Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions
The celebrated journalist fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works
“It’s a hard thing to describe,” Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”
The sense that one has something to say, some story to relate, is the stuff that fuels all writers. That Dylan observation can be found in the first chapter of journalist Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, an exploration of how neuroscience explains creative genius. Lehrer has much to say on the matter, from a meditation on the inventor of the Post-It note to an investigation into the way Bob Dylan’s mind works, which included the quote above.
The problem, though, is that there is no proof that Dylan ever said this.
Last month, Lehrer was accused of a curious journalistic offense: the act of “self-plagiarism.” Lehrer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and celebrated author of three books, cannibalized his own work, posting often word-for-word excerpts from Imagine on The New Yorker’s blog without noting that it had been published elsewhere. To some, it was a tenuous charge—as one journalist commented to me, this was like “being accused of stealing food from your own refrigerator.” Others highlighted the pressures brought to bear on young writers to produce more and more content.
It wasn’t the first time Lehrer’s fellow writers had raised questions about his work. Reviewing his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, philosopher Jonathon Keats upbraided Lehrer for a narrative larded with examples that “arbitrarily and often inaccurately” supported his thesis. The writer Edward Champion, who catalogued Lehrer’s recent recyclings on his blog, stated baldly that Lehrer was guilty of “plagiarizing” a paragraph from fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. A New York Times reviewer catalogued the “many elementary errors” in Imagine. And the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, in a devastating review of Imagine, chided Lehrer for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser and claimed that “almost everything” in his exegesis of Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” was “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”
As it turns out, Chotiner may have been onto more than he understood. I’m something of the Dylan obsessive—piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books—and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer—the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted—I came up empty and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.
When contacted, Lehrer provided an explanation for some of my archival failures: He claimed to have been given access, by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, to an extended—and unreleased—interview shot for Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. Two of the quotes confounding me, he explained, could be found in a more complete version of that interview that is not publicly available. As corroboration, he offered details of the context in which the comments were delivered and brought up other topics he claimed Dylan discussed in this unreleased footage.
Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”
I asked Lehrer about seven Bob Dylan quotes in the chapter—three of which aren’t detectable anywhere else, at least not in the forms in which they appear in the book; three others of which include portions of real Dylan quotes; and one that is dramatically removed from its original context to conform to the narrative of Imagine. Lehrer claims that some of these anomalies can be attributed to the editing process—he told me he excised 10,000 words from his original draft of the Dylan chapter—and insists that all of the unattributed quotes do come from somewhere; he simply cannot find their sources.
It is, though, difficult to imagine that there exist Bob Dylan quotes discovered and revealed by Jonah Lehrer, given the singer’s reclusiveness—journalists are rarely granted access, and Lehrer hasn’t claimed to have interviewed Dylan—and the deep fanaticism of his fan base, who treat his every utterance as worthy of deconstruction and analysis. After significant archival digging, with assistance from a historian deeply versed in all things Dylan, I haven’t been able to locate a number of the quotes cited in Imagine.
I was first troubled by Lehrer’s handling of a rather well-known Dylan remark, recounted in countless biographies and websites. Lehrer writes, “Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: ‘God, I’m glad I’m not me,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I’m not that.’ ” But in his classic documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s camera catches the singer peering at a newspaper story about a recent concert and muttering, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” Where the utterance used by Lehrer—“I’m glad I’m not that”—comes from is unknown, as there is no verifiable reference to Dylan ever saying this. (And it’s not clear how Lehrer divines that Dylan said this “whenever” he read about himself.) When I asked Lehrer about this, he admitted that he didn’t know either, promising it would be corrected in future editions of the book.
But then other, more troubling anomalies began to emerge. In another quote mined from Dont Look Back, in which Dylan is asked by a pestering Time magazine journalist about the inspiration for his songs, Lehrer quotes Dylan as saying: “I just write them. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.” The last sentence sharpens and simplifies Lehrer’s point—that Dylan’s brilliance isn’t easily explicable. But it doesn’t appear in Dont Look Back.
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