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The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature


About The Book

This “fascinating” (Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times bestselling author of Outliers) examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs—rivaling scientific inventions—and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind.

Literature is a technology like any other. And the writers we revere—from Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and others—each made a unique technical breakthrough that can be viewed as both a narrative and neuroscientific advancement. Literature’s great invention was to address problems we could not solve: not how to start a fire or build a boat, but how to live and love; how to maintain courage in the face of death; how to account for the fact that we exist at all.

Wonderworks reviews the blueprints for twenty-five of the most significant developments in the history of literature. These inventions can be scientifically shown to alleviate grief, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui, while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. They can be found throughout literature—from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays, poetry to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and crime novels to slave narratives.

A “refreshing and remarkable” (Jay Parini, author of Borges and Me: An Encounter) exploration of the new literary field of story science, Wonderworks teaches you everything you wish you learned in your English class, and “contains many instances of critical insight....What’s most interesting about this compendium is its understanding of imaginative representation as a technology” (The New York Times).

About The Author

Photograph by Sarah Lagrotteria

Angus Fletcher is a professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, the world’s leading academic think-tank for the study of stories. He has dual degrees in neuroscience and literature, received his PhD from Yale, taught Shakespeare at Stanford, and has published two books and dozens of peer-reviewed academic articles on the scientific workings of novels, poetry, film, and theater. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has done story-consulting for projects for Sony, Disney, the BBC, Amazon, PBS, and Universal and is the author/presenter of the Audible/Great Courses Guide to Screenwriting.

Why We Love It

“From the moment I read the original proposal for this book to the present day, I have wanted to publish this book. It is a tour of thousands of years of literature that takes a radically different approach from any you’ve previously encountered in college or elsewhere. The emphasis is on invention, and it shows us why invention in literature is as valuable and brilliant as invention in microbiology or quantum physics. There are dozens of works of literature described in a refreshingly new way in this book. They range from Homer and Sophocles to Dante and Shakespeare to Jane Austen, George Eliot, Frederick Douglass, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ursula Le Guin, Alison Bechdel, and Elena Ferrante. There is poetry from Sappho to Cao Xuequin, and T. S. Eliot. It is a literary feast, and every work of literature is fresh and new under Fletcher’s microscope.”

—Bob B., VP, Executive Editor, on Wonderworks

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 9, 2021)
  • Length: 464 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982135997

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Raves and Reviews

"Fascinating. . . . It blew my mind!"

– Malcolm Gladwell

"If Wonderworks had been around then, I would have sat my son down and read Angus Fletcher’s exploration of the history and the psychology of literature to him, word by word. . . . I hope it will convince others that there are benefits and pleasures that you can get from literature that are unique and valuable."

– Jane Smiley, The Guardian

"I'm totally obsessed with Wonderworks. It swallowed me whole."

– Brené Brown, "Unlocking Us with Brené Brown," Parcast Network

"An intelligent, engaged and erudite attempt to neurologically tackle not just some abstract and simplified 'story', but some of the world’s greatest narratives, from the Iliad to Dream of the Red Chamber, from Disney’s Up to the novels of Elena Ferrante. It speaks to the inner reader in us all, as well as to the inner neurologist."

– Simon Ings, New Scientist

“Angus Fletcher is that rare critic who actually has something to say, who grabs us by the collar and hopes to shake sense into us. This may be one of the most important and truly useful books about literature written in the past decade. It opens a vista into reading that regards writing as a kind of continual experiment in human and societal engineering. That Wonderworks deserves a wide audience goes without saying. It’s refreshing and remarkable on so many levels.”

– Jay Parini, author of Borges and Me: An Encounter

"If you are interested in both writing and science this is an unmissable book. . . . Fresh and inspiring."

– Brian Clegg, Popular Science

"Reading good books doesn’t just entertain us; it teaches us how to better use our brains and our emotions, as this lively treatise tells us . . . An idiosyncratic, richly detailed, often lyrical invitation to reconsider how and why to read literature."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Aristotle’s Poetics was new and brave but was left incomplete. Angus Fletcher finishes it in Wonderworks with some help from contemporary science and an abundance of penetrating analyses. Fletcher endorses storytelling as a foundational technology but he goes beyond that to illustrate its therapeutic value and centrality to cultural invention. Wonderworks is the perfect counter to our season in hell.”

– Antonio Damasio, author of The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures; Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California

“Find one polymath. Take a profound knowledge of world literature. Add a deep knowledge of modern psychology and of neuroscience. Add a cupful of worldly wisdom. Stir in an enchanting prose style. Heat until bubbling. You have just baked a unique, marvelous treat: Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks.

– Martin Seligman, author of The Hope Circuit and Learned Optimism; Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania

“Drawing upon insights from neuroscience and evolutionary biology, an expert in the art of storytelling explains why literature matters by showing, through lucid examples, the myriad ways that literature’s bag of tricks works with and for our minds. Anyone who has experienced wonder in an encounter with literature will profit from this wise and clever book.”

– Lawrence Manley, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English, Yale University

"Innovative . . . A fresh take on the history of literature and a testament to the enduring power of reading."

– Publishers Weekly

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