Paperbacks

The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley, Penguin pounds 8.99. Ever since Darwin published his theory of evolution, a debased version of it has been used to justify the most unpleasant views of society: only the fittest survive, selfishness is nature's way, opportunism is written into our genes. So, either benevolence has to be enforced, or any attempt to enforce benevolence is pie in the sky: self-interest rules. Ridley's book, a beautifully readable, comprehensible digest of the latest ideas in the field, ought to put paid to that sort of sloppy thinking. His argument is, essentially, that any social animal must evolve social virtues - trust, reciprocity, generosity - or it won't last long. Altruism is programmed into us as a tool for survival - trustworthiness is a way of making other people trust us, being generous encourages others to be generous to us. You could see this as soul-destroying and mechanistic, or , like Ridley, as optimistic and liberating. The only awkward spot is the final chapter, where Ridley moves from biological premises to political conclusions with a sort of disclaiming shrug: Don't blame me, guv, I can't help it if centralised state intervention is wrong - it's just nature's way, innit? Mind you, it's a pretty unconventional version of the minimal state that he has in mind - one devoted solely to "national defence and redistribution of wealth". A minimal state that redistributes wealth?

The Pleasures of the Imagination by John Brewer, Fontana pounds 19.99. A magisterial work - by which I mean too long, learned and closely argued for the layman to feel qualified to criticise it - on the development of "high culture" in 18th-century Britain. This was the period when all our views of what counts as art (literature, theatre, music, opera, painting and sculpture) were formed, and you can still see the hangover today, in public rows about operatic subsidy or literary prizes. Brewer wends his way through the clubs, coffee-houses and academies, the fashions and theories that created public taste, showing how art - in Britain, alone among major European countries - ceased to be the preserve of the court, and spread to a growing bourgeoisie with bulging pockets and a thirst for culture, first in London and then in the provinces. It makes an interesting pairing with Ridley, who argues that small is beautiful, decentralisation is the path to vigour and success. Brewer's anatomy of a period that was arguably the finest flowering of British art shows, in lucid, fluent prose, how the theory works in practice.

Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec, ed and trans John Sturrock, Penguin pounds 6.99. Meditations, games, fictions (in the Borgesian sense) on, principally, the concept of space and the way we inhabit it, by the author of Life: A User's Manual and La Disparition (in English, A Void: the novel that dispenses with the letter "e"). In some of these pieces Perec's combination of high abstraction and almost pathological attention to outwardly trivial detail has its appeal; but the flashes of brilliance are rarely developed, and his jeux d'esprit are dispiritingly unfunny.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark, Penguin pounds 6.99. Not much reality evident in her 20th novel: it's set in a strange, glamorous caricature of the real world, one in which film directors can get finance for arty movies about fifth-century Celts with second sight, and redundancy rages through the land like the Spanish influenza. But perhaps it isn't meant to be real. The opening sentence, repeated later on, is: "He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God's dreams." Spark is interested in the film-maker's, and the novelist's, ability to impose their whims on a fictive world - characters are suddenly summoned into being and endowed with personalities by fiat; emotions swing arbitrarily; events take sudden turns. It's all rather entertaining, and quite possibly profound.

Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban, Picador pounds 6.99. Raban heads to the flat, dry prairie land of eastern Montana, which in the early years of this century became the scene of one of the last great pioneering ventures: thousands of families were tempted to migrate there from Europe and the eastern United States by the offer of cheap land and extravagant claims about its agricultural potential. Unfortunately, "scientific dry soil farming" proved no match for Montana's arid summers and icy winters, and by the late Forties most of the settlers had moved on. Raban pokes around the debris they left behind (shacks, old pieces of machinery slowly melting into the prairie), and comes up with a thoroughly original, engagingly melancholy study of landscape, history and what it is to be an American.

Much more than just a coffee-table book, Life on the Russian Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History by Patricia Roosevelt (Yale pounds 16.95) combines a copious range of illustrations with a probing text on the curious background and history of those strange hybrid creatures, the Russian nobility and gentry, and the houses and gardens they made. Some were truly palatial, usually Italianate; others hardly more than clapboard holiday houses. Full-size churches with gilded onion domes are often lonely survivors of ruined estates. Above, Marianna Davydova's 1920s watercolour of the Lopukhin family at tea

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