“Imagine”: A reminder that the “big picture” requires “small details”

My friend Lisa recently loaned me a copy of Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer.  This was the book at the center of the maelstrom this summer about various ethics and quality issues with Lehrer’s work: his “self-plagiarism” (recycling previously published material), “sloppy” science journalism, and, most famously, the fabricated Bob Dylan quotes.

I wrote about the Imagine incident two months ago, in a post titled “Jonah Lehrer, and the ‘marvellous Boy,'”  (featured in WordPress’s Freshly Pressed lineup on August 12).  I had been intending to read the book for several weeks prior, but once the story broke, I could no longer find it anywhere.  Then, a couple weeks ago, Lisa slipped a copy into my campus mailbox.  She had found it at a local library, and it wasn’t due for three weeks.

What a good book Imagine is!  I finished and returned it with time to spare.  (I’m so thankful to have a friend who not only thought of me when she saw the book but also trusted me to keep her library card in good standing!)

Lisa and I met for coffee this morning, and talking with her about Imagine got me thinking again about what people were saying about Lehrer’s use of sources.  Not so much the “self-plagiarism” accusations or the specific Dylan quote fabrications, but just his use of sources overall.  I noticed in my reading that many things that could/should have been footnoted, even in a very casual format, weren’t.  And the sad thing is, requiring more documentation would have been such an easy call for Lehrer’s publisher to have made. 

It’s not completely unheard of for non-academic books hew to near-scholarly standards of source citation.  A tiny superscript “footnote” number is inserted at the end of a sentence that contains the quote or fact needing documentation.  Then at the end of the book is a chapter-by-chapter collection of every footnoted passage and its source.  Done right, these superscript footnote numbers are barely noticeable to casual readers.

One author whose books have done a nice job of incorporating this “casual” style  of documentation comes immediately to mind: my favorite celebrity biographer, Donald Spoto, whom I discovered through his books on Alfred Hitchcock.  Spoto has a Ph.D. in theology, which seems unlikely preparation for a career writing books on celebrities like Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor.  But Spoto is an outstanding writer, and his extensive research is meticulously documented in back-of-the-book chapter notes.

It seems to me that people who read “big idea” books written by TED Talks types like Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell, Steve Jobs, or Sir Ken Robinson will not be the kind of people who get distracted and annoyed by superscript footnote numbers at the end of sentences.  But I don’t remember seeing any of these in Lehrer’s book, and although I do think I remember chapter notes at the end of the book, I also noticed many items that could have been footnoted but weren’t.

Remember typewriters?  “Typos” don’t happen anymore, at least not unless the error is a “recognized” word.  The age of computers has changed our conception of “mistakes.”  Spell check and video game do-overs have become the “virtual” reality of life in the 21st century, and we no longer have to worry so much about being perfect, or even particularly cautious.  To err is human, but that’s okay.  Computers can catch and repair our mistakes.

Yet some errors have lasting consequences, even now.

Athough hindsight is 20/20, I think Lehrer’s editor/publisher should have insisted on better documentation.  Whatever the associated cost or inconvenience, it would have been minor compared with having to pull the book off the market and watching a gifted writer’s career go down the tubes.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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