Friday, February 22
I Lie For a Living
(The International Spy Museum)
National Geographic 2006
I spotted this on the non-fiction shelf in my local library teen room and thought "Yeah, that's a book a teen boy would pick up." Being a few decades removed I can still tap into my inner teen boy. I picked it up without a seconds worth of hesitation.
But what a disappointment.
It's a smartly designed book, very contemporary graphics, layout and typeface, very much in step with what attracts a younger reader. It's also in keeping with the style of the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. which is very interactive and modern as single-subject museums go.
After a brief intro about the long history of international spying we jump into chapters where spies are grouped by like: those who did it for the money, master spies, double agents, femmes fatales, and so on. Each of the spies get a full page photo or illustration and one-to-three pages about their lives as spies. And there are a lot of spies in this book. Easily half I've never heard of, most are single-page treatments (generally the non-Americans get short shrift) and they read like much longer entries that have been edited to within an inch of their lives. Many of the bios assume a large amount of understood history -- for example the bio of Allen Dulles, first civilian head of the CIA, assumes knowledge of The Bay of Pigs invasion and why it failed.
While the format of short bios on the subject of spying makes attractive reading for boys, and there's a lot of background stuffed into the pages, the book overall serves as little more than a jumping off point for further investigation in other books. Books, it should be noted, which aren't listed in the back of the book; the bibliography, such as it is, suggests books for further reading from which some of the information was drawn but it is woefully inadequate for a book that handles its information so loosely.
I've been to The International Spy Museum and they do a nifty thing where you pick up a dossier for a spy when you enter, follow their progress along the way through the exhibits, and in the end learn their ultimate fate. It ties the exhibits together, gives you a narrative to hold onto, makes you pay closer attention than you might if you were merely drifting through the space. It's too bad they couldn't bring some of that innovation to this book.