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How Pleasure Works

By Paul Bloom

W.W. Norton; 280 pages

In his new book about the science of pleasure, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom tries to discover why it is that we like what we like, from expensive wine to autographed baseballs. He takes an essentialist position: things have underlying properties that matter more than outward appearances. (After all, a cherry painted green is still a cherry.) While repeated allusions to "hidden essences" lend the text a slight flower-child vibe, Bloom's arguments are grounded in everyday examples. People like bottled water, he says, not just because it seems pure but also because it speaks of status. Men like virgins because males are genetically wired to worry about which children are truly theirs (not such a mystery to women). We love fiction not because it's an escape but because it allows us to practice for real life. Bloom covers food, sex and art at length and touches on much more in this accessible compendium of experiments, quotes, philosophical nuggets and anecdotes. Sigmund Freud, Mr. Pleasure Principle himself, would have approved.

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