Time flies when you’re…being selfish. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, commemorated this week with the release of a new edition by Oxford University Press. Among other things, the book introduced the since much-used word “meme” to the public. “We need a name for the new replicator,” Dawkins wrote of a cultural element that can be passed on, like a gene, from organism to organism, “a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission.” (He added that the proper Greek would have been mimeme, but he wanted something that sounded like “gene.”) Just as influential was Dawkins’ idea that a gene could in fact be selfish, that is, seek to replicate, survive, and thrive in the great arena of struggle that is Darwinian evolution. The book marked an early example of a scientific treatise that became a bestseller, perhaps more bought than read, and that rewarded its readers with a new view of science.
Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist minister, was best known for the apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind, which sold a gazillion copies—well, 65 million, anyway—to true believers while attracting chortles from the heathen set. He also fulminated against science whenever possible, calling the idea that evolution is a fact “the biggest hoax of the nineteenth and twentieth century.” Alas for LaHaye, the Rapture did not wait for him. He died on July 25, at the age of 90.
It’s been a long time since Tom Wolfe, the journalist turned novelist, wrote actual-factual stuff. Given his interest in such things as 60s radicals and space-hopping astronauts, it seems a little unlikely that the object of his return should be the transformational generative grammar revolution launched by Noam Chomsky back in the day, but there it is: Wolfe’s story on Chomsky (behind paywall) is the cover of this month’s Harper’s. The story ties in to his newly released book The Kingdom of Speech, which, like every Wolfe book, is sure to find detractors as well as fans.
Has blogging killed travel writing? So, provocatively, asks Margueritte Peterson over at the New Antiquarian, a blog (ahem) published by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. It’s true that travel books seem fewer these days, and not many of them wind up selling by the bucket—though don’t tell that to Bill Bryson. Still, the genre doesn’t seem in danger of disappearing anytime soon, if not many of the current crop threaten to become classics in the Marco Polo and Pausanias vein.
Only the most intrepid of travel writers is likely to want to visit Somalia, a country that will forever be recalled as a land of pirates and the setting for Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. It’s a hopeful sign, then, that books are returning to that poor, shattered nation. According to reporter Abdi Latif Dahir, writing in the African-interest magazine Quartz, book fairs are popping up around Somalia, with writers and readers assembling, as they do around the world, to share words and passions. May they flourish.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.
Lead photo of Richard Dawkins credited to Susan Sterner. Photo above left of Bill Bryson credited to Sam Bryson.