Perhaps you read my latest popular-science book, Colons: How the New Science of Punctuation Is Changing Our Book Titles. I intended it to change the conversation about how we have conversations. I showed how evolutionary fight-or-flight reactions — that ineffably mammalian moment of confusion and hesitation — led to the semicolon. It was well received, and once we had a blurb that compared it to Malcolm Gladwell, they printed another 100,000 copies. There was even talk of a movie, with Al Pacino playing the exclamation point, and Gérard Depardieu as the accent grave.
A few weeks ago I got a call from a journalist asking about some of the quotes. In the chapter “From Borges to Borge; or, What Does a Comma Sound Like in Spanish?” I’d profiled an Argentinian man who made a clicking sound every time he encountered a comma when reading out loud.
“A comma fills the empty space between things click!” he said, “and it is in man’s nature to abhor a vacuum click! particularly if the wife is running it when you’re trying to sleep.”
The journalist pointed out that the line turned up in a 1974 Mad magazine article, and I felt a brief spasm of panic. I’d never been to Argentina. In fact I’d made up everything in the book. After the success of my first popular-science book, Lassie Was a Geologist: Absurd Assertions and the New Science of Book Marketing, I’d been under pressure to produce another book within two years; plagiarism and a haphazard parade of claptrap seemed my only option.
The more he pressed, the more I knew the jig was up, and I confessed. Everything I wrote was a lie. Except for that profile of Lillian Hellman.
Note: I made all that up. Don’t you feel sorry for me? Don’t you wonder where I went wrong?
After all, I’m just like Jonah Lehrer, disgraced New Yorker science scribe, except he actually did make things up, and I just made things up about making things up. Lehrer wrote a book called Imagine, a disquisition on the neurological origins of creativity. He made the mistake of inventing Bob Dylan quotes, and since there are people who have memorized every cryptic utterance from Dylan — which is a little like sculpting with oatmeal — Lehrer was found out. The hunt for fibs and plagiarism began. If you’ve ever seen a nature documentary where insects flense a dead beast down to white bone, you know what the Internet can do. Lehrer quit his New Yorker post, apologized, and went into the deep dark woods where the shades of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair float in eternal disgrace.