What do we want from the disgraced among us? Atonement, or at least an accounting, and perhaps some sense they’ve learned from their mistakes. No meticulous mea culpa is on offer from Jonah Lehrer in “A Book About Love,” his first title since the last was hurriedly withdrawn. Instead of an apology, in a cunning move Lehrer has written a new book that purports to be about love — but is ultimately a reflection on the inevitability of failure.
With the 2007 publication of his debut “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” Lehrer soon became a prolific, popular science writer, one of a number of scribes who combined research and storytelling. Not as well known as Malcolm Gladwell nor as richly beloved as Oliver Sacks, Lehrer could take a broad or difficult question — How do we get good at something? How do our brains work? — and apply various insights from research, trying to give a story, or series of stories, greater meaning.
Until, that is, it was revealed that he manufactured quotes (from Bob Dylan, no less) for his 2012 book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” and worse, that he claimed material (unattributed, if you’re being charitable) from other writers. As a result, the book was yanked from shelves.
So why bother reading “A Book About Love”? At first, there’s a kind of rubber-necking instinct — the schadenfreude that comes from watching the mighty tumble. But quickly, you see how Lehrer parries: The final 25 pages of the book are all footnotes. There are hundreds and hundreds of them; a typical page might have five or six.
Despite this, there’s still an easiness to Lehrer’s writing about love, and it’s the speed of these pages — even when they share dense ideas — that probably helped him become so popular in the first place. The slurry of science is mercifully studded with juicy facts. For instance, you’ll learn that it takes 13 million calories to raise a child from birth to independence. Additionally, it’s the case that Montaigne, our greatest and original essayist, was moved to write because, Lehrer argues, he was gutted by the death and absence of his dearest friend. “Here I am,” Montaigne wrote, “and as long as I am here, so are you.”
You can feel Lehrer behaving himself, avoiding bombast, restraining himself from over-icing the cake. This is a well-built, sturdy, safe loaf. At least at first.
In the first third of the book, Lehrer paints broadly, establishing what he even means by love, and the pursuit thereof. “We spend our days chasing after the most fleeting things, those desires that never last,” he writes. “Love” — the most magnificent of all human pursuits — “is just another name for what never gets old.”
What’s key to an enduring love, he argues, is the formation of attachment. To explore the origins, he discusses a case where baby monkeys were given a soft “mother” and a less cuddly mother made of wire; to investigate their preference researchers would bundle the mothers with a tube for milk. But it didn’t matter which — hard or soft — had the food. It wasn’t just to satisfy a physical hunger that monkeys became so attached to a soft mother. This, Lehrer suggests, is the basis of our desire for love and affection. “By the age of five months, the monkeys were spending nearly 18 hours a day nuzzling with their cuddly parent; they would climb to the wire parent only to eat…the lesson was clear: the developing mind desperately craved the pleasures of closeness.”
I’ve never been entirely crazy about the formula: Stories, plus science! Something too neat and mechanical emerges. But Lehrer has a finely tuned feel for just when an abstraction or insight feels too thin, and at this point he usually pivots back into the lush territory of narrative. He labels these mini-chapters “Interludes,” each a specific example of love; in one memorable story there’s an Indian man and woman living in an arranged marriage. So curious was their love to others that the husband tells Lehrer that he wrote an entire novel, in part, to explain to everyone how he and his wife could be so happy.
The latter bits of the book look more closely at how love survives when everything else seems to fall apart. The amazing thing that starts to happen, in pages I wanted to dislike, is that the anecdotes and insights made me stop thinking about Lehrer — stop noticing and interrogating his defensive notations — and instead, started taking measure of my own ability to love.
The most stirring parts of the book linger on the taunting idea that a perfect love is out of reach. In various passages that feel particularly meaningful, Lehrer is forthcoming — not about his situation as a writer or husband, but about his shortcomings as a parent, the most natural (and maybe difficult) love of all. Lehrer never says this exactly, but we come to understand that before the disgrace he was an absent father. Thrust into an unfamiliar role, he’s ugly: “When I was first trying to care for my daughter,” he writes, “I kept searching for shortcuts.”
But children — and real love — rarely accept shortcuts. And neither, alas, do good readers. As much as I enjoyed reading this exploration of love and loss, it was ultimately both too humble and too defensive. It doesn’t quite give us enough reason to offer Lehrer the warm embrace his test subjects sought.
He quotes Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” “Put another way,” he writes, and it’s perhaps the basic permission we have to grant the man and those like him, “we tell ourselves stories because life is ripe with pain, but we’ve got to go on living anyway.”
Deuel is the author of "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East."
Simon & Schuster: 304 pp., $26