Sunday, April 1, 2012

No Fooling about Creativity

The front page of the Books section in today’s San Francisco Chronicle devoted its left-hand column to a new book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine:  How Creativity Works, with a review written by David D’Arcy, described as a correspondent for the London monthly Art Newspaper.  My immediate thought was that this was how the Chronicle was going to celebrate April Fool’s Day, but a quick check of revealed that this book really does exist.  The same seems to be true of The Art Newspaper, revealing that the Chronicle had neglected to capitalize “The” in giving D’Arcy’s credentials.  So neither the book nor the reviewer is a joke, but I am not sure we should take either seriously.

D’Arcy’s review does have one merit.  It enables anyone with battle scars from the “knowledge movement” that besotted large chunks of the IT community with the fortune-cookie aphorisms of Ikujiro Nonaka to recognize quickly that Lehrer has not said anything that has not already been said many times over.  Actually, there is one significant exception to that sweeping generalization, which is the one quote from the book that D’Arcy provides, which I take to be Lehrer’s punch line:

We have to make it easy to become a genius.

This, for me, was the real Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment in reading D’Arcy’s review.  Apparently, there is no room for William Schwenck Gilbert in Lehrer’s frame of reference, at least not for my favorite couplet from The Gondoliers:

When every one is sombodee,
     Then no one’s anybody!

If genius becomes so easily that anyone can attain it, it loses its extraordinary qualities and hence its value.  The good news is that, if this is the punch line, it makes it clear that Lehrer is nothing more than a snake-oil peddler.

This takes us to my favorite blooper from D’Arcy’s own text:

“Imagine” conjures up a mix of Oliver Sacks, Malcolm Gladwell and Richard (“creative class”) Florida.

I have no problem with Gladwell and Florida sharing a category (and, on the basis of D’Arcy’s account, of adding Lehrer to that category).  However, while Sacks has a talent for writing for the lay reader, he also has a strong background in the disciplines of the science he discusses.  (Lehrer should be reminded that his background was not at all easy to obtain, and I cannot imagine that Sacks would be such a valuable resource to so many readers had he not worked his tush off to acquire that background.)

The real punch line for this fiasco, however, is that Imagine holds the number one position on the Chronicle list of best nonfiction sellers in the Bay Area.  Fortunately, it is not on the top ten of the national list.  I guess this means that, where concepts like “genius” are concerned, not only is there a sucker born every minute but also more of them seem to get born in Silicon Valley than in the country at large!

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