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"Imagine," the NYTimes, and How We Choose Our Books
May 20, 2012 - 9:00pm

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Published April 1st,  2012.

How do you choose your books? We need to choose books that offer a high R.O.T. (return on time). The opportunity costs of reading are heavily weighted toward time rather than dollars. 

Not that money is unimportant, it is just that our greatest scarcity is hours - and the price of books is minuscule (and falling) as compared to the other costs we absorb (housing, transportation, medical care, education - all growing expenses). A book that costs us $16 and takes 8 hours to read is perhaps the most cost effective entertainment we could imagine.  

Which brings me to Imagine. I am most likely to buy a book that you personally recommend to me (thank you), but after your recommendation my best book buying guide is the NYTimes Sunday Book Review. A great review in Times (particularly for work of nonfiction) will almost always cause me to grab the free first chapter from Amazon for my Kindle. A bad review in the Times and I almost will always skip the book.

(Why Amazon and the NYTimes have not done a deal that allows me to download that sample chapter directly from the Times - and on mobile NYTimes apps- is beyond me.  Actually, why Amazon has not hired away all the editors and writers from the NYTimes Sunday Book (and other major papers) and created the world's best book review section on Amazon is what I really do not understand).  

It is because of my tendency to be so trusting of the Times book reviewers that I am relieved to have read Lehrer's Imagine prior to reading the May 11th review by Christopher Chabris.   

Imagine my feelings when readings Chabris' review of Imagine, a book that I had just finished and thoroughly enjoyed.  

In panning Imagine, Chabris writes:

"The story-study-lesson cycle is a proven formula in science writing, but in Lehrer’s hands it grows formulaic. The stories too often feature clichéd piffle (a chance interaction, he says, can “change the way we think about everything”) and end with treacly flourishes…."

Nor can I easily dismiss Chris Chabris. He is the co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us - a book that I reviewed positively back in September of 2010. 

How could Chabris and I both read Imagine and come away with such opposite conclusions?  

What I've concluded is that how we evaluate the work of someone else is almost inseparable from how we approach our own work. The nearer the writing of others is to our expertise, particularly when that writing reaches conclusions or uses methods different from our own, the more likely we are to react strongly (either positively or negatively) to that work.  

Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College. He is the real deal when it comes to publishing peer reviewed original research and synthesizing the research in his field for a non-specialized audience. In reading Imagine Chabris brought all his critical faculties to the book, on the look out for any errors in logic or inconsistencies in argument.

I, on the other hand, approached Imagine as a fan of Lehrer's previous books (Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide), and something of a neuroscience groupie.  I chose Imagine because I know that Lehrer is an engaging and fluid writer, and because of his strong background in science writing. In reading Imagine I was not looking for errors, as I doubt I know enough about the topic to spot any. Rather, I responded well to the stories that Lehrer told as he tried to elucidate the neurological, biochemical and behavioral determinants of creativity.   

Reading about creative people is always a pleasure, and Lehrer has found a great number of these creative types for Imagine. From a surfer with Asperger syndrome to the creative process of Bob Dylan and the team at Pixar, Lehrer demonstrates why it is wrong to assume that some people are simply born more creative than others. Rather, creativity requires a conducive environment and a person committed to the excruciatingly hard work of creating.

Imagine taught me some good things about the creative process, and did so in a thoroughly enjoyable manner. But perhaps most importantly, Imagine taught  me to be a little less trusting about book reviews in the NYTimes.   

What are you reading?

 

 

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