Why Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Imagine’ is worth reading, despite the problems

Imagine that you are reading a seriously flawed book. Its flaws have grown into a scandal, so you decide to read it to find out about all the hubbub. As you read, you come across this much-publicized problem, and then that one.

Rather than abandon it in its disgrace, you find yourself engaged and turning the pages, and suddenly your hand grabs for the highlighter to mark up this excellent paragraph about the origins of creativity, and then that one.

You like the book, really like it, but you can’t even recommend it because you don’t want to sound like a sucker, and, besides, the publisher, after sales of 200,000 in hardcover, recalls all the unsold copies. But you find two copies at a local bookstore, and you begin reading it, and liking it more and more. Imagine that.

Imagine that the book I’m describing is called “Imagine,” written by defrocked wunderkind Jonah Lehrer. Imagine that the reader is me.

Lehrer has gotten himself in trouble for at least four alleged – and in some cases proven – literary transgressions: fabrication, plagiarism of others, self-plagiarism (recycling older work), and playing fast and loose with the evidence. He also lied to hide the fact that he had manufactured a quote attributed to Bob Dylan.  Together, the accumulated evidence looks damning. But not all the sins, I am about to argue, are equally grievous. Let’s break them down.

1) To use an old-fashioned newspaper term, Lehrer “piped” a quote from Bob Dylan, a futile and senseless act since his embellishment was easily detected and added nothing to the overall effect.

2) Lehrer was in the habit of re-using earlier work, sometimes word for word, which Puritans have dubbed “self-plagiarism.” To me, this is the most ridiculous of supposed literary sins. Publishers have the right to expect original work. As a reader – I DO NOT CARE (yes, I am yelling). If it’s good stuff, let me have it.

3) The author has been criticized for simplifying the science – in his case neurology – beyond the recognition of scientists. Lehrer, it appears, is no Oliver Sacks, but he knows a lot more about the brain than I do, and I am not embarrassed – whether I’m learning a new musical instrument, a golf swing, or a little brain science – to be led along by baby steps.

4) A related accusation is that Lehrer suffers from an unfettered arrogance that tempts him – as it does us all – to shape reality in support of a kind of conceptual tidiness. If you build your work around the revelation of surprising theories, you need the ability to both show and tell, and there will be an urge – since this is literature and not pure science – to sit on top of the suitcase until it closes.

You would think that these issues, added together, would disqualify the book from my serious attention. Imagine my surprise when they did not.

I am almost embarrassed making the following declaration: the reading of the book “Imagine” helped me understand my world and my craft, and what else can you hope for from a non-fiction book.

In my seeming confusion, I am a victim here not of the author’s legerdemain, but of an esoteric but crucial bit of ancient Catholic theology. I learned it in college when we were studying the sacraments – those outward signs of God’s grace, such as Baptism and the Eucharist. How do these holy rituals work? The Latin phrase – this is from memory, I have been unable to confirm it – is ex opere operato. The translation is awkward: “from the work being worked.”

In plain English, if the minister pours water on the head of the infant and speaks the right words, that child is baptized. And here is the genius: That child is baptized without regard to the moral condition of the minister (thank goodness!). The minister may be a racist, a rapist, or a bank robber. It matters not if the “work” is done.

Flawed authors create books that “work” for the reader. I learned this lesson in a strange place: a limo carrying a small group to a special broadcast of the Oprah Winfrey Show.

On that day Oprah would pillory James Frey for the exaggerations and fabrications in “A Million Little Pieces.” I was invited as a critic of Winfrey’s earlier support for the book. Another man – I never caught his name – was invited to be in the audience and declare that even with its exaggerations, the story, in its gritty depiction of addiction, “worked” for him.

I thought Frey’s book was a bad book, even before the revelations of fraud. I never found the degradation of the narrator compelling or revelatory.

But I think the book “Imagine” is worth something. I know it worked for me in several ways:

  • It confirmed for me that some of the methods I use as a writer and teacher – such as brainstorming or revision – have validity, based on scientific knowledge of how the brain works.
  • It helped me see more clearly the parts of creativity that are highly individualistic and those that are social, thus benefiting from collaboration.
  • It took a cross-disciplinary approach, drawing examples and anecdotes from many different fields, from writing to design to marketing to invention.
  • The author is good at clear explanation of technical subjects, a wonderful virtue for a writer. It takes special talent to turn hard facts into easy reading, creating a sentence such as, “It turns out that the brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, each of which is activated in a different context.” I remember no sentence in this book I had to read twice – except for pleasure.

It helps no one to deposit “Imagine” in some kind of literary memory hole. Correct its mistakes. Add an apology. Make it all transparent.  Make it available to another 200,000. Jonah Lehrer can do what he wants with the money. It makes no difference to me that an author is rewarded for bad behavior. I’m too busy learning.

Correction: Oliver Sacks’ name was originally misspelled in this story.

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  • Daniel Willingham

    You seemed to have missed much or all of the commentary by scientists before the fraud allegations. People knowledgeable about creativity would not have characterized Lehrer’s book as a creditable job of taking the reader along in baby steps. It was poor science reporting.

  • Anonymous

    I enjoyed ‘Imagine’ and his earlier book, ‘How We Decide’ — both before Lehrer’s fall. They are neuro-science-lite books, and the fake quote from Dylan, or for that matter, any other ‘fact’ in the book doesn’t really change my feeling on those books. What I remember taking from the books was observational in nature, rather then hard science.

    I would have a problem if the liberties were taken with hard science, or it was from the person doing my tax books. This is non-fiction — sitting next to Glen Beck books.

  • Clayton Burns

    –But I think the book “Imagine” is worth something. I know it worked for me in several ways:
    It confirmed for me that some of the methods I use as a writer and teacher – such as brainstorming or revision – have validity, based on scientific knowledge of how the brain works. (Roy Peter Clark)
    Brainstorming is indexed in “Imagine:” 158-161.
    “There’s just one problem with brainstorming: it doesn’t work” (158). Jonah Lehrer. “Imagine.”

  • Yael Grauer

    How much longer is Poynter going to try to get SEO juice off of Lehrer’s name?

  • Anonymous

    How funny. I enjoyed “Imagine,” too. I wrote a couple of quotes from the book in my journal: “When you don’t feel you’re getting closer, you need an insight. You need the right hemisphere. Forget about the work. However when those feelings of knowing happen, that’s when you need to persevere. Continue to pay attention until it hurts” (pg 82-83).
    And I liked the phrase, “Creativity is love and theft.” Lerner certainly got that one right!

  • Clayton Burns

    Shockingly bad. Unworthy of Poynter.

    The book that I read repeatedly to keep track of cognition is by Mark Ashcraft: “Cognition.”
    This is such an important area of science that J-schools should have courses in it for all students.

    This fall, the book that I have chosen in the subject areas of philosophy, psychology, and linguistics is “Philosophy of Mind and Cognition,” by David Braddon-Mitchell and Frank Jackson.

    The weakness of WSJ Review on cognition, despite its efforts, should tell journalists that there is a fly in the works. However, they do not even read the books.

    The weakness of experimental cognitive science is that we have been unable to develop experiments that crisscross the borderlands of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and literature so as to enhance memory, language, and perception.
    The poverty of the experiments should be obvious to anyone who concentrates.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, @google-4448594cc4c0ee95097209a2e27fd12c:disqus. Oliver Sacks’ name was originally misspelled in this story. We’ve added a correction.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • Clayton Burns

    –But I think the book “Imagine” is worth something. I know it worked for me in several ways:
    It confirmed for me that some of the methods I use as a writer and teacher – such as brainstorming or revision – have validity, based on scientific knowledge of how the brain works.

    Why Brainstorming Rarely Works (Plus Five Tips For Better Work Sessions)
    March 27, 2012, by TC writerunderground

    BNR: The discussion of brainstorming is particularly counterintuitive;
    you point to research that indicates how “criticism and debate” —
    despite the former term’s association with repressive negativity — is
    a more fruitful model for groups working together. If brainstorming is
    so unsuccessful a strategy for generating innovation, why has it held
    on for so long?
    JL: I think the allure of brainstorming is inseparable from the fact
    that it feels good. A group of people are put together in a room and
    told to free-associate, with no criticism allowed. (The imagination is
    meek and shy: If it’s worried about being criticized it will clam up.)
    Before long, the whiteboard is filled with ideas. Everybody has
    contributed; nobody has been criticized. Alas, the evidence suggests
    that the overwhelming majority of these free-associations are
    superficial and that most brainstorming sessions actually inhibit the
    productivity of the group. We become less than the sum of our parts.

  • Clayton Burns

    oliver sacks books
    Oliver Sachs?
    –Lehrer, it appears, is no Oliver Sachs, but he knows a lot more about the brain than I do…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Janesoutham: I understand your anger and identify with it. I certainly did not imagine my position as an apology or defense of Jonah Lehrer. My expectation is that I would hate the book, that its many failings would be transparent. But that was not the case. Should I not read T.S. Eliot because he was an anti-Semite? Should I not read Orwell because he may have made stuff up? Bad people can write good books. And good people can find the good even in bad books.

  • Joel Orr

    Roy, you have put my own feelings into words. Imagine if we were to allow others to filter our reading on the basis of the authors’ personal qualities or actions. Our presumptive right to freedom of consumption would be seriously abrogated!

    I respect janesoutham’s position, and applaud her for clearly stating her objections to yours. But I’m with you.

    And while I’m at it, thank you for your oh-so-many articulate, insightful, and good-natured contributions to my writing education!

  • Anonymous

    Um, sorry, no. I will not be reading any book by anyone who stonewalls an intrepid reporter who is just trying to get to the truth by trying to send him on wild goose chases to get him off his back. Lying to the reporter repeatedly and arrogantly that he had gotten the Dylan quotes from Dylan’s “reps” from their special archive is just unbelievable. He clearly doesn’t understand anything about truth in journalism. And he clearly has never heard of fact checking.

    Why anyone would make apologies or defend Lehrer at this point is incomprehensible.

    I would much prefer to see you write about Mr. Moynihan, the reporter who kept at Lehrer for the truth. Now THERE’s someone to be admired.