November 14, 2014
A completely real, not at all plagiarized interview with plagiarist Jonah Lehrer
by Mark Krotov
This was a long week, but one full of miracles. Kindhearted megacorporation Amazon bought itself a lovely new domain name that it will use only for good; a day later, the same kindhearted megacorporation resolved its months-long battle with Hachette, thereby obviating the need for any further opposition to a glorious, monopolistic future; and thinkfluencer Jonah Lehrer reappeared with some exciting news: a(nother) new book!
When we last checked in with Lehrer, he had been humiliated for making up a lot of quotes and plagiarizing himself and others. But so much can happen in two years! In 2013, Lehrer bounced back and sold a new book to Simon & Schuster, about love, because of course he did. The proposal for that book may have been plagiarized, but no matter! Who cares about a plagiarist plagiarizing in his first book post-plagiarism scandal?
This week, the Lehrer Express again rolled into the station with more happy news from PublishingLand, in the form of The Digital Mind: Why We Don’t Think Clearly When We Go Online. That’s the title of Lehrer’s new book, which Portfolio will publish in May. Unlike the book about love, this one includes a cowriter: behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi. As New York reported on Tuesday, the new book will actually precede the love book, for which a publication date has not been set.
Lehrer’s reemergence is a heartwarming story about creativity, inspiration, and ethics in book publishing, and who better to describe it than the thirty-three-year-old quasi-boy wonder himself? In this exclusive interview, Lehrer discusses the challenges facing him as he reenters public life. Naturally, Lehrer’s answers to our questions are completely original, and they have definitely not been plagiarized—verbatim—from his three books: Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, and Imagine. That kind of plagiarism would be wrong and irresponsible, and MobyLives certainly cannot condone it. Nope, no plagiarism here.
MobyLives: Mr. Lehrer, thanks very much for speaking with us. Let me first ask: can you give us a sense of the moment when you decided to try writing another book? You must have felt anxious.
Jonah Lehrer: How does he make a decision? It’s like asking a baseball player why he decided to swing the bat at a particular pitch: the velocity of the game makes thought impossible.
MobyLives: I’m sorry? I . . . Mr. Lehrer, would you mind speaking in the first person? I don’t know why you’d try to narrate your story in this way.
Lehrer: Even though we are defined by our decisions, we are often completely unaware of what’s happening inside our heads during the decision-making process.
MobyLives: Sorry, I must have been unclear. I meant first person singular.
Lehrer: It was a hellish moment of indecision. Nervous sweat stung my eyes. My hands quivered with fear. I felt the blood pulse in my temples. I tried to think, but there wasn’t time.
MobyLives: Well, that’s understandable. After being humiliated and ostracized by so many people in your field, you’d be forgiven for devoting yourself entirely to your family, or to your beautiful house. But you jumped back in, didn’t you? Now that you’ve got two books on the way, are you happy to be on this path? Was it the right call?
Lehrer: From the perspective of the brain, there’s a thin line between a good decision and a bad decision.
MobyLives: Hmm. I’m not quite sure what that means, but that’s not really what I’m asking. What I want to know is how you feel about this trajectory.
Lehrer: Surely we’d be better off without any feelings at all.
MobyLives: You know what, let’s move on. I want to ask you how you see yourself as a writer. Are you a journalist? A science writer? Or are you something closer to an artist, who tries to synthesize others’ work into something uniquely affecting?
Lehrer: The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness. Every method, even the experimental method, has limits.
MobyLives: I agree! And there’s a clear creative component to your work. This is a difficult question, but: is creativity challenging?
Lehrer: The standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Every creative journey begins with a problem. The creative process will never be easy, no matter how much we know about neurons and cities and Shakespeare.
MobyLives: Fair enough. I wonder if—
Lehrer: Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.
MobyLives: Okay . . . Let’s discuss—
Lehrer: If you want to understand the function of scissors, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously.
MobyLives: Mr. Lehrer, let’s get back on track. Thus far, we’ve spoken in broad terms, but I did want to ask you a tough question. How did it feel when you were caught, when it was obvious that you had deceived your many readers?
Lehrer: Our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth.
MobyLives: That may be so, but I’m asking about you, Jonah Lehrer. An individual who made some very bad choices. How did you yourself feel about all of this?
Lehrer: The self is an illusion.
MobyLives: Okay, just a couple more questions. This is an interview with a writer, and writers are usually asked what they have on or next to or above their desks. Any objects, or perhaps a piece of paper with an inspirational mantra? Yes, how about that? What’s your guiding principle that you carry with you?
Lehrer: We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff.
MobyLives: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Lehrer. This has been truly informative. One final question. You have done things that would have permanently ruined the careers of many other people. To what do you attribute your endurance? Your education? Your gender? Your race? How is it that you’ve managed to resurrect a career that should have never existed, and should certainly have never been resurrected? Two years ago, you were a disgrace, and now you have two books on the way and, inevitably, a long career ahead of you. How do you explain the fact that you’re thriving, and not in ruin?
Lehrer: We tell the happy endings first.
Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.