Is there a single 'true' reality, or is it only what we make of it? As cognitive philosopher Andy Clark writes, "We are never simply seeing what's "really there," stripped bare of our own anticipations or insulated from our own past experiences. Instead, all human experience is part phantom — the product of deep-set predictions." As the world struggles to grasp what truth is, this month, we offer you books that explore how we perceive reality. Each of the titles explores situations where the line between reality and fiction is blurred, inviting different interpretations of the 'truth'. These books explore how we create narratives that shape who we are and how our perceptions of what's real ultimately shape reality.
The Premonitions Bureau – Sam Knight
What is real and what isn't? It's hard to say when you're reading Sam Knight's "The Premonitions' Bureau". Knight blends history, popular science and biography in this wonderful exploration of how we make sense of chaos and suffering. Focusing on one psychiatrist's experiment to set up a 'premonitions bureau' to predict future catastrophes, Knight weaves this story into a broader narrative building upon theories of perception, fear, time and death. "We confer meaning as a way to control our existence," he writes. "It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening."
This is not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality - Peter Pomerantsev
In "This is not Propaganda", Peter Pomerantsev dissects the ways in which propaganda and disinformation shape our perceptions of reality. Drawing on his experiences as a television producer in Russia and his deep understanding of media manipulation, Pomerantsev explores truth and falsehood in the digital age. However, his outlook is global: the book will take you on a world tour from the Philippines to Mexico, Europe, and China. The book is based on Pomerantsev's personal experiences and interviews with key players in the "information warfare" arena and is written in a very engaging, suspenseful and accessible way. "This is not Propaganda" is an indispensable guide on the nature of propaganda, disinformation, and the evolving nature of truth in the digital age.
Time Shelter - Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel)
"Time Shelter" by Georgi Gospodinov centres on a psychiatrist who sets up a clinic in Switzerland for people with Alzheimer's disease. The clinic has spaces that meticulously recreate past eras to help patients get a grasp on the past. But the concept is quickly taken up beyond the clinic's walls. Inspired by the rise of populism and its narratives often evoking 'past greatness', the novel explores how we reinvent the past and how our memories - true or imagined - shape our identity. This brilliant novel became the first one written by a Bulgarian author to win the International Booker Prize.
The Fraud - Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith's "The Fraud" will transport you to Victorian colonial England, explored through a patchwork of interwoven narratives. The novel is centred around a real-life trial – one of the longest and most absurd in English legal history - of a man claiming to be heir to a large fortune. However, it is much more than a courtroom drama. The novel introduces a variety of real-life characters and explores the societal ills of the time – nepotism, pretence, false friends – as well as the broader context of slavery and other forms of colonial exploitation. The novel breathes life into many forgotten but marvellous characters and many less formidable ones and invites us to question what truth is. While exploring complex topics and breathing of intelligence, the novel feels light: devoid of boring sentences it's full of crisp and funny dialogues.
The True Believer:Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements - Eric Hoffer
Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) was a son of Alsatian immigrants to the U.S. who lost his parents at a young age and spent most of his life working odd jobs before becoming a dock worker. He also became a self-taught author of 10 books and lecturer who successfully combined his intellectual work with his job at the docks. "The True Believer" (1951) was his first book and the one that made him famous. Based on years of reflection and observation, this book explores the forces driving the rise of mass movements, such as fascism, Nazism, and communism. It suggests that for 'true believers' willing to die for a cause, the causes themselves are, in fact, interchangeable. Joining a mass movement is simply a way to find a refuge "from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence." After over half a century, Hoffer's reflections have not lost their relevance.