're all living through - is not something entirely new, but rather the ultimate expression of our national character and path. America was founded by wishful dreamers, magical thinkers, and true believers, by impresarios and their audiences, by hucksters and their suckers. Believe-whatever-you-want fantasy is deeply embedded in our DNA.

Over the course of five centuries - from the Salem witch trials to Scientology to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, from P. T. Barnum to Hollywood and the anything-goes, wild-and-crazy 60s, from conspiracy theories to our fetish for guns and obsession with extraterrestrials - our peculiar love of the fantastic has made America exceptional in a way that we've never fully acknowledged. With the gleeful erudition and tell-it-like-it-is ferocity of a Christopher Hitchens, Andersen explores whether the great American experiment in liberty has gone off the rails.

From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams and epic fantasies - every citizen was free to believe absolutely anything, or to pretend to be absolutely anybody. Little by little, and then more quickly in the last several decades, the American invent-your-own-reality legacy of the Enlightenment superseded its more sober, rational, and empirical parts. We gave ourselves over to all manner of crackpot ideas and make-believe lifestyles designed to console or thrill or terrify us. In Fantasyland, Andersen brilliantly connects the dots that define this condition, portrays its scale and scope, and offers a fresh, bracing explanation of how our American journey has deposited us here.

Fantasyland could not appear at a more perfect moment. If you want to understand the politics and culture of 21st-century America, if you want to know how the lines between reality and illusion have become dangerously blurred, you must listen to this book.

©2017 Kurt Andersen (P)2017 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"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." (Walter Isaacson)
"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)

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Don't you just hate it when that happens

Things that I have been thinking about FOR YEARS and some joker comes along and writes all out for you.

I have read John M. Barry's "Roger Williams and the creation of the American Soul" and various other histories and biographies covering the period including James W. Loewen's "The Modern Scholar:Rethinking Our Past..." always alittle bit dissatisfied with the conclusions, and I often talk about Plato's shadows on the wall when discussing one unimportant scoiatal phenomena or another but I never made the connection with Fantasyland

It was the little things: Calling the Book of Mormon fan fiction, rating whether a child should be baptised or not as an argument between fantasist, to Candidate Trump as an insult Comic, (I could go on) all through the book little things which changed my thinking on things I thought I already knew in a well reasoned, rational context. (I cannot even watch a TV commercial right now because of all the typical marketing out-of-Context references)

I always thought being arrogant in attempting to explain things rationally to a believer was just a personal fault which I am perfectly ok with, but it is good to know someone out there is at least trying to explain the mistakes of belief in an inclusive manner

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Bland Title For An Amazing Book!

How did wealthy urban liberals and their fear of vaccinations help elect Donald Trump?

Why are Republicans more likely than Democrats to believe in UFOs?

What law change in 1987 allowed the rise of Rush Limbaugh (who started broadcasting the very next year).

Why do some liberals follow right-wing pundits like Alex Jones?

How did the rise of conspiracy theories lead to the increase of more radical candidates on both sides?

In short…why are Americans so darn gullible?

Why don’t we bristle more when an American President uses words like “alternative facts” and “fake news?” 20 years ago that would have been grounds for impeachment. What happened??

And what does all of this have to do with the progression of Christianity from a hierarchical structure (think of the Catholic Church with clear leadership ranks from priest up to pope), into a free-for-all where any charismatic fast-talker can start a mega-church preaching obvious contradictions (e.g. Jesus wants you to be rich so send me your money).

Kurt Andersen, the co-founder of Spy Magazine, has written an amazingly thorough and important account of what happened to us as a people and where we are heading. Along the way, you will learn about the shockingly high proportion of Americans who believe insane stuff, and how fast these beliefs are growing, even though we now have more access to the truth than ever before.

This book should be taught in civics class, if only our children were still required to take a civics class. I would say that the removal of civics class is a conspiracy, but then I would be part of the problem. Kurt can explain it much better…just read the book.

43 of 48 people found this review helpful

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Great book, but...

This is a really great book, but the absolute BEST thing about it is the narration by Kurt Anderson, the author. This guy is amazing. He sounds honest, friendly and very likable. He makes it hard to stop listening. Some narrators are very good but they sound like what they are; professionals. Kurt sounds like a very knowledgeable friend or your favorite professor. I intend to buy every other book he narrates. This book has really helped me understand why Americans are so arrogant and why they don't even realize it.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Get to the point

This is a good book with really great ideas, but the author keeps repeating the same point over and over again for 13 hours. I keep finding myself asking, so what? There are 5 hours left and he is finally starting to get to the point.

I would recommend this book, but be prepared. There is a LONG part of this book that just discusses American willingness to accept unlikely hypotheses as truths and the fact that we are this way because all Americans before us were this way. Interesting, but tiring.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 12-02-17

Our problems go deeper than interest in fantasy

I am in the minority regarding this book. I found it tedious, shallow and worst of all familiar. The author is out of his depth in his overall story that he’s trying to tell when he connects all of his facts about the past. He has a lot of facts that he presents about how Americans have (almost) always been willing to suspend disbelief and fail to use sufficient reason proportional to the credulity of the belief under consideration.

Evolution is a fact. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a scientific fact. Intelligent design is not science. ‘Climate change is a Chinese Hoax’ is absurd, ‘Vaccines cause autism’ is crazy talk. ‘Repressed memories are real and Satanist exists in large numbers because of that’ is conspiratorial clap trap. Every one of those statements is easily shown true by a quick Wiki search and of course made up part of this book. I still get queasy every time I hear Oprah Winfrey or Geraldo Rivera’s name because of the insanity they foisted on the nation by creating out of fictional broadcloth a ‘Satanic Panic’ fear within people who were willing to believe without sufficient reason, or foundation, or empirical evidence and they were manipulated by bigger fools than themselves. (I’ve subscribed to the ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ for over 35 years and almost all the recent silliness presented in this book had already been covered in that magazine with way more depth).

This book tries to use a fair amount of history, philosophy, science, religion, and politics when the author is telling his story. I’ll grant any one can be an expert on politics just as easily as any baseball fan can be an expert on baseball and I won’t dispute him on politics (I’d even say that I feel as negatively about Donald Trump as much as he says he does and probably agree with him overall on the mess we are in today). If you don’t believe me that anyone can be expert on politics just watch a substance free hour of Sean Hannity, or listen to three hours of hate by Rush Limbaugh. They’ll tell you they are political experts about everything, and they will also tell you that you don’t have to follow any other news sources because they are all you need in order to be full of hate as they are.

The author really didn’t understand science or philosophy. That bothered me immensely. Science never proves anything. It can reject a null hypothesis and accept an alternative hypothesis at 95% confidence (or 99% or six sigma if you are using the LHC, e.g.), but science never proves. Science never knows itself, but it can always be self correcting and open to new ‘truths’. At the turn of the century, everybody thought Newton was bedrock solid to the point of certainty so much so that Ernst Mach said it was a tautology. Einstein, of course, changed that. The author mentions Galileo and the church and the heliocentric model. I could tell the author had not read ‘Dialogs Concerning Two Chief World Systems’. That book is a masterpiece, but Galileo got stuff wrong in it (the earth’s waves are not caused by its rotation, e.g.) and the unfolding of science is more subtle then the author appreciates.

The author kept building a post-modernist straw man to debunk any version of scientific relativism. All of the scientific truths we had at the beginning of the 20th century got replaced by the beginning of the 21st century (the universe is expanding, the sun is 4.5 billion years (in your face Lord Kelvin!), nuclear fusion powers the sun, and so on, and so on). There is a difference between understanding and explaining. Feynman said we don’t understand quantum physics, but we can explain it to the 10th decimal place. Einstein (and Newton) said they understood the universe up to the assumed first principals. (Of course, that’s not exactly true, because Newton says he will ‘feign no hypotheses’ except for God, and Einstein takes time out of the universe).

Also, the author stated that Nietzsche was a relativist. People who don’t read him say that. Nietzsche thought 'a picture of the world that organizes a larger order of it in accordance with its own principle of interpretation is more powerful and therefore real than the viewpoints it incorporates in itself'. This leads to Nietzsche's view point of 'perspectives'. It’s not a relativist statement by most measures.

My real complaint on this book overall is that I don’t think the hate we see today is because we can choose to live in Fantasyland (be it color TV, fantasy ball leagues, homeopathic medicine, churches, video games, movies, Disney Parks, all mentioned in this book) . I think Hannah Arendt in her book ‘Totalitarianism’ gets at the causes better and that book was written in 1950 and this author did praise it and mentioned he read it in 2016. There’s no more dangerous slope then having a president undermine reality based news services by calling them fake news, creating a class of ‘alternative facts’, and undermining a free society by inciting the mob (48%) to hate the same people he hates.

The author does an outstanding job at narration and thanks for reading the footnotes.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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Wordy and often difficult, but probably important.

I did not finish this book. I found it often difficult to listen to. Lots of $5 words, lots of names, and dates and places, with the most tenuous of narrative threads. The basic premise seems simple enough: America was founded by people willing to believe almost anything, and that has not changed much over years. We're still a nation comprised largely of crazy people. I agree whole-heartedly. But this book goes on and on belaboring this point, giving us five minutes about, say, Walt Disney, and then five minutes about L. Ron Hubbard, and then five minutes about Billy Graham. You sort of skim over everything without really getting into anything. In the end, it did not seem very compelling.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Enjoyable & vital information

This book is titled "How America Went Haywire:A 500 yr. History" & that's exactly what it delivers. It introduces us to pertinent historical and current figures who helped shape the unique way Americans view their world today, and why we're in our current situation. Since the 2016 election I've been desperately trying to figure out how we got here....this book has gone a long way to doing that. It gives us facts and makes us question our own views on America, God and the world. In my opinion-this book is vital reading towards the goal of turning away from "alternative facts" back to reality, as much as we can, as fast as we can.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Required reading in 2017.

Excellent narrative of American 'history of belief' and superb narration by Kurt Andersen. I only wonder where we go from here. Pivotal time in USA, as laid out in clear, concise reality based thinking

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Long, but well worth the time

Well written and documented analysis of today's internet culture- "alt facts", reality TV show craze etc. interesting perspective, dynamic performance.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Tom
  • Waverly hall, Gabon
  • 09-27-17

An Important Book

Insightful take on a central component of the American character at a critical inflection point in our history. Anderson continues to serve an important function as a much needed public intellectual at a time when their ranks are growing thin. Read this book.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful