A Message For Jonah Lehrer


Posted Aug 06, 2012

First cover

At about the same time, Lehrer got in trouble for reusing his own previously published material in blogs, articles, and books (an offense clumsily dubbed “self-plagiarism”) and, on July 30, his life imploded when he admitted to fabricating quotes in his best-selling book Imagine. Lehrer was forced to resign from his dream job at The New Yorker and his publisher started yanking every last copy of Imagine from the bookstore shelves. The next day I received an email from my editor informing me that they were making one small tweak to the paperback cover of The Storytelling Animal (below).  Can you spot the difference?

With nauseating speed, Lehrer’s good name had turned to mud. Instead of proudly splashing his name across the cover of my book, we would quietly erase it.  Imagine has also been erased from the bookstores.  If you search for it at Amazon, you’ll find nothing—not even an explanatory note. The book has been silently disappeared.

Second cover

"It is wrong to equate Jonah Lehrer’s recycling with plagiarism. Plagiarism, along with other kinds of lies, is the cardinal sin—a felony, a hanging offense. Lehrer is guilty of a misdemeanor—one that is routinely committed by many other writers who move across media platforms (books, blogs, articles). What Lehrer is mainly being attacked for isn’t his recycling but his success. Other writers resent him for his Rhodes scholarship, and his big speaking fees, and his bestsellers, and his hip work for Radiolab, Wired, and The New Yorker—not to mention his youth. I should know. I’m one of those envious writers."

But now Lehrer has committed exactly the kind of authorial felony I was referencing, and he’s swinging for it.  The response to Jonah’s downfall has ranged along a continuum from righteous indignation, to barely disguised schadenfreude, to sadness.  I’m in the sad camp. Lehrer is like a classical tragic hero come to life—a talented young man who rose too high and fast, and was brought low not by the vagaries of chance but by the flaws of his own nature. These are flaws we should all be able to relate to, if not to excuse.  Jonah—a young guy made reckless by fame and its demands—succumbed to the deeply human temptation to stretch the truth for the sake of a better and more orderly story.

I’m writing this now partly because I’ve wanted to write Jonah directly, but couldn’t find words (I’ve never met Lehrer, but we’ve traded a few friendly emails, and we share the same publisher). I couldn’t find a way to express what I was feeling without spouting dumb platitudes or, worse, writing him a letter of condolence for his own funeral. 

But here’s all I wanted to say to him: They keep comparing you to James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair. But you aren't in that league.  I’ll give you another chance, Jonah, and I think others will too.