The best books to understand conspiracy theories

Who am I?

I’m a law professor who, among other things, writes about the culture and law of secrecy. I’ve written two books: Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, the second edition of which was published in 2008, and The Transparency Fix: Secrets, Leaks, and Uncontrollable Government Information (2017). I hold a J.D. from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. from the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I teach at the University of Florida.

I wrote...

Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

By Mark Fenster,

Book cover of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

What is my book about?

Most academic and intellectual commentary has asserted that conspiracy theories constitute a dysfunctional, extremist vein on the margins of a well-designed U.S. political bloodstream. That thesis cannot fully explain either conspiracy theories or “normal” politics, and it ultimately limits our understanding of the pervasive role that conspiracy theories play in U.S. culture and politics. The Trump era and its aftermath more clearly showed what was visible even before our troubling present: we are all, to a varying degree, conspiracy theorists.

As I argue in Conspiracy Theories, the fear of conspiracy isn’t new. From the Revolutionary period through the Cold War, major American political figures and the American public have been obsessed to varying degrees by hidden enemies from outside and within. High, middlebrow, and low culture have carried this obsession into films, novels, television shows, comic books, and games. My book helps us understand conspiracy theory’s longstanding place at America’s cultural and political core.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Mark Fenster Why did I love 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.

By Richard Hofstadter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Paranoid Style in American Politics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This timely reissue of Richard Hofstadter's classic work on the fringe groups that influence American electoral politics offers an invaluable perspective on contemporary domestic affairs.In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, acclaimed historian Richard Hofstadter examines the competing forces in American political discourse and how fringe groups can influence — and derail — the larger agendas of a political party. He investigates the politics of the irrational, shedding light on how the behavior of individuals can seem out of proportion with actual political issues, and how such behavior impacts larger groups. With such other classic essays as “Free Silver and…

Book cover of Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories

Mark Fenster Why did I love 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.

By Michael Butter (editor), Peter Knight (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Taking a global and interdisciplinary approach, the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories provides a comprehensive overview of conspiracy theories as an important social, cultural and political phenomenon in contemporary life.

This handbook provides the most complete analysis of the phenomenon to date. It analyses conspiracy theories from a variety of perspectives, using both qualitative and quantitative methods. It maps out the key debates, and includes chapters on the historical origins of conspiracy theories, as well as their political significance in a broad range of countries and regions. Other chapters consider the psychology and the sociology of conspiracy beliefs, in addition…

Book cover of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

Mark Fenster Why did I love 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.

By Jesse Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The United States of Paranoia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The United States of Paranoia is a history of America's demons. Conspiracy theories, Walker explains, aren't just a feature of the fringe: They've been a potent force across the political spectrum, in the center as well as the extremes, from the colonial era to the present. Walker argues that conspiracy stories need to be read not just as claims to be either believed or debunked but as folklore. When a tale takes hold, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat it, even if it says nothing true about the objects of…

Book cover of The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Mark Fenster Why did I love 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.

By Robert Shea, Robert Anton Williams,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Illuminatus! Trilogy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Filled with sex and violence--in and out of time and space--the three books of The Illuminatus are only partly works of the imagination. They tackle all the coverups of our time--from who really shot the Kennedys to why there's a pyramid on a one-dollar bill.

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

Mark Fenster Why did I love 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.

By Tom O'Neill, Dan Piepenbring,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Chaos as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As featured on The Joe Rogan Experience
A journalist's twenty-year obsession with the Manson murders leads to shocking new conspiracy theories about the FBI's involvement in this fascinating re-evaluation of one of the most infamous cases in American history.

Twenty years ago, reporting for a routine magazine piece about the infamous Manson murders, journalist Tom O'Neill didn't expect to find anything new. But the discovery of horrifying new evidence kick-started an obsession and his life's work. What had he unearthed and what did it mean: why was there surveillance by intelligence agents? Why did the police make these particular…

You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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