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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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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