Jonah Lehrer fails at bid for redemption

Surely you remember Jonah Lehrer, the New Yorker‘s Bright Young Science Guy, a Malcolm Gladwell-To-Be who was brought down in ignominy when discovered plagiarizing in his books, his New Yorker blog, and his posts for Wired magazine. The New Yorker fired him, and he expressed only a modicum of contrition while continuing to give speeches for big bucks. But Lehrer is ambitious, and it was only a matter of time before he essayed a comeback.

And that comeback—or attempted comeback—is his new book About Love, which is, indeed, a disquisition on love, and how it saved Lehrer from his humiliation. (It will be published tomorrow by Simon & Schuster, who undoubtedly tendered a large advance.) The book is reviewed by Jennifer Senior in last week’s New York Times, and the verdict isn’t good. In fact, it’s devastating. Senior not only calls the book “insolently unoriginal,” offering only platitudes about love, but intimates that those platitudes aren’t even original—in other words, Lehrer is flirting with the kind of plagiarism he’d engaged in before, only this time not as flagrantly.

Senior has an accurate take on the nature of Lehrer’s writing, though I think she’s off the mark when she says that “the vote to excommunicate Mr. Lehrer was as much about the product he was peddling as the professional transgressions he was committing.” What was the product? In Senior’s view, which I think is right on, it was this:

. . . a certain genre of canned, cocktail-party social science, one that traffics in bespoke platitudes for the middlebrow and rehearses the same studies without saying something new.

This is, of course, the same kind of stuff that Malcolm Gladwell has made a gazillion dollars purveying, so I don’t think the referendum on Lehrer was really about that product. Rather, it was a public excoriation for plagiarism—the one literary sin that is unforgivable. It’s a transgression hard to overcome, and, according to Senior, he hasn’t. First of all, he’s still dispensing bromides:

Apparently, [Lehrer’s] learned nothing. This book is a series of duckpin arguments, just waiting to be knocked down. Perhaps the flimsiest: that Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed teenagers have come to define our understanding of love.

Senior also argues that Lehrer’s insights were, well, to be generous, inspired by others:

As for the question that’s on everyone’s mind — did Mr. Lehrer play by the rules in this book? — I think the answer is complicated, but unpromising.

In an author’s note, Mr. Lehrer says that he sent his quotes to everyone he interviewed and that his book was independently fact-checked. And it’s true that this book contains far more citations than his previous work.

But I fear Mr. Lehrer has simply become more artful about his appropriations. At one point, for instance, he writes: “We don’t love our kids despite their demands; we love them because of them. Caregiving makes us care.”

I stopped dead when I read that sentence. Reread it. And read it again. It sounds to me like a clever adaptation of one of the most beautiful lines in “The Philosophical Baby” by Alison Gopnik: “It’s not so much that we care for children because we love them as that we love them because we care for them.”

I’m pretty certain Mr. Lehrer read Ms. Gopnik’s quote. Why? Because I cite it in my own book — which he cites, twice. (Though not for that.) He alsowrote about “The Philosophical Baby” for The Boston Globe.

In his chapter on memory, I noticed a similar rewrite of a phrase from Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live.” Though at least he credits Ms. Bakewell’s ideas.

These may seem like minor offenses. But what they betoken is a larger sort of intellectual dishonesty. If you squint, you’ll see that Mr. Lehrer often rehashes arguments made by others, both in structure and content, when writing parts of his book. Sometimes he credits these people; sometimes he doesn’t. But the point is, he’s relying on their associations and connections.

I’m guessing media reporters and other diligent reservists in the press corps will find a number of such examples.

I showed the review to one of my friends, who said this: “I couldn’t help but feel for [Lehrer] after this attack – this wasn’t a book review so much as an attempt to utterly destroy someone, and the plagiarism charge in particular is tenuous. The sort-of-plagiarism charge is a bit strong, but we’ll see if other reviewers can back it up (and believe me, they’ll be looking).

As for the rest of the review, I didn’t think it was unfair.  The long tradition of strongly negative reviews, of the type concocted by H. L. Mencken and, in science, by Peter Medawar, is waning, and if something’s really bad, there’s no point in pulling your punches. But perhaps readers will disagree.

By the way, the book’s Amazon page is plain weird, as it offers no endorsements or blurbs—just an excerpt. Maybe, given Lehrer’s history, nobody was willing to endorse it. And it’s not selling at all well. Granted, it will appear only tomorrow, but still—#64,275?

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  1. Merilee
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink


  2. Jon Butler
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    “…essayed a comeback…”!

    Nicely done.

  3. Posted July 11, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    This is, of course, the same kind of stuff that Malcolm Gladwell has made a gazillion dollars purveying, so I don’t think the referendum on Lehrer was really about that product. Rather, it was a public excoriation for plagiarism—the one literary sin that is unforgivable.

    • Sastra
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Nicely put!

    • Posted July 11, 2016 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

      Took me a minute. Now I get it. Well done.

  4. Sastra
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Poor Mr. Lehrer. Damn, it must be hard to come up with unique thoughts on the topic of “love” when you know people are going to be combing through everything with a fine tooth comb looking for something which sounds “familiar.”

    He would do much better I think to make a splashy public conversion to Christianity (Catholicism, if he wants to make a splashy public display of being an intellectual) and then write a book titled A Book About Forgiveness.

    He’d tap into a much more forgiving audience.

    • Posted July 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink


    • Posted July 11, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      However, the topic he chose is either an extremely difficult one, because every poet has shared their thoughts on it, and it’s hard if not impossible to come up with something truly new; or an extremely easy one, because not even poets come up with anything new that wasn’t written or sung a million times before. Depending on your take, he either set himself up for failure, or went with a topic where readers aren’t that demanding as long as it sounds pleasant and decorates the coffee table.

  5. merilee
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Very sad. I thought that his first book, Proust was a Neuroscientist, was excellent. How We Decide not nearly so much. One hopes a little more contritions will be forthcoming…

  6. josh
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    “It sounds to me like a clever adaptation of one of the most beautiful lines in ‘The Philosophical Baby’ by Alison Gopnik: ‘It’s not so much that we care for children because we love them as that we love them because we care for them.'”

    I’ve no desire to read the Lehrer book but I also have no respect for Jennifer Senior now. I doubt Alison Gopnik is the first person to formulate an aphorism in that vein, but, regardless, it is painfully vapid.

  7. Posted July 11, 2016 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Stephen Randall Glass also knew a thing or two about love.

  8. Filippo
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    It may be that writers should never read anything, so as to possibly have a defense should they somehow write something someone else has said, if it has come to that. But one has to learn to read in order to learn to write.

    Whatever else Lehrer may write, perhaps he should write a non-fiction book documenting the fatuous introductory paragraphs of, and the bloviating reportorial opinionating (are they angling to get a column?) masquerading as “objective” reporting in, N.Y. Times news articles, which have increasingly obtained in that paper during the last ten years. (Of course reviews are not held to that standard.) E.g., how does a reporter know that something or someone is, e.g., “odd” or “unlikely” ? How is it news for a reporter her-/himself to state that something “may” or “could” be? (The FSM “could” be floating over the newsroom. Prove it’s not so.) Or that someone is “signaling” something? (Did that someone tell the reporter, “I am hereby ‘signaling’ such-and-such!”?) (George Carlin would have a field day with that.) Quote someone saying such things. Don’t presume to act like a judge “taking judicial notice” of something.

    Accordingly, any book written by a N.Y. Times reporter (and columnist?) should be no less scrutinized. (E.g., Deborah Solomon was so sure of her art historian gifts as to presume to offer revelatory pearls of psycho-sexual insight about Norman Rockwell merely from observing his paintings, and got justly raked over the coals for it. Why stop with him – you know so much? Go after Picasso, Rembrandt, Titian, etc.)

  9. Diane G.
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Funny, I just happened to read that article at the NYT site earlier yesterday. One of my favorites of Senior’s sentences is, “To the extent that he has one, Mr. Lehrer’s argument is that humans crave connection.”

    “To the extent that he has one”–lol. And the rest of that sentence (and what followed–basically, “duh!”) is but one of many examples she gives of Lehrer trying to put out as original some of the most hackneyed truisms around. That, and setting up ridiculous strawmen to debunk appear to comprise his MO for this book. Why would anyone ever want to read banalities like that in the first place, authorial history notwithstanding?

  10. Wunold
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Fun fact: Lehrer means teacher in German.

  11. Posted July 12, 2016 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Just a test of commenting software.

  12. Wayne Tyson
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    To be or not to be, that’s the question. –Wayne Tyson

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