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

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'