Proust Wasn’t A Neuroscientist: Another Icarus Falls

Jonah Lehrer yesterday

Another young journalistic Turk bites the dust: LA Times: Jonah Lehrer resigns, book recalled over invented quotes.

Having read and enjoyed some of his stuff, I feel more than a little betrayed. But it’s a reminder of the pressure on writers to keep producing. Perhaps Lehrer just needed to do some inner crop rotation and lie fallow for a year to replenish his soil.

It reminds me of Johann Hari scandal in this country last year: Johann Hari – Wikipedia entry. The then Independent journalist, who had whizzed through to the ranks of the elite commentariat at breakneck speed, was revealed to have plagiarised  interviews from other journalists. This highly-thought-of young man, with his double first from Cambridge and stellar career, had to resign, his reputation in tatters. It remains to be seen what kind of recovery he can make. It’s sad to see talent implode so publicly.

If you’re a writer getting lost in the woods, try to do it deliberately

Writing is a process that at once viscerally connects the writer with the world and dissociates her from it. Lehrer comes across as someone who’s always on and firing. So one might have imagined – pardon the pun – he’d be the last one to lapse into a Thoreau-esque retreat from society and its rules. But that seems to be what happened. When a non-fiction writer makes something up and passes it off as the truth, it is an expression of a supreme detachment from the world.

Problematic levels of social detachment are an occupational hazard among those who live in the world of ideas. That Lehrer seems to have been living in a slightly unreal bubble of his own making is perhaps no surprise at all. Life inside the writer’s bubble can only be in tune with life outside if the writer has genuine integrity – and, tragically for him, Lehrer seems to have lacked that. There may be no coming back for him: he may have ruined his journalistic reputation for good.

It doesn’t mean everything he wrote in books like Proust Was A Neuroscientist and The Decisive Moment was wrong or invalid. (Just to be clear, there are no allegations around those works, only his most recent book on creativity, Imagine. I haven’t read Imagine yet and in a time-starved world with lots of books to read, I won’t be doing that now.)  But unfortunately, though Lehrer’s mistake might have been limited to a few Bob Dylan quotations, trust in a writer’s integrity is an all-or-nothing thing. When authorial integrity is in doubt, it can’t help but cast a shadow over everything he has written. Not because the reader is being judgmental but because the reader needs a basic level of trust in the writer for the reading experience to be worthwhile. That is now gone.




Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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