Science

Review: The Humor Code

The Humor Genome Project

A journalist and a scientist walk into a bar… travel the world, return to the lab and come out with what is likely the best book you’ll read all year

by Vince Darcangelo

 

In my graduate form and technique class, our instructor, Steven Schwartz, devoted a three-hour class period to humor. I was shocked to learn that there was a dearth of The Humor Codecomic literature to study.

Why had so few serious writers ventured down that rabbit hole?

“Comedy is not kind,” Schwartz explained to us. “There is blood in comedy, which is why most people shy away from being comic writers.”

Joel Warner and Peter McGraw would agree.

“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” they write in their new book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

“Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.

Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.

The theory itself is quite intuitive and elegant in its simplicity: Humor arises from the violation of a norm (be it political, social, personal), but in a way that is recognized as harmless or good-natured (“jk”) by all involved.

The prime illustration is tickling. Taken outside of its traditional context, tickling is a clear violation of personal space, yet it sometimes elicits laughter.

More importantly for the BVT, sometimes it does not.

If a stranger on the bus jabs his fingers in your armpits and begins to wiggle them, the appropriate response is a slap or the tossing of a hot beverage in his face. This is a close encounter of the non-benign kind.

Now, pause for a moment and try to tickle yourself. Go ahead, no judgment. Couldn’t do it, could you? Your fingers go through the motions, but it’s just not the same. That’s because though your intention was benign, it was not a violation of personal space.

Therefore, not funny.

But let your personal tickle monster have at the back of your ear lobes, and you just might cry with laughter. It’s a violation of personal space, but by someone on the guest list—ostensibly with good intentions.

*

So that’s the theory of BVT, how about the application?

For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.

That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.

*

Here I’ll pause for a short disclaimer. Let it be noted that Joel Warner is a friend of mine. I have cat-sat for him on occasion, not to mention the numerous times we’ve helped each other stumble home from the Boulder bars at 2 a.m.

For three years, Warner and I were co-workers at an alternative newsweekly in Colorado, and on a daily basis I was witness to his talent, integrity and work ethic. From our earliest days in the newsroom, the editorial team knew he would be writing best-selling books someday.

That day is today.

*

If I had to make comparisons, I would liken The Humor Code to Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. Like those two books, the reader comes away knowing more about the topic, and about the world at large, than they would’ve thought when they first cracked the spine—and in a way that makes you laugh as much as you learn.

Mixing the experimental with the anecdotal, here are a few of their discoveries:

  • “Japan is a high-context society. The country is so homogenous, so unified in its history and culture, that most zingers don’t need set-ups at all.” (“The United States, on the other hand, is as low context as you can get.”)
  • “…A sense of humor is seen as a sign of intelligence, social desirability and overall genetic fitness. In other words, good jokes are a guy’s version of colorful peacock plumes…”
  • “We found humor designed to ease people’s pain, a laughter shared by Palestinian street kids and Israeli Holocaust survivors alike.”

The latter observation is the exclamation point to a friendly interaction between a Palestinian shopkeeper and an Israeli policeman. It was a beautiful moment that even had this cynical bastard singing “We Are the World.”

*

But there’s more to humor (and The Humor Code) than just the har-hars and the touchy-feelies. Alongside the camaraderie is the reality of political and cultural blowback. For the tender moments observed in Palestine, there is the reminder that the sketch comedy television show was shut down when it became too controversial. We learn that real life goes on for Patch Adams after his Hollywood ending. There is personal tragedy and, lest we forget, reminders of the embassies and churches that were set on fire, the people who were murdered and those who remain captives in their own homes for fear of their lives because of a newspaper comic.

Yes, because of a newspaper comic.

In a commentary that would do Professor Schwartz proud, Warner and McGraw write:

“We laugh loudest at the most arousing humor attempts, the stuff that’s laced with a bit of danger. So in order to come up with the best comedy, we have to skirt ever closer to the realm of tragedy, hurt and pain. For some people, the result will hit that perfect, hilarious sweet spot. For others, it goes over the line.”

Warner and McGraw aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, whether they’re mining gallows humor in war zones, dissecting the world’s funniest joke or bombing onstage before a crowd of angry drunks, these guys bravely submerse themselves in the blood sport that is comedy.

They write: “It’s almost as if making people laugh during dark and troubling times is so vital, so crucial, that it outweighs common sense, and maybe even self-preservation.”

Their observations are sharp, insightful and they’re not afraid to explore the breadth of emotions comedy elicits. They’re even bold enough to be funny on five continents.

Their conclusions? Well, you’ll have to read the book for those, but of course, as with all great literature, you’ll soon learn that the joy is in pursuing the question, not necessarily finding a definitive answer.

The journey might take you to some dark places, so be sure to pack a clown nose with your Band-Aids.

And may all your violations be benign.

Review: Newton’s Football

Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game

Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez

Here’s a book combining two of my favorite things: science writing and football. Turns Newtons Footballout they go together as naturally (and tastily) as Dorito’s and M&Ms, and like that classic combo, I binged on it until it was all gone. The authors write with passion and knowledge, and in every chapter there was something I didn’t know, either about science or the sport I love.

It begins, fittingly, with an interview with Stephen Wolfram (the theoretical physicist and author of A New Kind of Science), who explains the role chaos theory plays in your team’s game plan. I had always considered the 12th man to be the home crowd, but it turns out to be initial conditions. “Change the initial conditions and the outcomes diverge exponentially,” Wolfram says, leading the authors to extrapolate that “The no-huddle offense was chaos theory at work.”

My new dream is to hear Chris Berman reference initial conditions during a highlight reel.

The ball itself has an interesting history—and a physics all its own. There is no such thing as a tight spiral, for example, since the pigskin (which isn’t really pigskin) requires gyroscopic torque to remain in flight. Knowing that, you might just feel empathy rather than outrage the next time your quarterback lofts a lame duck over the middle.

This book transforms the gridiron into a laboratory. And much like those “Eureka” moments in the lab, serendipity and circumstance had a hand in the game’s innovation, such as the introduction of the West Coast offense and the soccer-style kick. St. John and Ainissa also prove that not all penalties are created equal: The more important stat is not penalty yardage but the breakdown between offensive and defensive infractions.

There is a serious side to Newton’s Football as well. While advances in neuroscience have revealed the extent of football’s brutality, many are wondering if football will exist in another 25 years—and if so, will it be recognizable to today’s fans. The authors explore the current concussion research and uncover some possible solutions.

Along the way, the authors revisit some of the game’s most famous plays and players, and combine physics and football with narrative journalism in one of the easiest and most interesting reads I’ve encountered all year (and that’s no small amount of books). Definitely in my top 10.

Newton’s Football is a must-have for fans of football and/or science. Not everyone is a fan of both, which is all the better because this book offers a chance to expand one’s horizons.

By the final page it will have armchair quarterbacks running statistical analysis and lab rats rubbing elbows at the sports bar. Does it get more interesting than that?

Review: Buddhist Biology

Buddhist Biology

David P. Barash

Forgive me a nostalgia trip to 1994, when alt-jazz rockers Soul Coughing released their Buddhist Biologydebut album Ruby Vroom. The lead track was “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” a hypnotic, oddly existential number allegedly inspired by a bad acid trip in which singer Mike Doughty must distinguish between himself and his surroundings.

It made for a great song, but any biologist will tell you it doesn’t hold up to modern science. Or, for that matter, not-so-modern philosophy.

But Doughty was working toward something significant in that trippy little tune: Where does the “I” end and the “everything else” begin?

It may very well be at the intersection of science and spirituality, according to scientist and self-described Buddhist atheist David P. Barash, author of the brilliant Buddhist Biology.

He admits at the beginning that his goal is an ambitious one: to locate common ground where science and spirituality may coexist. Whereas the Abrahamic religions have long been at odds with science, he argues that Buddhist thought is compatible with high school textbooks.

“Why? Because among the key aspects of Buddhism, we find insistence that knowledge must be gained through personal experience rather than reliance on the authority of sacred texts or the teachings of avowed masters, because its orientation is empirical rather than theoretical, and because it rejects any conception of absolutes.” (18)

That is to say, it allows for the scientific method.

Barash eloquently connects the principles of anatman (not-self), anitya (impermanence) and pratityasamputpada (interdependence) to current biological knowledge. Science has shattered the duality of the actor and the environment, and in doing so has validated thousands of years of Buddhist philosophy.

I am particularly interested in anitya, which leads us into discussions regarding the illusion of time and motion. In considering life as a sequence of moments, Barash distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self (which is similar to Sartre’s Pre-Reflective Cogito, but don’t get me started on my boy Jean-Paul).

The main idea is that each moment is unique and temporary. Nothing lasts, except for in memory, through which we develop a narrative and impose continuity.

Now, I’ll leave the scientific explanations to Barash, as I’m not very qualified to give a proper breakdown, and only slightly more so to discuss eastern philosophy. What I am qualified to provide, though , is a recommendation of Buddhist Biology. Barash takes difficult concepts and presents them in a thoroughly readable and enjoyable narrative. You’ll learn new things, brush up on your philosophy and find it difficult to close this book.

You’ll come away with the realization that there is no distinction between Chicago and Not Chicago, Is and Is Not. There is only this moment.

Or more simply put, There Is.

Review: Best American

The Best American series has designed such a unique identity that I can recognize a volume through the thickest wrapping paper. The symmetry of the books is soothing, Best American Science 2013and they look dynamite aligned on the shelves. A friend recently stared in awe of their arrangement on my bookcase (thanks OCD).

But it’s the content that really makes Best American stand out.

My three favorite editions are the science, essay and mystery writing editions, with lots of love for the sports, short stories and nonrequired reading, but that’s part of what makes the series so successful: everybody has a favorite, but is usually willing to take a gander at the others.

So when I see a Best American beneath the tree, I’m not worried about which one it is. I know I’ll enjoy it no matter what.

Here is a sampling of what you’ll find in this year’s editions:

For me, the 2013 headliner is The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies). Standouts include Kevin Dutton’s “What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed,” adapted Best American Essays 2013from his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, as well as Oliver Sacks’ “Altered States,” and Gareth Cook’s “Autism Inc.”

The Best American Sports Writing is edited by J.R. Moehringer, whose magazine feature, “Resurrecting the Champ,” inspired a wonderful fictionalization on the big screen. Must-reads include Rick Reilly’s “Special Team,” Paul Solotaroff’s “The NFL’s Secret Drug Problem,” and Erik Malinowski’s “The Making of ‘Homer at the Bat,’ the Episode that Conquered Prime Time 20 Years Ago Tonight.” For top-shelf nonfiction, look no further than The Best American Essays, featuring Zadie Smith, Michelle Mirsky and Alice Munro.

Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connolly and Hannah Tinti headline The Best American Mystery Stories, while Junot Diaz, George Saunders and Steven Millhauser take the spotlight in The Best American Short Stories. Elizabeth Gilbert guest edits The Best American Travel Writing.

Once again, The Best American Nonrequired Reading slays us with its Best American Comics 2013combination of literati and irreverence. Case in point: there are pieces by Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie and Kurt Vonnegut, while the “best of” categories include “Best American Poem About a Particle Accelerator,” “Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation’s Founding Fathers” and “Best American Comic That Ends in Arson.”

Speaking of comics, one of my favorite new editions is The Best American Comics, featuring fiction and nonfiction art work, from the “funny pages” to graphic novels. There’s now even The Best American Infographics. With an introduction by David Byrne. Go figure.

Review: Language, Cognition, and Human Nature

Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles

Steven Pinker

I love science and science writing, and when people ask me why, I have a simple answer: Because I really don’t get most of it. I have a scientific curiosity and Pinker2mathematical brain, but if it weren’t for the grading curve, I’d still be taking Freshman biology.

I’ll never fully grasp the writings of Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, but I love reading them. They pique my interest, and I always come away learning something. Maybe it’s my fear of becoming cognitively rigid in middle age, but the prospect of a static or shrinking intellect keeps me up at night. I’m well past the point of exploring texts that merely reinforce my current knowledge base.

Which brings us to Steven Pinker and his new collection of articles, Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles.

While pursuing my master’s degree, I wasn’t feeling challenged in my English coursework, so I signed on for a semester of Philosophy of Language. I loved it, but I can still barely understand half of it. I did learn one thing, though: I kick ass at propositional logic, but predicate logic turns my brain to creamed corn.

So I was excited to read this collection, which Pinker prefaces with a curious introduction concerning general interest science writing. He talks of the popularity of scientists who are able to write for a popular audience (and science writers who can serve as a go-between), but argues that we’re underestimating readers with this approach. Rather than spoon-feeding the masses distilled information, Pinker provides us with the source material: his actual academic articles.

This is not light reading, and be warned it is challenging.

But it is enjoyable and enlightening. If you haven’t tried to wrap your mind around language theory, you need to read this book. Even if you don’t understand half of it, what information you glean will radically affect your relationship with language and the mind.

If nothing else, it’s a head trip—no lab coat required.

Review: Abominable Science

If you were like me growing up, you had a stack of Weekly Reader books about the spooky and the supernatural at your bedside. These were the source of maAbominable_Science_cover-576px-300x450ny restless nights for me, in particular books on Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. My friend Todd still speaks with reverence about the Bigfoot episode of In Search Of… with Leonard Nimoy.

We are the ideal audience for Abominable Science, co-authored by a scientist and a writer who was obsessed with the mythology of cryptids (a fancy term for a creature of legend whose existence has not been documented).

The nuts and bolts of the book are simple, yet genius. The authors examine the cases of legendary cryptids (Bigfoot, Nessy, the Yeti) and consider the scientific evidence, essentially disproving, or at least discrediting, their existence.

The first part of this equation is great fun. The second part is like when the mean kids first tell you there is no Santa Claus.

In other words, buzz kill.

The authors devote too much space to debunking the “evidence” of cryptids. Look, we know they’re not real. What makes these creatures so interesting is not whether or not they exist, but rather in the mysteries and folklore that surround them. If Bigfoot did exist, he would no longer be a mystery. He’d be a zoo exhibit. While it is important to show where the science doesn’t add up, the debunking feels a bit like a deposition at times, which isn’t nearly as much fun. (Just ask Paula Deen.)

The other issue I have with Abominable Science is redundancy. The book is divided into sections addressing each of the cryptids individually. Unfortunately, the commonalities between the cases make parts of the narrative redundant.

The result is diminishing returns.

The Bigfoot section is riveting. The Loch Ness section is interesting and very well written, but replace an American forest with a Scottish lake and you’ve got more or less the same storyline. By the third section, we know what to expect: unreliable eyewitness accounts, grainy photographs, unidentified footprints, overactive imaginations and outright deceptions, etc.

So, the book might have been arranged so that it addressed the similarities between the legends at once rather than divided by cryptid.

I also wish the authors had a bit more fun with it. The narrative is playful at times, but the hyperactive debunking misses the point that these legends are, more than anything, fun. Look, we know professional wrestling isn’t true competition along the lines of football or baseball, but its appeal lies not in its verisimilitude, but rather in the storytelling, the characters and the spectacle itself.

Otherwise, wouldn’t WWE have implemented instant replay a long time ago? (Even Bud Selig would have the sense to review and overturn illegal tags and errant three counts.) They would also probably do something about those metal folding chairs that always seem to find their way into the ring.

But perhaps I doth protest too much. At its heart, Abominable Science is not intended to be a buzz kill. It is an enjoyable read that will have you laughing out loud at times—and you might even learn a little science along the way.

So, if you’re the type that can’t pass up a Bigfoot or ghost hunting special on cable television, you will love this book. And though it will confirm that the cryptids in question don’t exist, it won’t stop us from tuning in. If anything, it reinforces the universality of creature mythology and our attraction to fantasy and mystery. (Earlier this year, Syfy debuted its new show, Joe Rogan Questions Everything, with a
full hour devoted to hunting Bigfoot.)

We will always be obsessed with the unknown. We will be happily drawn into those blurry shadows of the natural world. I’m happy to report that we will always remain… In search of…

June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.

 

The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Ensuing Chapters 9.8.12

Stop a moment. Breathe. Deeper now. Sure, it’s still north of 90 in Colorado, but as the days die quicker, a liminal chill fills the soul. For my money, you can keep summer and winter. But autumn…

The overdone cliché in book reviewing is the summer reading list. I’m not sure who started it, or who all these people are reading at the beach, but I’m certainly as guilty as the rest. But truly, the best time to indulge in the written word is autumn, with its cooler climes, longer nights and olfactory-fueled melancholia.

And aren’t books always better when paired with a hot mug of tea?

Some of my favorite September/October memories are of spending Friday nights among the stacks at the Boulder Book Store. As a youth, my friend and I would drive a half hour from our book-deprived hometown in Pennsylvania to Twice-Loved Books in Youngstown, Ohio. And some of the best autumn reading I’ve acquired at Denver’s Tattered Cover, or the Poudre Library District in Fort Collins.

As an avid reader of horror, I often find my favorite books marginalized on the shelves—except during the fall. For two months, the storefront displays boast the books that make my year-round reading list.

You will find plenty of horror previewed here at Ensuing Chapters, but there’s a wealth of diverse autumn gold coming your way in the following weeks.

Sept. 3

Last year, we lost one of the great journalists of our time, and one of my personal heroes, Christopher Hitchens. This champion of reason was known for his bold reporting on war and religion, and was equally brave in the face of cancer. Published on Sept. 4, Mortality will appeal to Hitch’s loyal readers, but is also of interest to anyone who’s lost someone to cancer (e.g. nearly everyone).

Few writers have captured the depth and beauty of the natural world like transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. His new book—yes, new book—October, or Autumnal Tints, is a lecture he gave near the end of his life. He envisioned it one day being released in print with accompanying illustrations.

That day was Sept. 3.

His tribute to the greatest of all months, penned in the autumn of his own life, reframes the changing colors and dying leaves as symbols of maturity rather than decay. Reading Thoreau is always a treat. Reading his musings on autumn in autumn seems like paradise.

In the song “Little Too Clean,” Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner croons, “Don’t you know dirt will find you/ and dirt reminds you/ that dirt will always be there.” It’s the song that keeps looping in my head while reading the jacket of Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s new book, An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases.

Exploring one of the big issues of our time, science writer Velasquez-Manoff uncovers a shocking rise in food allergies and autoimmune disorders, such as Celiac and type-1 diabetes, and equally shocking treatments that rely on parasites rather than pharmaceuticals. One of the unexpected contributors to our sickness, he finds, is that sanitation and antibiotics have altered our inner ecologies to the point that we lack the organisms that keep us in check.

We have become a little too clean—or maybe even a lot too clean.

Sept. 10

What do we know about Lee Child’s compelling protagonist, Jack Reacher? He likes travel, he’s a sharpshooter with a wicked double-tap, and no matter where he roams, he always ends up in the same place: trouble.

Celebrating the 17th installment of the Jack Reacher series, plus related short stories (personal fave: “James Penney’s New Identity” from Thriller), Child has climbed from the crime writing underground to the top of the best-seller list. He is likely to summit once again with the release of A Wanted Man on Sept. 11.

I am an avid reader of Child’s books. I love the Jack Reacher franchise. But when the peripatetic maverick hits the big screen, I hate that it will be Tom Cruise (boo, hiss) portraying Reacher.

Who’s really writing this book blurb? I thought it was me, but one might want to reconsider after reading Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Gazzaniga surveys the science, psychology and ethics at work in our thoughts and behaviors.

Who’s in Charge? is a work of great importance as breakthroughs in neuroscience have revealed greater complexities than ever imagined at work in the brain. And launched the next great frontier of philosophical inquiry.

Published last year, the paperback reprint hits shelves Sept. 11.

Legendary journalist Bob Woodward goes from Deep Throat to Deep Gridlock in The Price of Politics, his 17th book. In this detailed account, Woodward chronicles Washington’s attempts to rescue the economy these past few years.

Talk about the ideal primer to the madness of election season. For the more devout political readers (and I know a few of you), Woodward’s new book is political porn to get you in the mood as we steamroll toward November.

We’ll preview other September releases in the coming weeks. Please follow Ensuing Chapters to receive our weekly previews, reviews and interviews.

Recommended Reads (Aug. 13)

It’s not too late to pack in some great summer reads. Here is Ensuing Chapters‘ recommended reads for the week of Aug. 13, highlighting upcoming and recent releases.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Science of Sleep 

by David K. Randall

Journalist and somnambulist David K. Randall explores the schematics of slumber in this round-up of sleep study anecdotes and analysis, to be released Aug. 13. This promises to be a quirky and informative science read in the vein of Mary Roach and Sam Kean.

Hell’s Angels
by Hunter S. Thompson

This seminal work of gonzo journalism, released digitally for the Nook earlier this month, is a hawg-stomp of danger, debauchery and wicked escapism. This ultra-violent ode to the outlaw biker, released in 1966, still stands as a cultural document of ’60s counter-culture, a fearless feat of immersion reporting and an epic fantasy for anyone who’s felt like ditching the mainstream, straddling a Harley and living free amid the underworld.

Of course, there is no fairy-tale ending for Thompson, who finds himself on the wrong end of the bikers’ boots. Edgy, controversial, hyperbolic, sensationalistice. Yep, it’s all those things. It’s also damn good. Finally, a reason to get a leather jacket for your Nook.

 

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

by Rebecca Stott

Darwin wasn’t the first scientist to observe natural selection at work. His discovery was, like his theory, the product of years of evolution and adaptations, both in thought and society. Here, Stott, an English teacher and author of earlier books on Darwin, gives credit to the thinkers and tinkers who laid the groundwork for On the Origin of Species.

Recently, Stott was interviewed by New York Times‘ book reviewer John Williams. You can read their Q&A here.

 

This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music

by Adam Brent Houghtaling

This manifesto of misery celebrates the purist of guilty pleasures: the sad song. Sure, we’ve all enjoyed a slow-drag at a high school dance, or hit repeat on Soul Asylum’s “Endless Farewell” whilst nursing a heartbreak. But why do we enjoy them even when we’re happy?

Ballads, like heartaches, come in all varieties, but for Houghtaling, they all share a skeletal structure, which he details in This Will End in Tears. Susan Stamberg, of National Public Radio, recently interviewed Houghtaling. He offered insights to the genre, a few musical suggestions and a sneak preview of the book here.