When a Book Bites You

Do you know who you’re listening to? Every word you read, show you watch, and speech you hear has been composed by someone. A person made up those words to say something, and it’s not always for the purposes you think. Politics is the easy one to point out, but I recently ran into this in a book.
Imagine: How Creativity Works made it onto my list for July among mental health books and it hung around awhile as my writing craft book when I wasn’t quite finished with it.

I’d slowed down to make passages, ordering my own copy so I could physically highlight all the gems I was finding without damaging the library copy. I’d planned blog posts about this book. I’d even considered redecorating my work space to use what I’d been reading.

When preparing a post, I went looking for a link about the author. I found this: Jonah Lehrer Resigns From New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes For His Book | New York Times 
And this: How to Make a Book Disappear | The Atlantic
Oh, and this: “The Lies Are Over” A Journalist Unravels | NPR

The publisher had pulled the title. They’d yanked this book for incorrect information, misquotations, plagiarism. They put fact-checkers on it (too late) and declared it too far gone in the public eye (and as a text) to be saved.

I wonder now if I should have suspected something. It sounded so good! Still, once I realized this author was called out for this misbehavior, and after I got over my shock, I went back and saw a stunning lack of references to the items I’d tagged for reference. Things made more sense as I looked back in it. Anecdotal evidence, quotes that fit just too well, even some severe generalizations I was only too happy to skim over for the sake of an easy and attractive conclusion.

I’m not big on authors. I should be, but I tend to think the work should speak for itself. This, on the other hand, is a perfect demonstration on why a bit of research can save time and effort. Nonfiction in particular benefits from a background check – author and title.

Now I have a copy of this book. It was a few cents plus shipping, so I’m not out that much. I considered tossing it, maybe making an ironic craft project out of it, but I think I’ll keep it awhile. It could be a great exercise on vetting.

For the most part, he got the worst press for making up Bob Dylan quotes and lying about it, and for poor support to his points, but it was a media storm. From what I’ve read, it was a PR nightmare, a public shaming of huge proportions. So how much of the material is true? How much is from research, and how much was just smoke and mirrors? Heaven knows when I’ll have time to comb through it, and I wonder how long I’ll even care before letting the book go. All I know is I don’t want to be surprised like this again, though I’m not the only one to think there’s something more to this:

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


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