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How Pleasure Works – Paul Bloom ****

I have to start this review with a confession and an apology to the author. When the book arrived for review in 2010 (no, not a typo), I was totally fed up with books about different human emotions. We had been absolutely drenched with the things, many of them rather tedious. So I put it to one side and forgot about it. A few days ago I needed a book to read, had nothing else to hand and discovered I’d made a big mistake – because the book is brilliant. So my apologies to Paul Bloom: the only thing I would say is that as an author I appreciate reviews however late they come and I hope he will too.
Bloom makes a wonderful exploration of what pleasure is and why we appreciate everything from basic animal desires like food and sex to much more complex enjoyment like reading a book or looking at an artwork. In doing so he digs into the real attachments we have – why, for example, we appreciate a ‘real’ original painting more than a perfect copy, even though the artwork itself is identical. And why we value a tape measure owned by J. F. Kennedy (one sold for $50,000) more than just an ordinary one off the shelf in a hardware store.
At the heart of Bloom’s argument is the rather philosophical concept of essences. Human beings have a tendency, he argues to associate invisible intangible essences with objects that change their value to us. The fact that in an objective sense these essences don’t exist doesn’t matter to us – and so from a psychological viewpoint they are important and real. If this sounds a little dull and philosophical don’t worry – Bloom’s writing is light and interesting and he makes all this stuff… a pleasure to read.
You may wonder when I think this book is so excellent why it has only got four rather than five stars. This is primarily because the subject, though fascinating, is frankly rather woolly. There is a lot in here that isn’t so much science as philosophy and guesswork (there’s  difference?). Because of that, I hesitate to give it the full whack. But it is a great read, there is fascinating material in there, and I’d really encourage you to give it a go. With the proviso of not giving it to anyone who’d be shocked by the description of S&M etc. it would make a great present too.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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