Sales of “Imagine” halted after author admits inventing quotations

In May, I reviewed Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works  I ended by saying, “This is a wonderful study for anyone interested in imagination, creativity, and the conditions which favor it.”

Today I was saddened to read that Lehrer admitted fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in Imagine and lying about them when questioned by another journalist.  He resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Houghton Mifflin halted sales of the book, which had sold 200,000 copies since March and spent 16 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

In a statement Monday, Lehrer said:  “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

The incident raised a number of questions.  It is striking in part because strict enforcement of ethical standards has become so rare in public life.  We don’t even blink when we read of fresh bank scandals, or athletes on steroids, or the California Parks department with a hidden stash of millions of dollars even as it was moving to shutter some of our finest parks.  We’re running a presidential campaign on attack adds, where truth is merely an option, rather than statements of principle from either candidate.  These days I look to PBS and the Comedy Channel for responsible TV journalism.

With standards so lax in so many areas of public life, how many aspiring writers can be certain they would resist the urge to tweak a sentence or two for a shot at the best seller list?  I am not, by any means, excusing Lehrer’s actions – I am saying I think I understand them.

I also understand failure.  It’s a fire that can consume a person or temper what they are made of.  I hope Mr. Lehrer can rise from his ashes with the kind of deeper and darker wisdom that comes from enduring the dark night of the soul.

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer: A Book Review

Update, July 31, 2012.

On July 30, author Jonah Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes in Imagine. He resigned his position as staff writer for The New Yorker, and Houghton Mifflin suspended sales of the book. You can read my full post on the topic here, which contains a link to the newspaper story.

It is with much sadness that I’ve decided to remove the text of my review. Some of Lehrer’s observations on creativity remain insightful. At the same time, I think it is vital to stand up for ethics wherever we can find it in public life.