THE PENGUIN BOOK OF LIES Edited by Philip Kerr Viking. 543 pp. $24.95
"OF MAKING many books there is no end," we read in Ecclesiastes; "and much study is a weariness of the flesh." So it is, but the reading of some books is more of a weariness than others. The Penguin Book of Lies is no weariness at all, despite the fact that Philip Kerr has had so much to choose from for his copious anthology: From the beginning of recorded history there has been no shortage of lies, stings, scams and noteworthy deceits.
Kerr begins with the Old Testament: the passage in Genesis in which Rebekah connives with her son Jacob (a smooth man) to fetch his elderly and dim-visioned father Isaac the savory meat Isaac has requested of Esau, the first born. Rebekah instructs Jacob to put kid skins upon his hands and the smooth of his neck. So it was done, and Isaac was deceived by this hairy lie and blessed Jacob. From Judges Kerr chooses the passage in which Samson lies to Delilah about the secret of his strength -- before telling her the truth -- after which his locks are shaved and he finds himself eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves. Oscar Wilde called Herodotus "the Father of Lies." Many of the ancients, among them Thucydides, thought Herodotus a liar, and Kerr includes Herodotus's tall tale of the enormous gold-digging ant, larger than a fox.
Who is Philip Kerr? In a biographical note he is credited with two thrillers, March Violets and The Pale Criminal. In his short introduction Kerr allows to having studied law and worked in advertising and the newspaper business, professions in which, as Kerr states, lies are not unknown. What a procession of worthies and unworthies is contrapuntally assembled for the 2,500 or so years covered by this anthology. Liars and those who have meditated on mendacity: Plutarch, Cicero, Quintilian (how the orator should employ a lie), St. Augustine, Martin Luther (on Judas the liar), Washington Irving, Izaak Walton, Machiavelli, Carlyle, Cardinal Newman, Zola (J Accuse), Mark Twain (George Washington and the cherry tree), P. T. Barnum, Dr. Freud (lies told by children), young Nixon, Alger Hiss, older Nixon (Watergate), Ernest Hemingway (and mythomania), Lawrence of Arabia, and "The Third Man" (Kim Philby).
If the introduction is rather lightweight, Kerr has also contributed numerous prefatory paragraphs to individual selections, which number well over a hundred. (Alas, there is no index.) Francis Bacon's Essay, "Of Truth," is given in full. "But it is not only the difficulty and labour which men take in finding out the truth," Bacon writes, "nor again that when it is found it imposeth upon men's thoughts, that doth bring lies in favour; but a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself."
Arthur Koestler comments on Agitprop -- the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Comintern. Antisemitic lies proliferate in modern times. Thus we encounter the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion allegedly read by a leader of Zion to a secret gathering of elders; it first appeared early in the century and would become grist for the Nazi mills. Canards about Jewish ritual murder are represented by an article from the ritual murder special of 1934 of Der Sturmer, owned privately and edited by Julius Streicher, who would be hanged at Nuremberg for war crimes. Adolf Hitler inevitably finds a place in the volume for Mein Kampf (on war propaganda and the causes of the collapse of the German Reich after World War I).
"At this time I have also sought gradually to establish good and lasting relations with other nations. We have given guarantees for the States in the West, and to all those States bordering on our frontiers we have given our assurances of the inviolability of their territory so far as Germany is concerned. These are no mere words. This is our sacred determination. We have no interest in breaking the peace." Thus spake the Fuehrer in Berlin in September 1938, a few days before the erstwhile Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived in Munich from London carrying the umbrella which aroused concealed mirth among his Nazi hosts. Chamberlain returned to England proclaiming "peace in our time." The next year the world would be engulfed in war.
Imaginative literature, sometimes dealing with the very themes addressed in The Penguin Book of Lies, is editorially excluded. "There is enough lying in real life," Kerr writes, "without having to take account of the fictitious lie as well." We hear about Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, from James Gairdner's 19th-century Life of Richard III; but John Ford's impressive post-Shakespearean tragedy Perkin Warbeck is not mentioned. So too Helvetius (Johann Schweitzer, the alchemist author of The Golden Calf) addressed the transmutation of base metal into gold, but we find no mention of Ben Jonson's complex and hilarious comedy, The Alchemist. Plays and novels of course do not lend themselves so well to excerpting. Never mind: In The Penguin Book of Lies the curious will find God's plenty -- or is it the Devil's? -- of fascinating items to keep a drowsy reader awake through a long winter's evening. And that's the honest truth.
S. Schoenbaum is the director of the Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies at the University of Maryland. His most recent book is "Shakespeare: His Life, His Language, His Theater."