Imagine: When is a Lie, a Lie?

By Shlomo Maital   

  

   

  Jonah Lehrer is a brilliant young science writer.  I am reading his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, HMH New York, 2012.   The book shows how we can all learn to be more creative. It follows an earlier, also wonderful book, How We Decide.

   But don’t try to buy a copy. The publisher has withdrawn the book from sale, following a fierce controversy.  In a brief passage about the creative process used by Bob Dylan (p. 19-22), a wonderfully insightful passage, Lehrer quotes passages that Dylan allegedly said and wrote.  Dylan experts jumped on the section and claimed vociferously that Dylan never said those words Lehrer quotes.  This, despite the irony that Dylan himself, in his books and songs, freely borrowed words, sentences and passages from other writers, never citing the source, and freely invented things about his own life that never even remotely happened. 

    Lehrer was forced to apologize and the publisher withdraw the book from the book stores.  Lehrer also resigned from The New Yorker.

    So, let’s get this straight. A book called Imagine  imagines passages about Bob Dylan, to try to explain to us clearly Dylan’s creative process.  If you read this section, you get important insights into Dylan’s creativity. (Basically, he is unwilling to remain in his comfort zone and do the same thing repeatedly, even tough that is what people apparently want – a hugely important lesson for all innovators!).  Because the book is labeled ‘non-fiction’, Lehrer is vilified.  Apparently, you cannot be creative in a book about creativity. You cannot ‘imagine’ in a book about Imagine. 

    So, when is a lie a lie?  Do readers really believe that Dylan said those words Lehrer quotes? Or that he is simply trying to explain Dylan’s mindset?  

    I hope the nitpickers and the stupid publisher have not ruined Lehrer’s career.  When is a lie a lie?  When you deliberately try to deceive.  When is a lie, not a lie?  When you try to help people understand something, graphically and interestingly.  Believe me, we readers know the difference. 

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