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Speaker Lehrer has a troubled past

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Jonah Lehrer is coming to Duluth with baggage.

He knows he won’t get rid of it any time soon.

“That will take a long time,” Lehrer wrote in an email this week.

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Lehrer, who is 32 but looks younger, was once described by the New York Times as a “wunderkind of the journalism and publishing worlds.” By summer 2012, he had published three books of popular science, he was in demand as a speaker, and he was a staff writer for the New Yorker.

All of that came crashing down with a July 30, 2012, article in the online publication Tablet that challenged the authenticity of some of the quotes in Lehrer’s book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

The alleged source of those quotes: Bob Dylan.

Lehrer had already come under fire for “recycling” some of his own previous material in blog posts for the New Yorker, the Times reported. After the Dylan kerfuffle, Lehrer’s downfall was swift. He resigned from the New Yorker. Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recalled “Imagine,” which had sold 200,000 copies.

William Payne, who is bringing Lehrer to the University of Minnesota Duluth for next week’s Sieur Du Luht Creativity Conference, was among those who already had a copy.

News of Lehrer’s journalistic fraud broke “about three months … after I had recommended this book to my entire faculty,” said Payne, who is dean of UMD’s School of Fine Arts.

In a telephone conversation with Lehrer that December, “I … told him I was mad at him,” Payne said.

But after that conversation, and a face-to-face meeting with Lehrer in San Diego last May, Payne decided he still wanted Lehrer to come to Duluth.

Payne said he told Lehrer: “I believe in second acts. I believe that people make mistakes. It seems to me that you know what happened here, and you’ve learned from it.”

In his email, Lehrer said he does know better now. “I know that, one day, I will be a better person and writer because of what I’ve learned,” Lehrer wrote.

Although Lehrer has been disgraced, he may not be hurting too much financially. The New York Times reported that a speech he gave in Miami in February 2013 earned him a $20,000 honorarium. And the project he’s working on now, “A Book About Love,” was sold to one of the “big six” publishing firms, Simon & Schuster.

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