Comeuppance by William Flesch poses a few radically simple questions: Why are we interested in the fate of people we know to be imaginary? What can our story, the Darwinian story, tell us about the stories we tell?

Flesch ably adjudicates among the fascinating claims of game theory and the evolution of cooperation to argue we do not care about fictional beings because we identify with them; rather our interest in fiction is a special case of that glue indispensable to our social world, our interest in seeing cheaters punished and self-sacrifice rewarded. He also argues that a literary criticism informed by the best thinking about human nature need not succumb to an impoverishing reductionism. This wonderful and surprising book, then, is sort of proof by demonstration. It is academic in the best sense: the product of a critical, synthesizing intelligence drawing on his vast and omnivorous reading. (Milton’s Satan and Austen’s Emma wait in the wings with hardboiled detectives and a Tarrantino heroine; the critical insights of Heinrich von Kleist and Gilles Deleuze share the stage with The Fan Fiction Glossary). Along this delightful intellectual promiscuity runs a strain of something simply unafraid of thinking critically about where our stories touch what it means to live and suffer: As in, “Altruists need not be innocent, but they are on the side of the innocent” and “We feel pity when someone feels pain or oppression or grief, only rarely when they feel pity, and perhaps never when they feel self-pity.”

Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction Cover Image
ISBN: 9780674032286
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Harvard University Press - March 1st, 2009

Dorothea Brooke swooned in Rome. Stendhal fainted in Florence. Jeffrey Atman, the protagonist of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, is sotted and besotted in Venice. The novel is several remarkable things at once. First, it is a rushing tale of carnal serendipity and bacchanalian excess at the Venice Biennale, the ultimate junket for a hack arts reporter. It is there that Geoff Dyer describes Jeff's desultory search for a scoop and manic pursuit of Laura - the object of a Bellini-fuelled beatific vision - with shambolic éclat. It is also the story of an inadvertent and unlikely pilgrim in the ancient holy city of Varanasi in northern India. Finally, Jeff in Venice is something far stranger than a mere sequel to Death in Venice, it is an uncanny recurrence of moods, images and whole phrases from Thomas Mann's novella.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307390301
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - April 6th, 2010

The Invention of Air is so much more than an intellectual biography of Joseph Priestley, one of the brightest stars in the 18th Century political, religious and scientific firmament. It is a spectacular demonstration of that virtue Priestley possessed in superabundance, intellectual curiosity. Priestley is less known than he should be: Among his extraordinary generation, he is rivaled only by Jefferson in his astonishing breadth of accomplishment and lasting influence. He invented the liberal arts education, wrote the first book of popular science, discovered that air was composed of several gasses necessary for combustion and life and helped found Unitarianism. Steven Johnson goes beyond tracing Priestley's remarkable life to apply a gleefully promiscuous erudition to the questions it raises: Why does a certain group in a certain place (in this case a coffee house near St. Paul's) produce an efflorescence of achievement? How does individual talent and application jostle with socioeconomic forces in the production of knowledge? Where did the energy to power the industrial and scientific revolutions come from? Steven Johnson is a master of the dazzling superimposition. For example, using network theory to understand the scientific breakthrough that allowed us to understand that all life is an interdependent web. The Invention of Air combines the digressive enlightenment of Wikipedia and an 18th century coffee house.

The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594484018
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - September 29th, 2009