Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Defense of Jonah Lehrer


I just found out that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will refund me the money I spent on Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Thanks anyway, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I like the book and I’m keeping it.
Mr Lehrer invented some quotations from Bob Dylan, and though -- as David Kinney pointed out in the New York Times today – such fabulist inventions and distortions were a basic component of Dylan’s own memoir, Chronicle – Mr. Lehrer is suffering a ritual media flaying that Dylan himself would never have experienced. Lehrer is a pariah today. His career is over. An academic of my acquaintance called Lehrer’s crazy behavior “professional suicide.”  There’s no doubt that he did a bad, foolish and unprofessional thing. Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter, weighed in with a think piece about what drives a successful young writer to such extreme errors of judgment. The article had the same tone I heard in all the other writing on the subject of Lehrer’s downfall:  the rueful perspective of an early obituary.
Somewhere around the fifth or six smug elegy, the shadenfreude started to annoy me. The shrill note of vindicated jealousy sounded a little too loud and dissonant. What no one mentions is that Lehrer’s book was fascinating and engrossing, keenly well-written, bristling with insight and anecdote. It reminded me of a Malcolm Gladwell  book, and I can imagine Gladwell  breathing a small quiet private sigh of relief this evening, something like what Honda executives must have felt when the Toyota scandals broke two years ago: one less competitor to worry about. In a sane world the author and publisher would apologize and future editions of the book would excise the errant quotes.
The book’s section on Bob Dylan is a tiny fraction of the whole. Mr. Lehrer also talks about the way creativity has been nourished by environments and social structures as diverse as ancient Atehns and the Pixar writers’ room. He discusses the fallacy of brain-storming and the invention of the Barbie Doll, the corporate culture of the 3M company, the chemical changes in the brain that occur during a jazz improvisation and the benefits of daydreaming. He illuminates everything from dopamine reward pathways to the excess genius phenomenon to the bizarre way the Swiffer mop was invented and the reasons why the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts has  produced so many major talents. He talks about creativity in business and finance and advertising, medicine and local government, not just the arts, and certainly not just Bob Dylan.
Finally he writes:
The mystery is this: although the imagination is inspired by the everyday world – by its flaws and beauties – we are able to see beyond our sources, to imagine things that exist only in  the mind. We notice an incomp;lateness and we can complete it; the cracks in things become a source of light. And so, the mop gets turtned into ther Swiffer and tin pan alley gives rise to Bob Dylan, and a hackneyed tragedy becomes Hamlet. Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.
So I have to wonder, do we throw out more than two hundred and fifty pages on insight and information, anecdote and analysis, because of a couple of invented quotations? It seems Draconian, Puritanical and cruel. Cruel not just to the author but to his millions of readers, most of whom, I suspect are saddened that there will be no next Jonah Lehrer book to savor, and who will probably do as I plan to do – let the publishers keep their money and read the book we have again.


isaac butler said...

Just one quick bit of fact-checking:

Actually, Gladwell was a big supporter of Leher's, at least at first. When the "self-plagiarism" scandal his (The first of the two scandals to undo Leher's career), Gladwell vocally defended him.

And here's Gladwell's statement on Lehrer's resignation:

Axel said...

Thanks -- I'll check it out ...

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