At the beach this summer, we noticed at least one tourist engrossed within the pages of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Jonah Lehrer’s bestselling book about how the human mind creates its best ideas. The reader we met on the beach gave her summer reading title a big thumbs-up, impressed by the research and insights Lehrer had brought to his book.
This made it all the more sad when we learned that Lehrer has admitted to making up some quotes from singer Bob Dylan in writing the book. In the wake of the scandal, Lehrer resigned his position as a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Hardly a season goes by, or so it seems, without a controversy of this sort involving a nonfiction writer who has crossed the line and simply made things up. Lehrer’s book has some neat insights that will be compromised because he mixed fact and fiction. That’s the problem with this kind of journalistic expedience: lapses in one part of a nonfiction work call the entire body of work into question.
Some writers cut corners in this way, one gathers, because fact-gathering can be difficult, time-consuming work. Just ask Robert A. Caro, whose fourth installment of his Lyndon B. Johnson biography, “The Passage of Power,” has also been on many summer reading lists. Caro takes a long time to write each book, carefully filing every note and reference. We’re heartened to see this much devotion to the discipline of fact, even when that regimen proves inconvenient. Caro’s career reminds us that even as the world gets speedier, humanity’s best work still takes time.
In other words, no shortcuts allowed.