- Paperback: 560 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (November 15, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674057112
- ISBN-13: 978-0674057111
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 26 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #299,391 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction Reprint Edition
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This is an insightful, erudite, and thoroughly original work. Aside from illuminating the human love of fiction, it proves that consilience between the humanities and sciences can enrich both fields of knowledge. (Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor, Harvard University, and author of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature)
Integrating a vast array of findings in the social and biological sciences and in the history of the arts, Boyd makes a compelling case for art as an adaptive human behavior. I can think of no similar work in contemporary literary theory; I have to go back to Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism for a work of comparable imaginative sweep and analytical precision. A monumental achievement. (David Bordwell, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Rich, intelligent and incredibly wide-ranging--from Zeus to Seuss,
as one chapter title says--this book is indispensable reading for
anyone who wants to think about the nature of fiction. Do we imagine that situating art within a theory of evolution must be reductive? Then we must consider, as Boyd suggests we do, the difference between solving a problem and picturing a chance of solving a problem--and imagine what it would be mean not to be able to do the second. (Michael Wood, Princeton University)
On the Origin of Stories may have an impact far beyond academic circles...No one thinks on this scale anymore. Bent to the cultivation of shrinking plots of expertise, enlivened by the occasional boundary squabble, we are ill-accustomed to broad new theories even from Young Turks, let alone established critics. Ambition is in itself cause for celebration...Boyd's treatment is engrossing, as elegant in the writing as the reasoning. It offers a new insight into the question of why some works [of fiction] speak to audiences across cultures and generations...To look at a story as a naturalist looks at a leaf or a shell, not criticizing improvisations but marveling at its inventive beauty, is a refreshing experience...Whatever your opinion of Derrida, Boyd offers absolution to all lovers of fiction. Our childish taste for make-believe, it seems, is a little more serious than we thought. (Laura Dietz Times Literary Supplement 2009-08-21)
Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories, which presents itself as a work of "evocriticism," might well be a straw in the wind blowing contemporary criticism back from Culture to Nature. Given the rampant culturalism of much current literary work, which can see the natural only as an ideologically insidious "naturalizing," it is agreeable to read a work which discusses Homer cheek by jowl with allusions to dung beetles, the neocortex and cases of sexual harassment among pigeons. In sober evolutionary spirit, Boyd has no doubt that whatever more glamorous things human beings can get up to, they are in the first place natural material objects. He also insists in the teeth of postmodern orthodoxy that there is indeed a universal human nature; that culture is not unique to the human animal; and that there is a universally identifiable activity known as art. Nobody who is aware of the excesses of contemporary culturalism could doubt the subversive force of these platitudes. The word "natural," like the words "fact" and "truth," hardly ever turns up in such writings without being ceremoniously draped in scare quotes--and this in an ecological age. The point to Boyd's superbly erudite study is to offer an evolutionary theory of art...Brian Boyd has produced a challenging piece of critical theory, which might well herald the return to Nature of which cultural criticism is in such sore need. (Terry Eagleton London Review of Books 2009-09-24)
Like all the best stories, this one has a pleasing symmetry. It is a book in two parts, each illuminating the other. On one side stands evolutionary theory and its attempts to explain human nature. On the other is story itself, represented by two great works of fiction: Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who!...[Boyd] has some novel and thought-provoking ideas, and his book covers an impressively wide terrain...What really matters, Boyd makes clear, is whether a story is worthy of our attention. On the Origin of Stories surely is. (Kate Douglas New Scientist 2009-05-23)
[Boyd's] highly intelligent, impressively learned and patiently elaborated theory of the origin of fiction and the other arts begins with the idea that art is cognitive play...Diffusion of Boyd's ideas might even, in our utilitarian and scientistic society, restore the prestige of the arts and humanities. (William Deresiewicz The Nation 2009-06-08)
Fascinating...Elaborate hypotheses like this one are themselves a kind of story, and Boyd tells his on a grand scale. His central arguments are prefaced by a substantial reprise of basic evolutionary theory--very useful if you're unfamiliar with it--and followed by two case studies, of Homer's Odyssey and the tales of Dr. Seuss. It is expert, though highly idiosyncratic, literary criticism..."Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," Wordsworth wrote of the first, intoxicating years of the French Revolution. Reading [a] path-breaking book like [this], one feels something similar. (George Scialabba Boston Globe 2009-05-24)
This is a very important book--important in its own right, but also important as a marker for significant change in the academic study of the humanities. Basically, Boyd sees art as an adaptation, one that brings advantages in our struggle for survival and procreative success. He studies the ways in which stories focus attention (as play does) and foster collaboration and unity. This heightened form of play yields a heightened form of sociality, creates 'creativity,' refines and extends our cognitive skills, helps us to understand one another's thoughts, intentions and motives, see our world from multiple perspectives, explore possibilities and not just actualities, command attention, enjoy status and foster reciprocal altruism (among other things).
Most interesting, I believe, is the fact that Boyd's position validates thousands of years of humanistic thought, from Aristotle to Horace, Sidney, Johnson, the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (though not perhaps the Kant of the Critique of Judgment) and the successful practice of the storyteller's art by a host of writers whose work has been not only substantive but widely popular. In short, Boyd's study of human nature, human behavior, human development and human artistic expression squares with what many of us have long believed and it does so with the leverage of contemporary, evolutionary science. (Richard B. Schwartz, University of Missouri, Columbia)
Brian Boyd brilliantly makes the case for literature as necessary for the survival of humankind. Step by step, he builds his argument that we have evolved to engage in play and, in particular, in storytelling...Both Homer and Dr. Seuss must catch and hold our attention with their artistry, their universality, and their moral tone. Boyd forcefully and elegantly supports his view that art is not simply pleasurable for humans but crucial to our survival. (Barbara Fisher Boston Globe 2009-06-07)
About the Author
Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, Drama and Writing Studies, University of Auckland, is the world’s foremost authority on the works of Nabokov.
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Not a book I would read again and again for pleasure, since it is rather thick and I paid so much attention the first reading, but it's a pleasure to read a book by a Homeric scholar.
This book is not really "about evolution", despite its title, although it does look at how we evolved to think, and why stories seem to be necessary for our cognition, and thus survival.
The lens is backwards, through literature, rather than through science. A good and enjoyable choice by a careful and skilled scholar who believes, deeply, that stories make us human.
I would not normally write a review (or an addendum to the other fine reviews out there) just to say a book is well-written, but in the field of literary criticism this is really a rare treat. The post-modernists have taken the joy out of literature, and Boyd and the other evocritics/Literary Darwinists are attempting to unearth it after 40 years of Derrida, difference, and textuality.
Honestly -- read any article by someone like Judith Butler or Homi Babha and then read a chapter of Boyd. You will feel as if you have traveled from a country whose official language is babbling nonsense back to the world of clearly-articulated English. If you can't explain your ideas to other professionals in the field, let alone educated laypeople, then your ideas likely aren't very well conceived. By contrast, Boyd demonstrates clear and careful thought throughout his book. It is apparent that he worked through every idea quite carefully and did his best to demonstrate each fully.
One drawback, however, is the that the footnotes aren't linked. In a scholarly text such as this, hyperlinks are essential. That said, Boyd presents a wealth of data (at times a bit too much) to support his hypothesis. Essential reading for those interested in cognitive theories of reading and narratology.