I saw a painted bunting in New York City last week. I needed to say that, and Aja Raden's "Stoned" will explain why. Birders in the readership are probably envious; the painted bunting is rare-rare, a one-bird riot of color native to Mexico. Raden's learned, artful book will explain envy, as well. That envy may turn malicious. Rest easy. Those feelings are not unusual before rarity, beauty and desire, painted buntings or precious baubles. Again, Raden will tell why.
One last bit of first business: Great title.
Raden designs high-end jewelry and is a former inmate at the University of Chicago, studying ancient history, physics and — if "Stoned" is evidence — the ancient skill of storytelling. History, science, precious stones and human behavior intermingle here in harmony to delineate disharmony, a Möbius feedback loop like politics and money.
Have it, flaunt it. "It's the basis of sexual selection," writes Raden. "But to be desired, one must first be seen. … The fastest way to get attention and communicate privilege is to possess a status symbol." Thus the crown jewels, Elizabeth Taylor and the painted bunting. Unsurprisingly, neuroscientists have followed the grail of love and lucre to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, "where the processes that determine emotion and value both take place."
An attractive product triggers brain cells "that govern hand movement. Instinctively, we reach out for attractive things; beauty literally moves us." Human history: veni, vidi, vici; want, take, have. Gemstones are only colorful gravel. We want them because others want them; better still if scarce and from far away, at the exotic/sexy nexus.
Opulence value is 90 percent imaginary, Raden writes, but real imaginary: how valuable we think it is, which is highly manipulable. Diamonds are as rare as peanuts; the smoke of rarity is courtesy of diamond-monopolist De Beers. "It's called PR." Value "is determined by the desire to have something that others (but only a few others) possess." Thus envy, the thing coveted within sight, but out of reach; then malicious envy, the compulsion to take. Enter the state: "Loot the looters," cried Lenin, and Stalin sold the Fabergé eggs to Malcolm Forbes.
Raden unfurls science ("red dress effect," eye tracking) buttressed by historical vignettes as compact as stylish sports cars, and top shelf: the surrounding circumstances in which gems led to war and revolution, to Venetian glass buying Manhattan, and class struggle — the wristwatch trumping the factory whistle and church bell.
Raden doesn't have much truck with free will — neurochemistry and a gullible aesthetic compass rule; simply communing with beauty and its symbolism has little stake, which is disturbing. And she likes ringers ("Desire makes you stupid") so be of good humor. For "Stoned" has its own special "vitreous luster," just as any emerald worth its salt — an illumination into what helps make us irrationally human.
Peter Lewis is book review editor of "Geographical Review," and former director of the American Geographical Society.