Jonah Lehrer and ‘Imagine’: A Cautionary Tale for Today’s Overachiever

Jonah Lehrer’s brief, glittering career as a literary star is over. This Icarus of the literary digital age should have known better

Jonah Lehrer, the new Icarus of the literary digital age, should have known better. A best-selling author with thrilling insights into the mind’s most mysterious moments has at the age of 31 fallen, overnight, from fame to infamy.

After admitting that he cobbled together Bob Dylan quotes, misused other ones and then lied about it, Lehrer’s brief, glittering career as a literary star is over. He has lost his new job at The New Yorker, embarrassed his “Imagine: How Creativity Works” publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and shredded his credibility, probably irretrievably.

Also read: Jonah Lehrer Compared to Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair by Journalism Professors

How could such a thing happen? It’s another cautionary tale for the age of the overachiever.

Lehrer the Rhodes Scholar, the neuroscientist, the journalist was doing too much, too fast, at too high an RPM.  

What's a young, literary stud to do? Which incredible perch should a young writer give up? His biweekly column in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition? His coveted spot as a reporter at The New Yorker? His book tour? That speaking gig at the Aspen Ideas festival?

Even the brilliant Lehrer couldn’t keep it up. He found himself lifting from one column to fill another. He cut and pasted passages from his book to pad his New Yorker work. High-placed critics found his work simplistic, repetitive, derivative. But finally his work was just unforgiveably sloppy.

Also read: Jonah Lehrer ‘Lost Himself Morally’: John Hockenberry and Sharon Waxman Debate (Video)

A sharp-eyed reporter at Tablet, Michael C. Moynihan, began to persistently ask questions until Lehrer admitted he could not locate the sources for the Dylan quotes that were the driving force of his argument in "Imagine."

“‘It’s a hard thing to describe,’” Lehrer claims Dylan said about writing his famous rock anthem, “Like a Rolling Stone.” “‘It’s just this sense that you got something to say.’”

It turns out Dylan never said that, or at least Lehrer can’t find a source. And he told Moynihan one lie after another, trying to cover his tracks.

I interviewed Lehrer in April — a fascinating hour-long discussion — that now makes me very sad.

“I’m a Bob Dylan fanatic,” Lehrer told me. “I obsessively listen to his music. If you read enough biographies, his Playboy interview from 1966, he talks candidly of how sick he was of himself, his music, his manager. He goes up to Woodstock."

Also read: 'Imagine' Author Jonah Lehrer Resigns From New Yorker, Admits Lying

“He’s incredibly eloquent about his process,” he told me. But, in fact, Dylan's most salient quotes have no provenance.

I sought Lehrer out after hearing about his book from three different sources (including my son’s 18-year-old friend Kevin, who came barrelling through the door with a burning need to talk about “Imagine”). I asked the writer if he had become the Zeitgeist.

“I believe overexposed is the technical word,” he said with charming humility. “God forbid I’m the Zeitgeist. It’s weird, I’m in a book-tour bubble, I look at the itinerary, show up at various radio stations and talk until the self-loathing is very thick.”

Also read: Where Does Creativity Come From? Jonah Lehrer Unlocks the Science

But not nearly as thick as it must be today. Though a scolding is what Lehrer deserves for his sloppy work, I cannot help but pity him.

There is precious little protection out there for young writers in the atomized digital age. Few places to learn the basic craft of fact-based reporting, checking sources, double-checking footnotes.

The cut and paste function is a dangerous temptation to the overstretched writer, and has wrecked more than one career.  Lehrer's is only the latest.

Meanwhile, here’s the dirty secret that all authors know: publishers do not protect their authors by checking their sources or their facts. That onus lies with the writer.

Publishers, who count every penny, have not changed this despite the debacles of James Frey’s factitious “A Million Little Pieces,” and Quentin Rowan’s plagiarism-filled “Assassin of Secrets,” the latter having been reported on extensively earlier this year in The New Yorker.

Then there was Herman Rosenblat's canceled 2009 Holocaust memoir, "Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived." Also fabricated.

It’s hard to start at the top, and I think it’s a mistake to do so. Lehrer did. And this may be death for a young writer.

Lehrer may be a brilliant talent, but we’re unlikely to discover many more of his insights, since he is now unlikely to find a publisher of note to take him on.

What a waste. Talent combined with ambition, mixed with the ravenous maw of internet-era publishing, the impossible margins of publishers who value profit over accuracy and the path to fame paved with all the right credentials. Just not enough experience.   

It’s a heady, toxic combination. It has claimed its latest victim, but certainly not its last.