|“Watch Out for the Rocks!” Photo Credit: Jan Bowman 8/3/12
I imagine you’ve already heard about this, but on Tuesday (July 31, 2012) of this week the New York Times Business section, reported that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would recall Jonah Lehrer’s new best selling nonfiction book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, ranked number 14 on the hardcover book lists.
The book was released in March and had already chalked up over 200,000 copies in hardcover and e-book sales as of August 5, according to The Times story written by reporter Julie Bosman.
And – Yes – I had bought one and I do like his work. He has talent and will learn wisdom.
In what was to me a particularly ‘jaw-dropping’ aspect to the story, Houghton announced they would “pull all copies and ask book stores to stop selling it and return all copies for a full refund.” That’s a most unusual move. These sales figures are not ‘chump change’ for a publisher. Houghton stands to lose a bundle on this deal that turned sour. So readers and writers are a curious lot. They’re asking why?
The summary I gleaned from the Times article and online sources, indicate that Lehrer, a 31-year old wonder-kind recently hired to a plum staff position on The New Yorker, had “invented some quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.” That’s a particularly disturbing thing to do for ethical reasons, but also – last time I checked – Dylan was still alive. I imagine he would not like this.
Lehrer is also accused of cobbling together splices of material from a range of other writers’ interviews and books, using words taken out of context to bolster his points. Journalist and nonfiction writers beware! This is not a good idea.
Only a few weeks earlier, Lehrer found himself in the spotlight’s blinding glare when he was accused of taking work (admitted some of it his own) from The Wall Street Journal, Wired and other publications and posting it in his blog for The New Yorker as his own, new and original work, even though the rights were the property of other publications. This is not an act of integrity by a long shot. Although he had apologized, he has since resigned -under pressure- from his post at The New Yorker after the new allegations surfaced.
|Clouds of Allegations
I had just started reading this book, having downloaded a copy into my Kindle in late June and have read about half of it. I must say I am disappointed. I’ve been enjoying the book.
I admit that I’ve never been a fan of Bob Dylan. Never understood the fuss. Never found him particularly brilliant or profound, even though I’ve had friends who’ve argued with me about that. But from what I’d read at this point, I’d begun to view Bob Dylan as more talented than I’d thought. And I guess all that’s beside the point for this particular story. But now I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not. This book is nonfiction and I expect less imaginings and more truth from it. Ironically, Lehrer majored in neuroscience at Columbia and I find his writing engaging (but glib) in his down-to-earth discussions of how the imagination works in the creative process, and as he applies these ideas to the likes of Bob Dylan and others.
So what are we to make of all this? Well, there is an elephant hiding in this story.
Since this story broke —- I also have wondered if the next time I fire up my Kindle, I’ll find Lehrer’s book among the missing. So far, it’s still there and I plan to finish reading it over the weekend, unless Amazon decides to electronically unplug it from all wireless devices. I also wonder if I will be able to loan this e-book to a friend now. And isn’t it kind of creepy that they have the power to do that? So go check out the Times story and see what you think. And I wonder – do you readers have any particular thoughts about the uneasy ownership we have when we buy an electronic book?
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: