reading writing

YOCR #9 – Disappointed with Imagine

Book: Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.
Book: Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.

I finished reading “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer last night. This is one of the books on my Year of Creative Reading list and I really, really wanted to wholeheartedly love it, but I can’t.

I was well on my way to loving it, having written a blog post quoting a portion of the book. If I’m compelled to quote a book, it’s made a serious impression on me. While wrapping up the blog post, I did a search for the book online so that I could link to it and provide props for the writer. During my search I ran across a number of troubling articles about the book. It seems that the author made up quotes by Bob Dylan.

Golldarnit! Dude, if you want to make stuff up, write fiction! I don’t want to have to fact-check every nonfiction book I read to make certain it’s accurate.

After finding these articles about the made-up Dylan quotes, I searched for the research article referenced in the quotes I had taken from the book and added it to my blog post. Apparently, not everything was fabricated in “Imagine,” although once an author invents one thing, how are readers to know what’s fact and what’s fiction? If I’m so moved to quote a portion of the book and I quote the untrue stuff, what does that do to my reputation? Egads.

I work in a history museum and we try very hard to present accurate information. I am Queen of the Citations with my articles, not only to provide credit to the sources of my info and show readers where I got it, but also to remind myself where I found it. We have one compiled county history book that researchers ask for that has no sources cited. Museum staff have discovered that the book is full of inaccuracies and we caution everyone using it to check the info against other sources. We shouldn’t have to do that, just like I shouldn’t have to look up every author I read prior to writing a blog post just to make sure he hasn’t fabricated portions of his book.

The sad thing is that Lehrer didn’t need to make up Dylan quotes. While he uses Dylan as the lead-in, there are so many other creative people he could have used instead. His writing is approachable and this book helps to demystify creativity and put it within reach of normal people. (We’re all creative, not just a few blessed souls.) The book discusses creativity on both an individual and community level, providing plenty of applicable ideas to increasing creativity.

So, while I want to love “Imagine,” I have to settle for just liking it. I will also defer to the opinion of Roy Peter Clark at The Poynter Institute, who recommends reading the book even though it is flawed. It’s definitely worth a read; you simply have to take the Dylan quotes with a grain of salt.