Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer

Every once in a while I come across a book that I don’t really want to read but feel like I should. Imagine falls into that category. My mother sent me her copy after she finished with it, and although she clearly thought it would be interesting to me, I think she might have been mistaking me for my husband.

You see, I’m what I would call “apologetically apathetic” to the breakdown of how things work. I want to care, I really do, but I get bored easily when someone actually bothers to explain. I vividly remember, about four years ago, walking down the street in Harlem with my best friend; she was horrified that I had only recently started at a job that offered a 401k, and that furthermore, I had no idea what that was or what I was supposed to do with it. The explanation that followed was excruciating – I ‘m not sure if the burning hairdryer smell was coming from her brain or mine – but it was the last time she tried to enlighten me about the importance of managing my portfolio.

Two years later, on a road trip across the country, I made the mistake of asking my husband to explain exactly what sort of coding he was doing at work before we left on our vacation. It was my own fault – I know that now – but I was honestly curious. Coding has always seemed like a particularly mysterious foreign language, and I wanted to understand how he used it. Unfortunately, the swaying of the car, the lack of caffeine, and my complete inability to turn auditory discussion into comprehensible ideas of my own led to about two hours of me fighting to keep my eyes open. I wasn’t bored; I just couldn’t focus on such abstract ideas.

I really do like to learn (I swear!) but I have a difficult time seeing the big picture, so when I picked up this book and realized that Lehrer had broken the eight elements of creativity into chapters of anecdotes, I was thrilled. I get stories. I can use concrete examples to extrapolate a larger idea, and in fact, that was the technique he used almost exclusively. He does a wonderful job of illustrating each of his concepts while covering topics as diverse as the invention of masking tape, the brilliance of Shakespeare, and the importance of urban development, all in his quest to unravel the mysteries of creativity.

It was a well-written and researched book that encouraged me to think of creativity as innovation rather than as a restrictive idea limited to artists. When I was talking to my friends about it this week, every single one of them told me, “Oh, I wouldn’t be interested – I’m not creative at all,” and to each of them I said, “you’re wrong…let this guy prove it to you.” Of course, the reason the book came up at all was because I was complaining about it.

The challenge for me was that, although it was a fascinating subject (and presented as well as I’ve ever seen) and I absorbed a lot of new information, it was difficult to make myself sit down and read more than a chapter at a time. I don’t know how to say that without making you think that the book isn’t worth reading, but I really don’t believe that to be true. I actually think this a great choice for a much larger audience than I usually appeal to (ie passionate but frustrated teenagers, older adults who feel stymied in their current profession, people who think they lack creativity just because their passion falls outside of traditional ideas of what that means – not to mention engineers, mathematicians, inventors, teachers, gardeners, athletes…basically, if you’re human and have a shred of curiosity…).

The failure is much more on my side than it is on Lehrer’s. One of the things I’m working on in these reviews is piquing my interest in a wider array of topics. When it comes to non-fiction especially, I have some major hurdles ahead of me. If only I could hold a book up to my forehead and absorb the information without reading a word (I would have so much more time for reading my literary bread and butter – the novel), but I can’t, and to avoid books just because my attention wanders when I try to read them is to sell both the author and myself short.

I think limiting myself would be a great failure on my part as a reader – it’s a failure that I know many of us struggle with. I would also say it’s one of the major factors in turning young people off from reading for the rest of their lives (which is why one of the tenets of my blog is from this quote by Maya Angelou, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.”) I am not a child anymore though, and my love of books is already firmly established, so I have no excuses to hide behind. The push beyond what is comfortable and well-loved will eventually lead to me finding more books to love. I have to believe this is true because the possibility that I’ve already discovered all I can get out of books…well, that’s just about the worst thing I can imagine.

To find out more about Jonah Lehrer, head over here.

5 thoughts on “Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer

  1. I read this book last week, and I really enjoyed it. Though fiction is my love, I do like an educational nonfiction book. And this one was fascinating! Hang in there. :)

    1. I will ;) I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it as well. Sometimes the books I review are so far off the beaten path that I assume no one will have read them, so now and again it’s nice to read something current that other readers have heard of/read!

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