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Jonah Lehrer's Bob Dylan quotes lead to resignation

July 30, 2012|by Carolyn Kellogg
  • Jonah Lehrer in 2008. His book "Imagine" has been recalled by the publisher after he admitted to fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan.
Jonah Lehrer in 2008. His book "Imagine" has been recalled by… (Thos Robinson / Getty Images )

Writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker on Monday after admitting that he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his nonfiction book "Imagine: How Creativity Works." The book has been recalled by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published in March, "Imagine: How Creativity Works" has spent 17 weeks on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Now it will be pulled from bookstore shelves. Its e-book edition has disappeared from retail sites such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

The book leans so heavily on Dylan's approach to creativity that the publisher may have had no choice. The first chapter of its first section, titled "Bob Dylan's Brain," focuses on Dylan's reluctance to atomize his own creative process. But Dylan didn't quite say what Lehrer said he said.

Lehrer wrote of Dylan fending off questions about his songs in 1965. "Imagine" quotes him saying: "'I've got nothing to say about these things I write,' [Dylan] insisted. 'I just write them. There's no great message. Stop asking me to explain.'" Although part of that quote appeared in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary of Dylan on tour, "Don't Look Back," the last sentence -- about explaining -- did not.

Michael C. Moynihan, an admitted Dylan obsessive and writer for Tablet Magazine, wondered about the origin of this and other Dylan quotes in the book. He spent a number of weeks communicating with Lehrer, during which Lehrer claimed he had been given access to archival footage -- which he had not.

In a statement released Monday, Lehrer called his words "a lie spoken in a moment of panic." The statement appears in the New York Times:

“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine,’ ” Mr. Lehrer said in a statement. “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”

“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”

“This is a terrifically sad situation," New Yorker Editor David Remnick told the Associated Press. "But, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for."

Lehrer, 31, had only recently moved to the New Yorker. He came to fame in 2007 when he published "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," a surprise bestseller that made complex scientific ideas accessible. He followed that up with another popular science book, "How We Decide," and in March published "Imagine." He wrote a column for Wired that connected science and culture. This year, he moved to the New Yorker, where he came under fire for recycling ideas and language he'd used in earlier writings.

"Imagine" has been on the L.A. Times bestseller list for 17 weeks.

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