The best books to understand conspiracy theories

Mark Fenster Author Of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture
By Mark Fenster

The Books I Picked & Why

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

By Richard Hofstadter

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Why this book?

The most influential book on conspiracy theories, by any measure, published in 1966. Its title shouts Hofstadter’s thesis: A longstanding strain in American politics is marginal, dangerous, and a manifestation of political paranoia. Although countless op-ed writers have reduced his thesis to equate conspiracy theory to a paranoid mind, Hofstadter offers in the book’s first half more than simple social psychological analysis of the far right of the 1950s and 1960s, which included Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and the John Birch Society.

One of the preeminent mid-twentieth century U.S. historians, Hofstadter wrote wonderfully, engaged in big ideas, and if his work ultimately needs updating and deserves critique, Paranoid Style set the terms for a debate that continues today about conspiracy theories’ role in our political order.


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Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories

By Michael Butter, Peter Knight

Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories

Why this book?

My book came out around the same time as several others on conspiracy theory from humanities scholars. I could spend all five of my book recommendations on their works—and I’m thinking especially here of books by Clare Birchall, Peter Knight, Timothy Melley, and more recently Michael Butter—but several of the authors are included in this recent collection that also features scholars from throughout Europe. The Routledge Handbook situates conspiracy theories within the political and cultural contexts from which they emerge throughout the world, and it includes in a single volume works from a broad range of disciplines that reveal the diversity and scope of the contemporary academic study of conspiracy theory.


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The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

By Jesse Walker

The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

Why this book?

Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style is more a work of historiography than history and attempted to explain the rise of a right-wing “paranoia” to a liberal intellectual audience in the early 1960s. By contrast, Jesse Walker’s book offers a more detailed, engaging, and sympathetic history of U.S. conspiracy theories and the individuals and groups who have made and circulated them. It’s funny and deadpan, with a keen eye for subcultural details and the singular American oddballs that have traveled from the margins to the mainstream. As Walker demonstrates, Qanon is not the first example of a bizarre, syncretic set of beliefs that has attracted a surprisingly large number of adherents.


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The Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid, the Golden Apple, Leviathan

By Robert Shea, Robert Anton Williams

The Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid, the Golden Apple, Leviathan

Why this book?

Williams’s trilogy of fantasy novels from the 1970s is both incredibly dated in its retrograde sexual politics and prescient in its depiction of a world gone mad with paranoia and bizarre conspiracies. The trilogy’s confusing plot, sense of humor, and shifting and challenging politics trigger the kinds of bewilderment and excitement that conspiracy theories engender. More fun and intellectually challenging than the rabbit holes that the Internet regularly invites us to climb into, Illuminatus! can force a reader to doubt received history and human perception. Erik Davis’s recent book High Weirdness offers context and biography for Wilson and his work, but the trilogy is best read cold and on a lark for a simulation of what it’s like to be swept into a conspiracy.


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Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties

By Tom O'Neill, Dan Piepenbring

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties

Why this book?

In 1999, Tom O’Neill was hired to provide a retrospective magazine story on Charles Manson and the Southern California murder rampage that made him and his followers famous. O’Neill never completed the story because what he found seemed to exceed the conventional wisdom that Manson was a lone Svengali who let loose the violent madness of 1960s youth culture. Instead, Chaos explains, O’Neill came to suspect a much deeper conspiracy in which Manson served merely as a pawn in the direction history has taken (or was pulled).

The book can ramble a bit and, as O’Neill concedes, he cannot offer proof of the perfidious plot that slips just outside his grasp. But Chaos reveals a smart, sympathetic, and insightful protagonist who becomes obsessed with conspiracy.


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