Skip to main content
book review

The temptation to take Jonah Lehrer to the woodshed presented itself immediately on hearing that he had a new book.

He is every working journalist's favourite villain: a precociously gifted science writer in the mould of Malcolm Gladwell whose gratingly impressive résumé became a shrine of schadenfreude when it emerged that he had plagiarized and fabricated his way through enough pieces to have two books pulped and his job at the New Yorker vacated.

Most famously, and to many most gallingly, he made up Bob Dylan quotes. Given the army of Dylanologists who know the bard's oeuvre down to the weird radio show he hosted, Lehrer may as well have invented bits of scripture.

This context looms heavily over A Book About Love. An author's note lays out his history of journalistic sin and the text wears its footnotes like a parolee's ankle bracelet. Lehrer's disgrace even provides the book with a rough schema: this is nominally a story about the redemptive power of love.

But if there are reversions to corner-cutting here, they are elusive. Anyway, Lehrer has found a way to partly transcend his reputation: There's too much in this book that's authentically and originally bad to mind much about the other stuff.

His thesis is that love is hard work. Love is a long marriage; love is getting over your hatred of the son who refuses to tie his shoes.

"Attachment theory," a controversial subdiscipline of psychology, provides his argument a scientific spine. The attachment theorists posit close human contact as an innate human need. It is deeper than pleasure and comes from the yearning for succour during infancy (because of our big heads and our mothers' narrow birth canals, we are born prematurely and require longer and more attentive parental care than other animals).

Fortified by studies, Lehrer argues that the story of love as heedless passion peddled by Disney and Shakespeare is a destructive fairy tale.

At the outset, there appears to be reason for patience with this rather ambitious stance. It's in the nature of pop-science writing to pose at turning conventional wisdom on its head; sometimes – especially with Gladwell, master of the form – the approach yields real insight.

Meanwhile, the writerly skill that made Lehrer a publishing superstar by his mid-20s is on frequent display. He maintains the zippy pacing of a Netflix documentary and knows how to turn a phrase (describing the drudgery of raising small children as "inlaid with all sorts of tender pleasures" is nice).

Alas, sentence-by-sentence flair cannot redeem what is ultimately a facile exercise. The fatal problem with the book is that it attempts to pigeonhole love. Trouble is, love won't fit.

Great writers recognize this. In the best romantic literature, it is fine-grained, flighty, particular. That's what makes the theme inexhaustible: love is different every time.

Nothing better exemplifies Lehrer's basic failure to grasp this complexity than his crusade against Romeo and Juliet. The contempt he feels for these fictional characters verges on the pathological; maybe he was forced to read the play by a nasty high school English teacher.

How else to explain the trembling lower lip of passages such as this (just one of a half dozen muggings he inflicts on the first couple of Verona)? "Those teenagers pretended that love is a pleasure so intense it eclipses every pain," he writes. "They assumed that relationships provide their own forward momentum, and that finding an enduring love was simply a matter of falling for the right person. But that is a fantasy, a most dangerous myth."

Among the many problems with this analysis: It suggests Lehrer has not read all the way to the end. Far from assuming that enduring love is easy, Romeo and Juliet kill themselves out of heartbreak after their bond is shattered by a family feud. To make them paragons of larksome teenage romance is ridiculous.

Lehrer probably does know how Romeo and Juliet ends, and pointing out his aggressive misreading of the play would be petty if it wasn't part of a pattern. But the shallow, tendentious use of literature is at the heart of his book. For all his deftness summarizing a study, books seem to flummox the man.

John Updike's rich, tortured Maple stories are reduced to "a kind of longitudinal study."

Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust memoirist who survived Auschwitz and concluded that love is the salvation of man, earns this sniffy rebuke: "The power of the idea is not the idea itself, which is sappy and sentimental."

Jane Austen is treated more generously (Lehrer likes that "no sudden swells of dopamine and adrenalin occur in her novels," which will surprise the thousands of young women who have thrilled vicariously at Marianne's first encounter with Willoughby, but never mind). The problem is that his applause for her subtlety exposes his lack of the same.

This, finally, is what offends about Lehrer's high-handedness with the canon. It's not merely that he is rude – it's that he seems to have learned nothing. The book is studded with wonderful epigraphs by Larkin, Frost and Rimbaud, but none of their tentative wisdom seems to have seeped into Lehrer's consciousness.

A patina of science stands in for real human understanding. At one point, he uses a line graph to demonstrate that, in marriages, "passion always fades" (his italics).

And too often he sounds like a newly landed extraterrestrial doing his best to imitate the Earthlings. "Sometimes," he writes, "love demands that spouses touch their partner in an affectionate way or say something nice."

This, meanwhile, may be the book's quintessential sentence: "Companionate love remains one of the grand mysteries of human nature. Nevertheless, we can see its underpinnings with carefully done fMRI studies of the brain."

Lehrer's reliance on this sort of stuff – brain scans, and words such as "companionate" – would be easier to take if he showed a little more scientific rigour himself. The first step in any experiment, not to mention any argument, is defining your terms. Lehrer never properly defines what he means by "love," and his argument suffers for it.

It might be an understandable lapse: The word love is used to mean all kinds of things. But Lehrer draws a funny, oblong circle around his version, leaving out human infatuation – mere "limerence," he says, borrowing the clinical term – but including the mourning behaviour of elephants.

And then, in his quest for a unified theory of love, he conflates a crazy quilt of emotions. Longing for an ex, devotion to a friend, protectiveness toward a sister, and newlywed euphoria are separated by as much as they have in common. To Lehrer, these differences hardly matter. When looked at "through the prism of attachment theory" the similarities between parental and romantic love become "inescapable," he says. The brain even spurts the same chemical during breastfeeding and sex! (You have permission to retch.)

This elision of difference between varieties of love isn't merely creepy. It's also an intellectual failure. The peculiarity of love tells us about being human, with all the turbulence and randomness that condition implies.

Montaigne understood this. Writing of his youthful love, the aristocrat Étienne la Boétie, he sighed: "If you ask me why I loved him, I feel that it can only be explained by saying, because it was him, because it was me."

Lehrer quotes the great essayist; he's generous and apt with a quote. But the thought, in its simplicity, humility and mystery, mocks the pseudoscientific certainty that surrounds it.

All of this is veering dangerously close to saying Lehrer should have written another sort of book. That would be unfair: he is not a novelist or a poet or a philosopher. He is a journalist. Journalists have the right to address big themes, too.

But compare Lehrer's effort to another popular treatment of a daunting subject: Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a meditation on the idea of death by the English novelist Julian Barnes.

Its composition also had a personal impetus, and likewise drew on scientific and literary sources. But where Barnes's volume felt frustratingly piecemeal when I read it earlier this year, an erudite but incoherent stroll through the proverbial graveyard, it seems wondrously sane next to Lehrer's bombast.

Barnes didn't particularly seek, and acknowledged his failure to find, a great overarching theory of death. (Naturally.) Instead he offered the best thinking on the topic that he had come across in decades of reading, with tentative thoughts of his own providing a gloss.

With Lehrer, we instead get the kind of hubris that leads a person to make up Bob Dylan quotes – flashed not in brazen invention, but in the overweening sweep of his analysis and the glib dismissal of writers he would have done well to imitate.

Eric Andrew-Gee is a Globe and Mail reporter.