Last week, after defending the "essential truth" (as opposed to the literal, corresponding-with-reality truth) of James Frey's pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces in a call to the Larry King Show, Oprah Winfrey looked around, noticed there are still quite a few people who think lying is not a good practice for a writer of nonfiction, and reversed herself, excoriating Frey in the only episode of her show I can honestly say I'm sorry I missed. According to The New York Times, Frey's humiliating expulsion from Oprah's book club has prompted some concerns among publishers about the honor system on which they rely to vouchsafe the accuracy of their books. But since routine fact checking is neither foolproof (witness Stephen Glass) nor economically feasible, it sounds like things will remain pretty much as they are. If this episode serves any useful purpose beyond its short-term entertainment value, it will be to alert (or remind) readers that appearing between hard covers on a library shelf does not make information any more reliable than appearing in the pages of a newspaper or a magazine. In fact, depending on the periodical, the quality of its writers, and the thoroughness of its fact checking, it may deserve considerably more trust than the average nonfiction bestseller.
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