You may have gathered from my Powell’s list and blog posts that, when it comes to information, I’m a sponge. I will happily try to soak it up wherever, whenever, however I can. And to that end, for as long as I can remember, I’ve collected recommendations. I look at the “Works Cited” section of a book I enjoyed. I make a note of the titles mentioned in passing while reading a good magazine essay. When a friend suggests a certain author, I pounce. Because of this textual greediness, I’m perpetually behind in my intended reading list, but you can bet that if someone I respect wants me to read Book X, I have the best intentions of doing so.
Jonah Lehrer was a name I’d heard for some time before I actually read one of his books upon the recommendation of several friends and a gift from one. All I knew about the gent was that he was a Rhodes scholar, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t give me a slightly jealous edge. So I wasn’t sure I could trust my first impression of Imagine, which was not a good one. I chalked my negativity up to all the hype; I’d been expecting something fantastically written, illuminating, packed full of new information, and what I got instead seemed to be a serviceable account of various successes—entertaining, perhaps, but not incendiary. The sense I had while reading it was a curious one: it almost seemed like it was narrated by someone who had never been creative himself. This came through most strongly in the Dylan and Auden passages, and I was a little amused by it. (It put me back into my writing workshop days and reminded me of one of my favorite inside jokes from that bizarre world: “I just don’t think you’ve earned this.” ) But I digress. For whatever reasons, Imagine was a sticky read for me. I’m normally a chronic underliner but I didn’t feel compelled to pull out a pen. There was no momentum. I didn’t regret having to put it down.
The recent (sad) revelation that Lehrer has been sloppy with his work came as something of a perverse relief to me. Now I had proof that it wasn’t all about schadenfreude—I was responding to some serious problems with his writing. And it’s somehow fitting that all of this comes back around to plagiarism, a topic that is apparently Moby Dick to my Captain Ahab. (Or am I the gleaming white beacon of truth in text, and all plagiarizers form a single demented Ahab, trying to eliminate the last champion of intellectual honesty, haunted by their own inability to assemble worthy words? Hmm, maybe that’s a little too self-aggrandizing.) Here’s an overview, in case you haven’t followed this gripping saga on your own:
A journalist for Tablet pegged Lehrer for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes.
About a month prior, a different journalist (and eventually, more than one) started complaining that Lehrer regularly recycled his own work. The idea that he can “steal” from himself or “self-plagiarise,” as some have written, is very stupid—but it’s a nice illustration that some people are even more obsessed with and affronted by reused text than I am. And you didn’t think it was possible! If he’s “stolen” from anyone when reusing his own writing, it would be from the publication paying him for original content.
He also, it seems, cribbed liberally from Malcolm Gladwell, who either never noticed or simply didn’t mind, since Gladwell blurbed Imagine.
Ultimately, none of this is as damning (to me) as this blistering review of Imagine in The New Republic, written before all of the above came to light. Isaac Chotiner nails the book’s fundamental flaw, and it’s not 5 invented Dyland quotes:
Lehrer’s definition of creativity is essentially an entrepreneurial one: for him, anything that succeeds is creative. [...] First, any product that sells, from a mop to a drink, is a sign of creativity. It would follow from Lehrer’s approach that a study of movie box office numbers would prove that there must be something remarkably creative about Transformers.
Second, and more worryingly, artistic and commercial “creations” are evaluated in exactly the same terms. [...] If you are trying to explain the most ambitious and the most admirable exertions of human imagination and intelligence, some disaggregation, some discrimination, is necessary.
That’s one of the hazards of being a sponge, I guess: you take the bad with the good. Truth be told, I’m usually grateful to have read books I didn’t love as well as those I did. I learn something either way. So, please, please, keep the recommendations coming! I would hate to miss the next kerfuffle if a popular writer turns out to have the ethics of a lazy escort—albeit with the grace to apologize convincingly once he’s caught. And to think, kids these days don’t think books are exciting.