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Short Takes

'Imagine: How Creativity Works,' 'History of a Pleasure Seeker,' and 'Reading for my Life: Writings, 1958-2008'

IMAGINE: How Creativity Works By Jonah Lehrer

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 279 pp., $26

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“The imagination can seem like a magic trick of matter,’’ writes Jonah Lehrer, “ . . . but we are beginning to understand how the trick works.’’ In trying to understand and harness the secrets behind the creative process, Lehrer starts where ideas start: the human brain. The book’s best chapters illuminate the processes at work when we make quick intuitive connections, solve difficult puzzles, create new works of art or science that surprise even ourselves. Lehrer talks with brain scientists about the conditions that foster such flashes of brilliance (daydreaming works, as do long walks in the woods). But creativity takes more than epiphany, and harnessing the sustained focus needed to refine, revise, and edit requires attention to other neurological neighborhoods (it turns out that caffeine and amphetamines actually can help with these tasks, as Auden and Kerouac already knew).

Turning to the problem of fostering creativity in groups, Lehrer looks at the role of social connections on Broadway musical productions and the way Steve Jobs designed the Pixar offices to ensure collaboration between animators and engineers. At this point, one wishes the author did a better job describing the differences, if any, between the kind of creativity found in the arts and that seen in the sciences; too often, Lehrer and the scientists he quotes seem to equate writing a poem with filing an electrical patent, an assumption not all readers will share. Lehrer’s admiration for the creativity-enhancing effects of city life (“the human friction that creates the sparks’’) sets up the book’s worst bits (“Lagos [Nigeria] has plenty of friction, but that friction doesn’t lead to new patents’’). This book has too many smarts to be so clueless.

HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER By Richard Mason

Knopf, 288 pp., $25.95

If Charles Dickens and Jane Austen had a love child who grew up reading nothing but Edith Wharton and Penthouse Forum - well, that person might be almost as wry, sexy, and knowing a writer as Richard Mason. The book opens in 1907 Amsterdam as Piet Barols (“extremely attractive to most women and to many men’’) presents himself to the Vermeulen-Sickerts household as a prospective tutor for the family’s youngest, 10-year-old Egbert. The boy, it turns out, is just about the only person in the household who isn’t in the running for the story’s first big mystery: With whom will Piet succumb to sexual temptation first? The prime candidates are the family’s 20-something daughters, Constance and Louisa, but it’s not giving anything away to reveal that the winner is their mother, the sex-starved and imperious Jacobina. As tutor, Piet inhabits an ambiguous space between family and servants, so he’s also in a position to smolder with Didier Loubat, the household footman, with whom he shares a bathroom (and eventually, a bath).

This could easily be ridiculous, formulaic, or just plain trashy. Yet it’s beautifully observed, perfectly paced, genuinely sexy, and in the end, a terrifically fun read. Mason’s ability to inhabit the inner voices of the servants and those they serve lends the book a rich realism, seen even in the most minor characters - such as lady’s maid Agneta, who has discovered that “the easiest way to avoid an over-familiar curiosity in her superiors’ lives was to have no genuine interest in them whatsoever.’’ Piet, who has “a great gift for experiencing the present,’’ is a truly likeable character, even if he may be (as he himself suspects) a bad human being. That he may be, yet in the end he leaves the Vermeulen-Sickerts family in better shape than when he found them.

READING FOR MY LIFE: Writings, 1958-2008 By John Leonard

Viking, 381 pp., $35

The challenges facing a critic in the half-century covered by this collection of John Leonard’s reviews and essays must have been daunting. He reviewed books from the middlebrow to the crustiest heights of the literary establishment. He covered television as well, and that means he covered it all: US history and culture, from the Cold War to his death in 2008. This book gathers the highlights in this very high-flying body of work.

As a writer, Leonard was often virtuosic in the vein of the New Journalism, but with more heart; as a thinker, he was both confident and aware of the follies of confidence. He could be charmingly self-deprecating, gently bemused, or (more frequently) unapologetically angry. After Salman Rushdie found himself marked for death after writing “The Satanic Verses,’’ the tepid and even absent support offered by many in the journalistic and literary establishment roused Leonard to a wonderful fury. Leonard’s essay takes Pat Buchanan to task for a New York Post column describing the First Amendment as “the last refuge of the scoundrel’’; Leonard responded that no, it was “precisely what protects the right of a Buchanan to his swamp fevers, the privilege of such pips to squeak.’’ On Toni Morrison’s first book after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Leonard writes as proud friend, avid reader, and infectiously rapturous critic. Morrison evokes “late melon and roast lamb, wild poppies and river vine, burnt lavender and broken babies, cherubim and body bags.’’ He paid his fellow writers the great compliment of his fully engaged (even if enraged) attention. The collection ends with tributes from Morrison and others, testifying to how rare and valuable that was.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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