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On the whole, I do believe in giving people second chances. We all make mistakes, after all, and when that happens we all want a second chance. So I am a little disappointed in my reaction to the news today, reported in the New York Times, that Jonah Lehrer has another publishing deal.
I used to like Lehrer. I read his blog posts at Wired, and elsewhere. I bought his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. I even gave it a positive review for Birds – although I can’t find the link at the moment.
So then it was discovered that he’d been making up quotes . When Bob Dylan didn’t say exactly the right thing to support Lehrer’s theory of creativity, Lehrer just made something up. He thought he could express the essence of Bob Dylan’s thinking better than Bob Dylan could. Well, maybe he could have – Lehrer is a good and clear writer. But he shouldn’t have attributed those words to Dylan.
That misquote was spotted by journalist Michael Moynihan, and the internet went wild, and revealed that he had also plagiarised himself. That doesn’t sound too serious, and indeed many writers do use their own work in different places. It’s perfectly legitimate to do so – so long as you are open about it. I would even have been tempted to buy the book if he had outright said that it was a collection of his blog posts. I’ve bought many a book of essays or collections of journalism just because the writer is worth reading. So even though he wasn’t stealing other people’s words, he was cheating his readers.
His new book, to be published by Simon and Shuster, is a memoir/self help/pop science book about the situation. Apparently called A Book about Love, it is full of quotes from many writers, Austen, Shakespeare, Sartre. I expect those quotes are squeaky clean.
A snippet from the New York Times makes me wince..
“I feel the shiver of a voice mail message, I listen to the message. I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry. Why was I crying? I had been caught in a lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes. And now it was clear that, within 24 hours, my fall would begin. I would lose my job and my reputation. My private shame would become public. …. I open the front door and take off my dirty shirt and weep on the shoulder of my wife. My wife is caring but confused: How the hell could I be so reckless? I have no good answers.”
I suppose I am so disappointed because I liked his writing so much. He wrote so well, he had real talent, and he was successful.
Will I be tempted to read his new book when it comes out? I don’t know. At the moment I feel as if he is making hay out of his mistake. If he’d written a book around something entirely new and just added a preface with an apology, it might have been different. As it is, I read the coda (again quoting from the NYT) and it does not make me optimistic.
“This book is about what has lasted in my own life. I wanted to write it down so that I would not forget; so that, one day, I might tell my young daughter what I’ve learned. If I’ve learned anything from writing these words, it’s that love matters. It matters more than I ever thought possible.”
Love matters! That is what he has learned? Did he not know? As is probably clear, I really cannot bear lies. And this sounds more like a book sized excuse, rather than an apology.
Am I being too harsh? I’d love to know what you think.