I knew when she started looking through her inventory screen at Barnes & Noble that the cute little clerk would come up craps. I’d already done the online research. They’d already expunged the book from Amazon and a half dozen other websites. But I thought I’d try. Just for the heck of it.
The story begins about a week and a half ago. I was doing what we all aimlessly do to kill time on the internet — I was checking my Facebook “wall.” There among the cute kitten photos and band performance invitations and political chest thumping and whining about the heat was a post by a guy I know who works for NPR affiliate KCRW in Santa Monica that pointed to an item in an NPR blog called The Two-Way with the headline “Jonah Lehrer Resigns from ‘New Yorker,’ Admitting He Made Up Quotes in Book.”
I won’t dive deep into the specifics. The basic message: Lehrer admitted that quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan in his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, don’t exist. Or, to put it in Lehrer’s own words, released in a statement after he was discovered as a liar by Tablet Magazine reporter and huge Dylan fan Michael C. Moynihan, the quotes in question “either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes” — i.e., Lehrer made up quotes and passed them off as facts.
The comments posted under my NPR friend’s Facebook post were a mix of shock, sadness and self-righteous indignation. How could such a talented guy do such a thing? What happened to his journalistic ethics? Why?
My thread-killing totally selfish comment on the post: “I didn’t know about this book until you posted this, now I probably won’t be able to buy a copy.”
Lehrer’s first book, How We Decide, literally changed the way I think about thinking. It’s a collection of true stories and journalistic accounts of how we biologically come to conclusions and decide to do things. It takes the act of decision beyond conscious reasoning. In other words, it explains that you do what you do not because you merely decided to do it, but because a marvelous ballet of chemicals and electricity that intermix in your brain causes you to do it, from gambling to stock buy decisions to everyday life stuff.
How We Decide is not only a smart, eye-opening piece of journalism, it’s a good read. It’s fun and funny and topical and makes its points by touching on modern pop-culture topics. From time to time I had also seen Lehrer’s pieces on Wired.com and heard him as a guest on the amazingly entertaining NPR program Radio Lab.
And now I find out he’s written another book, one that I wouldn’t be able read. Because according to a number of published reports, in the aftermath of Lehrer’s admission, his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) was halting shipments of the new book and recalling copies from book stores. Amazon already had pulled the electronic version from its online stores. I know. I checked. It was gone.
The following weekend, I made my trip to Barnes & Noble. I figured there may still be a copy on their shelves. The clerk looked puzzled when she couldn’t find a copy of this New York Times bestseller on her inventory screen. “I loved it,” she told me as she tapped away. “I’ve read both the preview copy and the final published version.” How could they be out of stock? She hadn’t heard the Dylan story. Her face dropped.
A quick check of the other B&N location also came up empty. I was tempted to ask if I could borrow her copy, this total stranger.
I know what you’re thinking. Why would I possibly want to read a book by a guy who admitted that he made up the quotes on its pages? If he put words in Dylan’s mouth, what else did he make up? Hell, he could have made up half the book. And what about How We Decide? How much of that was a fabrication?
But you know what? I don’t give a shit. As awful and anti-journalistic and anti-ethical and downright stupid as this sounds, I still want to read Imagine. And I’m pissed that I can’t.
No one can fault HMH for yanking the book. They have a responsibility to do the right thing. They sold Imagine believing that Lehrer had told the truth when he wrote it. He admitted he lied. Like any other product, the book has been found defective by the manufacturer and must leave store shelves before it causes any damage.
Plus, there’s that whole potential law suit thing. Mr. Dylan might be a tad pissed that Mr. Lehrer made up his quotes. Even though he’s a public figure, he still has some protections to his image. Reporters can’t knowingly flat-out lie and misquote someone no matter how famous. Though something tells me Dylan merely chuckled when his people told him about the controversy and said, “Who’s Jonah Lehrer?”
Yeah, Lehrer lied. People got hurt. The truth got stamped upon. And you can’t trust what he says.
But it’s his ideas that I care about. Lehrer’s ideas. Whether based on truths or falsities, they’re still his ideas, and if they’re half as ingenious as the ideas in How We Decide, they’re valuable. They’re important. To me. They could change the way that I perceive the act of creativity. They could change the way that I look at life. Does the fact that he made up quotes change that?
I guess I’ll find out after my package arrives from my eBay seller.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.