What’s real and what's not? And as a reader, can you tell the difference?
Recently, I picked up copies of Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses and Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide at a local library benefit. I’d heard good things about Ackerman and less-good things about Lehrer, but both authors' reputations provoked my curiosity. Because Ackerman explores how our senses make things real and Lehrer has been discredited for making things up, I wanted to read their books with a critical eye.
Then, a funny thing happened: I starting seeing things about sense, memory, and honesty everywhere. Sometimes, there seems to be an odd synergy in my reading—so if I’m engrossed in a fascinating book, for example, I’ll accidentally stumble across a mention of it online—and this week, that was definitely true. So, enjoy these “synergistic” readings, where the topics of memory, sensibility, and truthfulness collide.
On Your Kindle
A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman
This week, I’ve been reading this playful and intriguing collection of mini-essays. Ranging widely, Ackerman structures sections of the book around each sense—touch, taste, vision, smell, and hearing—then writes vignettes exploring various aspects of our sensibilities.
I’ve written about her beautiful essays on touch on my blog, but Ackerman is also a fascinating observer of scent:
Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary, and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blackberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel… Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant landmines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences.”
On Your Smartphone
"Speak, Memory," by Oliver Sacks, The New York Review of Books
In this article, Sacks discusses writing about his intense childhood memories and then discovering—to his shock—that some of his memories weren’t real. Sacks’ realization that he had absorbed an event from a letter written by his other brother, David, who had witnessed a WWII-era bombing, drives him to question the very essence of his memories and their role in writing. This is a sensitive, thought-provoking read.
Ironically, I found it via Brainpickings, one of my favorite websites, where—synergy again—Lehrer is mentioned in the introduction: “The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true.”
On a Podcast
Jonah Lehrer Interview, The Knight Foundation
Following his plagiarism scandal, former New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer was featured in a media conference hosted by the Knight Foundation. Watch the proceedings here to see how Lehrer describes his own scandal and why he chose to make the decisions that he did, including fabricating an entire interview with Bob Dylan in his book Imagine, stealing material from other journalists, and recycling material from his own work.
Some have criticized Lehrer for not being remorseful enough for his misdeeds in his own accounts of the scandal and for glossing over the extent of his literary crimes—what do you think?
Next on my list is psychologist Fernyhough’s Pieces of Light, which examines the newest science on our memories—and I am hoping that Fernyhough will shed some light on why memory is such a tricky, sometimes terrible thing. As he writes, we need memory: “Without our memories, we would be lost to ourselves, amnesiacs flailing around in a constant, unrelenting present.” Our memories might be the basis of who we are, he says, but they are also “more like a habit, a process of constructing something from its parts, in similar but subtly changing ways each time, whenever the occasion arises.”