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?