Owen's Reviews > Imagine: How Creativity Works

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer
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May 28, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: library
Read in May, 2012

"Procter and Gamble had a problem: it needed a new floor cleaner." Has there ever been a more off-putting opening sentence in the history of publishing? Why the fuck should I care about some corporation's business difficulties? This book is supposed to be about imagination and creativity, not entrepreneurship and marketplace success. But in Jonah Lehrer's mind, those are not two separate arenas:
We think of entrepreneurs, after all, as creative individuals. If someone has a brilliant idea for a new company, we assume that he or she is inherently more creative than the rest of us. This is why we idolize people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey. [page 204]
Watch who you're calling "we," there, Lehrer.

Lehrer made his name with books popularizing research in cognitive science and neuroscience, and the first half of Imagine sticks to that territory. While he mixes examples from artistic and scientific kinds of creativity, it's all about individual brains and which areas light up with activity when we're confronting problems. But that's a problem right there: noting that an area of the brain lights up with activity doesn't tell you a damn thing about what that activity is—about what kind of thinking results in "creativity." Lehrer also fails to adequately distinguish between innovation (the introduction of a new idea, extending a domain), problem-solving (overcoming an obstacle within an existing domain), and puzzle-solving (finding an answer which you know already exists, because it's been prepared and presented to you as a puzzle). I'd expect these to have some distinct cognitive characteristics, far sooner than I'd assume them to be identical and interchangeable.

And then the second half of the book, about the social conditions of creativity, goes off the rails. Lehrer has strayed outside his comfortable sandbox of brainstuff and into the territory of Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Johnson, with some Ken Robinson mixed in and a bit of Lewis Hyde as a lagniappe. And they've already been here, and in some cases reported the same stories. Yes, new ideas are fed by density and serendipity and time to practice, and creativity is the fuel of the future and gosh it's great, isn't it? I slogged through 110 pages and learned nothing new.

The lack of content, though, gave me time to appreciate Lehrer's insipid writing in this half of the book. I lost count of the number of sentences and paragraphs beginning with "The point is" or some variation thereof. If you have to point out what the point is, then your subject and argument are not clear enough to begin with. I grew resentful of continual instructions to "Consider" or "Recall the example of": I thought that was the author's job in writing the book, and I was reading it to reap the benefit of his consideration and recall. This no longer bears any resemblance to an essay of ideas (the kind of book Lewis Hyde always writes, and Steven Johnson sometimes does): this is feature-page journalism at the commodity level.

There was a point early in the book, when Lehrer was talking about puzzle-solving and bringing up the idea that applying constraints to a problem can actually increase the range of ideas generated, when I thought the book might actually be really good—but nah. I'm hoping some real insight into the cognitive character of constraint will come from the next book I'm (over)due to read, Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature , but at least I'm sure he won't approach the subject like a journalist. As for the cognition of puzzle-solving, I guess that's still my own book to write.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Mentally high fiving you.


Owen Score!


message 3: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Hey, you're blogging for ALTA! Very cool. I want to join.


Owen So go 'head and join! Conference is in Rochester this fall--it'd be great to see you.

(These reviews are my own, not ALTA's. I do most of their Facebook & Twitter, and the blog is just for larger-scale info & recaps, nothing editorial.)


message 5: by Kristin (new)

Kristin I believe I will.

Deadline for conference proposals, I think, has passed? That may prevent me from attending--I'm not sure I can get conference funds if I'm not participating. Next year? It's too bad I missed this year's call; I just got the hard copy of a short translation I did last year, and I'm as excited as a 6 year old with a soccer trophy for participation.


Owen What would you want to talk about? The deadline has passed, but maybe they could squeeze you in.

2013 is Chicago.


Owen Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic achieves massively higher levels of burnination than my meek and cautious dismantling of Lehrer's book.


message 8: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Excellent. There's nothing I love more than a good evisceration.


message 9: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Reading this was such a relief. Amidst all the Lehrer praise I'm starting to feel a bit of an island.


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