Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2012

Jonah Lehrer’s blues

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Back in June, when it was first revealed that Jonah Lehrer had reused some of his own work without attribution on the New Yorker blog, an editor for whom I’d written articles in the past sent me an email with the subject line: “Mike Daisey…Jonah Lehrer?” When he asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece about it, I said I’d give it a shot, although I also noted: “I don’t think I’d lump Lehrer in with Daisey just yet.” And in fact, I’ve found myself writing about Lehrer surprisingly often, in pieces for The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and this blog. If I’ve returned to Lehrer more than once, it’s because I enjoyed a lot of his early work, was mystified by his recent problems, and took a personal interest in his case because we’re about the same age and preoccupied with similar issues of creativity and imagination. But with the revelation that he fabricated quotes in his book and lied about it, as uncovered by Michael C. Moynihan of Tablet, it seems that we may end up lumping Lehrer in with Mike Daisey after all. And this makes me very sad.

What strikes me now is the fact that most of Lehrer’s problems seem to have been the product of haste. He evidently repurposed material on his blog from previously published works because he wasn’t able to produce new content at the necessary rate. The same factor seems to have motivated his uncredited reuse of material in Imagine. And the Bob Dylan quotes he’s accused of fabricating in the same book are so uninteresting (“It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say”) that it’s difficult to attribute them to calculated fraud. Rather, I suspect that it was just carelessness: the original quotes were garbled in editing, compression, or revision, with Lehrer forgetting where Dylan’s quote left off and his own paraphrase begin. A mistake entered one draft and persisted into the next until it wound up in the finished book. And if there’s one set of errors like this, there are likely to be others—Lehrer’s mistakes just happened to be caught by an obsessive Dylan fan and a very good journalist.

Such errors are embarrassing, but they aren’t hard to understand. I’ve learned from experience that if I quote something in an article, I’d better check it against the source at least twice, because all kinds of gremlins can get their claws into it in the meantime. What sets Lehrer’s example apart is that the error survived until the book was in print, which implies an exceptional amount of sloppiness, and when the mistake was revealed, Lehrer only made it worse by lying. As Daisey recently found out, it isn’t the initial mistake that kills you, but the coverup. If Lehrer had simply granted that he couldn’t source the quote and blamed it on an editing error, it would have been humiliating, but not catastrophic. Instead, he spun a comically elaborate series of lies about having access to unreleased documentary footage and being in contact with Bob Dylan’s management, fabrications that fell apart at once. And while I’ve done my best to interpret his previous lapses as generously as possible, I don’t know if I can do that anymore.

In my piece on The Rumpus, I said that Lehrer’s earlier mistakes were venial sins, not mortal ones. Now that he’s slid into the area of mortal sin—not so much for the initial mistake, but for the lies that followed—it’s unclear what comes next. At the time, I wrote:

Lehrer, who has written so often about human irrationality, can only benefit from this reminder of his own fallibility, and if he’s as smart as he seems, he’ll use it in his work, which until now has reflected wide reading and curiosity, but not experience.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true. I don’t think this is the end of Lehrer’s story: he’s undeniably talented, and if James Frey, of all people, can reinvent himself, Lehrer should be able to do so as well. And yet I’m afraid that there are certain elements of his previous career that will be closed off forever. I don’t think we can take his thoughts on the creative process seriously any longer, now that we’ve seen how his own process was so fatally flawed. There is a world elsewhere, of course. And Lehrer is still so young. But where he goes from here is hard to imagine.

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2012 at 10:01 am

Quote of the Day

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The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style—being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there.

Thomas Hardy

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2012 at 7:30 am

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The Book of Dreams

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Not surprisingly, I went back to the Newberry Library Book Fair. In fact, I went back three times, determined, for whatever reason, to squeeze every last drop out of this particular sale. Along with the finds I mentioned last week, I emerged with a copy of the original edition of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, its pages still uncut, famous as the primary source for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land; John Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists; Jack Woodford’s amazing book Plotting, about which I hope to have a great deal to say later on; wonderfully musty books on The Art of Play Production and Everybody’s Theatre, the last of which turns out to involve puppets; my two missing volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation; Technique in Fiction by the editors of The Kenyon Review; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development; Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; and studies of two of literature’s great magicians, T.H. White and Alexander Pope. Total cost? Something like thirty dollars.

But my real prize was a book, or rather a set of books, that I’ve wanted for a long time. I first saw them in a box under a table at the book fair on Thursday, but I held back until Sunday, when I knew everything would be half price. In fact, there were three different editions on sale, one in twenty-nine small volumes, one in soft leather covers, one in sixteen big tomes. When I came back yesterday to claim my haul, the first two sets were gone, but the third was still there, in two enormous boxes. I lugged them over to the squirreling area and managed, with some help, to get them downstairs to the cashier and loading dock. A few minutes later, they were in the trunk of my car. And now they’re on my bookshelves, although it took a bit of rearranging to find room for them all. They’re big, cumbersome, not especially convenient to read—almost too heavy for the average reader’s lap—but to my eyes, they’re beautiful, even awe-inspiring. They’re the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Regular readers will know how much this encyclopedia means to me, but even I was unprepared for the level of rapture that followed. I spent at least three or four hours yesterday just turning the pages, marveling at the riches on display. This edition, which is generally considered to be the greatest encyclopedia of all time, was first published in 1911, with supplementary volumes bringing it up to date through 1922, and what I’ve found is that the gain in accuracy in more recent versions isn’t nearly as meaningful as the loss of material. This edition of the Britannica isn’t so much a reference book as a Borgesian universal library, an attempt to get everything in. The article on “Horses,” for instance, spends sixteen dense pages on their anatomy, history, and management, only to conclude with the sentence: “Overhead hay-racks are unnatural and are liable to drop seeds into a horse’s eye.” Every article of any length is crammed with opinion, common sense, prejudice, and personality. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen.

It takes a while to get used to the Eleventh Edition. There are very few conventional cross-references, so for those of us who have been spoiled by hyperlinks, finding a particular piece of information can be something of a treasure hunt, especially if you refuse to use the index. (For example, I had a hard time finding an entry on the modern Olympic Games: there wasn’t one under “Olympiad” or “Olympia” or “Games, Classical,” and I nearly gave up entirely before finding a column or two under “Athletic Sports.”) But then, this isn’t really an encyclopedia for casual reference—although I expect that it will become my first stop for information on any major subject from now on—but a book for dreaming. And while all this material is available online, the best way to experience it is as a long, deep dive, preferably in a comfortable armchair. Each volume casts an uncanny spell, as you find yourself going from “Dante” to “Dragon” to “Drama” to “Dredging,” with a stop for “Dream” somewhere along the way. I’m off to take another dive now. If I don’t come up again, you’ll know where to find me.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2012 at 7:30 am

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Feynman the Magician

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There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.

Mark Kac, quoted by James Gleick in Genius

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2012 at 9:50 am

Benjamin Franklin’s guide to swimming

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The only obstacle to improvement…is fear: and it is only by overcoming this timidity that you can expect to become a master…Choosing a place where the water deepens gradually, walk coolly into it till it is up to your breast; then turn round your face to the shore, and throw an egg into the water between you and the shore; it will sink to the bottom and be easily seen there if the water be clear…In this attempt [to retrieve the egg] you will find that the water buoys you up against your inclination; that it is not so easy to sink as you imagine, and the thou cannot, but by active force, get down to the egg. Thus you feel the power of water to support you, and learn to confide in that power, while your endeavors to overcome it, and reach the egg, teach you the manner of acting on the water with your feet and hands, which action is afterwards used in swimming to support your head higher above the water, or to go forward through it.

Benjamin Franklin

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

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Return to the Newberry Library

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If you’re a certain kind of book lover in Chicago, the high point of any year, even more than the Printers Row Lit Fest, is the Newberry Library Book Fair. As I mentioned in my post last year, this book fair represents the apotheosis of the kind of library book sale I constantly dreamed about as a kid: more than 120,000 books, most only a few dollars, arranged in one of the most beautiful libraries imaginable. (For those who don’t know it firsthand, this is the library memorably featured in The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I’ve been looking forward to this event all year, and even managed to rework my writing schedule this week so that I had a free day on Thursday, when the library doors opened. You’d think that with all this buildup, the fair couldn’t possibly live up to expectations—but if anything, it’s even better than I imagined.

Oddly enough, I’ve found myself becoming more restrained in the books I buy. Last year, I observed that I had to hold myself back because of my upcoming move, and wrote: “Next year, I won’t have any such restrictions.” Yet I’ve been pickier than usual this year, picking up and putting back several books—including Architecture Without Architects, Everyman’s Talmud, and the charming paperback Star Trek Lives!, with its early discussion of fanfic—that I would have happily added to the pile in the past. What happened? Maybe it’s a newfound frugality; maybe it’s a sense that while I currently have ample shelf space in my home library, it won’t last forever; and in a couple of cases, the books themselves were just a little too tattered to justify the purchase. I’ve also found that my reaction to a used book has become weirdly intuitive: I’ll carry a book for a while, then leave it, because it doesn’t quite fit with the others I’ve found so far.

In the end, I emerged with what I can only call a well-rounded portfolio of books. As always, the first day’s haul included a mixture of books that I’ve wanted to check out for a while and the usual happy accidents. The first category included a five-volume slipcased paperback edition of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James; a similar two-volume edition of Toynbee’s abridged Study of History; and D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, which I nearly bought a few weeks ago, but found at Newberry for only a dollar. The serendipitous category includes Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry by Jacques Maritain, whom I quoted here not long ago; The Duality of Vision by Walter Sorell, a study of artists who have excelled in more than one creative field; a lovely book of photographs on The Zen Life; and The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before.

My favorite discovery is probably a 1955 edition of The Week-End Book, first published in London by the Nonesuch Press. All Things Considered did an amusing segment a few years ago on this volume, which is essentially designed as an all-purpose manual to be brought along by Londoners on their weekends in the country. As a result, it’s delightfully miscellaneous. It contains an excellent poetry anthology of more than two hundred pages; information on the plants and animals of the English countryside; a discussion of village and pub architecture; manuals of stargazing and birdwatching, complete with birdcalls transcribed for piano; and helpful, often tongue-in-check advice on cooking, etiquette, the law, first aid, and games. (The section on games begins: “Everyone knows Up-Jenkyns, but here are a few finer points…) In short, it’s the kind of lucky discovery that can enrich an entire lifetime, and which you can only make at a book fair like this. Is it any wonder I’m going back again tonight?

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