09 April 2012

Sellers : Imagine

Imagine: How Creativity Works
Author: Jonah Lehrer
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date: 3/19/12
304 pages

This is basically a book about how to be more creative wrapped in a veneer of science.

It is a self-help book. In the new mold. Like Susan Cain's book Quiet on introverts which came out earlier this year. And like Lehrer's own book from 2010 on the decision making process. It rests in a strange new genre space. The literary self-help book.

This could not be more boring.

It seems to go something like this. Pick a trait or act that we as humans possess and then analyze it until you cannot go further with it. Preferably get it published in shorter form in some magazine. In Lehrer's case, maybe in Wired. Then take that longer version that you had all along and publish it. The problem is that these books read like one of those History or Discovery channel specials. You know the ones.


Yes. Those ones. It's taking some sciencey stuff and tossing out the boring parts and tarting it up with shots of Empire State Buildings falling down and how you can increase your creative output with the almighty color of blue.

This is a problem because at the end of it all it's just pretty hollow. There may be good anecdotes and you might even enjoy the reading the book but after you'll just change the channel and watch another program that you won't remember any part of (except the Golden Gate Bridge falling into the bay that was sweeeet!).

Books like Mauve, Salt, Rats do similar things. The idea is to take an aspect of the every day and try to make it appear profound. Jonah Lehrer has written a few of these - Proust Was A Neuroscientist, How We Decide, and now this new book. His are less biography of an object or idea and more an examination of inner mental acts.

All of which I might be able to deal with but then this:

Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms? That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea? That the color blue can help you double your creative output? This is from the publisher's description. I know it may be unfair to judge the work this way since blurbs are usually terrible. I could have told you that brain storming is just a way to get people to word vomit and feel more involved in a process that doesn't include them. That it actually does nothing for the creative process. I don't need a book to tell me this.

Lehrer's central thesis seems to be about the science of where in the brain creativity comes from then to veer off into tangents about how to amplify that. The fact that the book claims to shatter "the myth of muses, higher powers, even creative “types”" is just silly. I am pretty sure muses ceased to be taken seriously about the same time barbarians invaded Rome.

To continue with the description:

Lehrer reveals the importance of embracing the rut, thinking like a child, daydreaming productively, and adopting an outsider’s perspective (travel helps).

Did you know that travel helps you to relax and think clearly? I bet you didn't. Did you know that thinking like a child would open you up to more creative solutions?

He unveils the optimal mix of old and new partners in any creative collaboration, and explains why criticism is essential to the process.

Criticism helps the creative process? Really? Did you go to school to learn that? Apparently this book is here to tell us that: You need to be relaxed, around calm colors/moods, have solid input, clear away the shit you have in your head, think like a child, go on vacation, ignore the idea of muses and then (only then!) you can be creative.

And you need to be near a bathroom.

This is my main issue with these type of books. This is common knowledge to anyone who has ever attempted to be creative or has a Google. I'm being childish in my discussion on Lehrer's work. Definitely diminishing it. Not discussing it in any real deep way.

I see these types of books as a sign of a very real deficiency in our 'discussions' in general. We seem to have moved into a space where we like everything to be related back into the self somehow. Narcissism is at a high maybe. Maybe I'm too sensitive on this. Maybe this book and those like it are perfectly fine. But is our discourse that science has mapped the brain so now I know that I should be near a bathroom if I'm going to be creative? Is that why we did that thing?

We should praise Lehrer for finding the creativity to write something so banal and sell it to thousands of people. Who doesn't know that creativity works this way? Are these the same people who buy books about how to organize a closet or parent the child they already have? Or how to save money? Or any of the things that you just do because they are things that need doing? Am I insane for thinking this is a huge duh moment?

And the cover design is ironically uninspired. How many people will buy this book thinking it has something to do with John Lennon?



Sellers is my attempt to examine what books are topping the best-seller list and why. To talk about and understand the trends in popular writing.