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How Jonah Lehrer was caught inventing Bob Dylan quotes

Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker after Tablet Magazine discovered Lehrer had fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan in Lehrer's latest book "Imagine: How Creativity Works."

By Hillel ItalieAssociated Press / July 31, 2012

Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing on at "Les Vieilles Charrues" Festival in Carhaix, western France. Jonah Lehrer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, acknowledged that quotes by Bob Dylan that appeared in Lehrer's book "Imagine: How Creativity Works" did "not exist." Others were "unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes."

(AP Photo/David Vincent, file)

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Jonah Lehrer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has resigned and his best-selling book has been halted after he acknowledged inventing quotes by Bob Dylan.

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Mr. Lehrer released a statement Monday through his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, saying that some Dylan quotes appearing in "Imagine: How Creativity Works" did "not exist." Others were "unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes."

Lehrer said he acknowledged his actions after being contacted by Michael Moynihan of the online publication Tablet Magazine, which earlier Monday released an in-depth story on the Dylan passages in "Imagine."

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"I told Mr. Moynihan that they (the quotes in question) were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan's representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said," Lehrer wrote in his statement.

"The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers."

Houghton Mifflin said in a statement that Lehrer had committed a "serious misuse." Listings for the e-book edition of "Imagine" will be removed and shipments of the physical book have been stopped. "Imagine," published in March, has sold more than 200,000 copies, according to Houghton Mifflin. It has spent 16 weeks on The New York Times' hardcover nonfiction bestseller list and ranked No. 105 on Amazon.com as of midday Monday. Amazon had cited the book as among the best March releases.

A spokesman for Dylan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over the past decade, numerous books have been pulled, whether because of lifting material from other sources (Q.R. Markham's "Assassin of Secrets") or fabricating events (James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces"). Canceled books inevitably lead to calls for publishers to fact check releases. But publishers say the time and expense of reviewing thousands of texts, on a vast range of subjects, makes the process impractical.

"Publishing books is fundamentally different from publishing a newspaper or magazine," Bruce Nichols, Houghton Mifflin's senior vice president and publisher of adult trade books, said in a statement. "We rely on the authors' contractual warranties that the work is original and, for non-fiction, accurate.

"Nonetheless we consider accuracy and originality to be essential standards, and whenever any of our authors transgresses these standards we take it very seriously."

The 31-year-old Lehrer had been a rising star at The New Yorker, which is famous for its thorough fact checking. But he was already in trouble with the magazine after he acknowledged last month that he had recycled passages he had written for previous publications. Some recycled passages also appeared in "Imagine," the latest of three books by Lehrer, who is known for his explorations of science and literature and how the mind works.

"This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for," said New Yorker Editor David Remnick.

Among Lehrer's inventions was a quote that first appeared in the famous documentary from the mid-1960s, "Don't Look Back," in which Dylan tells a reporter about his songs that "I just write them. There's no great message." In "Imagine," Lehrer adds a third sentence — "Stop asking me to explain" — that does not appear in the film.

According to Tablet, Lehrer also invented quotes on how Dylan wrote "Like a Rolling Stone" and, when confronted about them, alleged that he had been granted access to an uncut version of "No Direction Home," a Dylan documentary made by Martin Scorsese. Lehrer now says he never saw such footage.

Dylan himself has been challenged about his use of material. His album "Modern Times" included lines lifted from blues songs and from the Civil War poet Henry Timrod. An exhibit of paintings by the rock star turned out to contain images from other sources.

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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