“a nonfiction McMuffin”
Noted fabulist Jonah Lehrer somehow managed to get a publishing house to buy his stoned boarding-school-dorm musings (thesis of book as described by author: “Love is the only happiness that lasts. It is the opposite of underwear. It is the antithesis of chocolate cake.”) Jennifer Senior has a review that I hope earned her double time:
Jonah Lehrer has had time to work on “A Book About Love.” His schedule no longer teems with lucrative speaking engagements. He no longer writes for The New Yorker or contributes to “Radiolab” on NPR. With this project — his shot at redemption, provided to him by Simon & Schuster after his public tumble from grace — Mr. Lehrer could have written something complex and considered. Books are still the slow food of the publishing business. Yet here is Mr. Lehrer, once again, serving us a nonfiction McMuffin.
I wasn’t expecting it. I was one of those weirdos who thought Mr. Lehrer would make a respectable comeback. He’s bright. He’s a decent stylist. He languished in the public stockade for weeks for his sins. Why wouldn’t he try something personal, something soulful, something new?
No clue. But he didn’t. His book is insolently unoriginal.
In retrospect — and I am hardly the first person to point this out — the vote to excommunicate Mr. Lehrer was as much about the product he was peddling as the professional transgressions he was committing. It was a referendum on a certain genre of canned, cocktail-party social science, one that traffics in bespoke platitudes for the middlebrow and rehearses the same studies without saying something new.
Apparently, he’s learned nothing. This book is a series of duckpin arguments, just waiting to be knocked down. Perhaps the flimsiest: that Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed teenagers have come to define our understanding of love.
“But this description of love — the Romeo and Juliet version — is woefully incomplete,” he writes in the introduction. Love is not just lust, madness, or a great tidal flow of dopamine, he is quick to tell us. “Love is a process, not a switch.”
Fine. But is there really any evolved adult who believes otherwise? When a widow wakes up sobbing in the middle of the night, mourning the loss of her husband of 50 years, is she mourning the loss of passion, giddy infatuation and great sex?
No matter. Mr. Lehrer bangs this same note throughout the book. On Page 53, he says we wrongly assume that “what we feel at first sight” will help us predict long-term relationship outcomes; on Page 104, he reminds us that our psychological needs have little to do with the romance of country-western songs. On Page 246, he’s still saying it’s commonly believed that “once we fall in love, the love is supposed to take care of itself.” But no: “This is wrong on every level.”
You know what he says love requires? Hard work. “When a relationship endures,” he explains, “it is not because the flame never burns out. It is because the flame is always being relit.”
There’s a lot of dime-store counsel in this book, often followed by academic citations. It’s like reading an advice column by way of JSTOR.
It also, as you might expect, at least skirts the edge of plagiarism:
But I fear Mr. Lehrer has simply become more artful about his appropriations. At one point, for instance, he writes: “We don’t love our kids despite their demands; we love them because of them. Caregiving makes us care.”
I stopped dead when I read that sentence. Reread it. And read it again. It sounds to me like a clever adaptation of one of the most beautiful lines in “The Philosophical Baby” by Alison Gopnik: “It’s not so much that we care for children because we love them as that we love them because we care for them.”
I’m pretty certain Mr. Lehrer read Ms. Gopnik’s quote. Why? Because I cite it in my own book — which he cites, twice. (Though not for that.) He also wrote about “The Philosophical Baby” for The Boston Globe.
Although, really, the outright fraud obscures the more important issue about Lehrer, which is how a lazy purveyor of puddle-deep crap got so many well-compensated gigs writing about important subjects for prestigious publications in the first place. Being a white guy with a degree from an elite college is probably a prerequisite…