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is a flash in the pan. Sometimes it’s the iPhone. And when the narrative goes
wrong, the fall from grace can be equally fast. Because we’re talking about
narratives, an example from the world of book publishing comes to mind.
A sudden and unexpected bestseller is the industry’s favorite surprise. But
when the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz was accused of harassment
and unwanted sexual contact in 2018, the consequences were very different. An
investigation by MIT, where Díaz teaches, found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Nonetheless, U.S. print sales of his books fell nearly 85 percent in the seven
months after the allegations were raised, according to the New York Times.
Why do some narratives — and not others — catch on? As noted, it helps if
attractive people are attached to the story, and strong visual images, Shiller reports.
Truth and falsity, on the other hand, don’t seem to matter as much, which is
sobering. Ultimately, though, Shiller sees the forces behind narrative virality as
mysterious, repeatedly drawing analogies to the spread of disease: “Major things
happen because of seemingly irrelevant mutations in narratives that have slightly
higher contagion rates, slightly lower forgetting rates, or first-mover effects that
give one set of competing narratives a head start.”
Consider the rise of the wheeled suitcase. “These did not become popular until
the 1990s, when a Northwest Airlines pilot, Robert Plath, invented his Rollaboard
with both wheels and a rigid handle that can collapse into the suitcase,” Shiller
writes. “An earlier version of the wheeled suitcase by Bernard Sadow in 1972 had
achieved only limited acceptance.” But efforts to popularize this seemingly useful
item go back even further, the author discovered. A similar product was patented as
early as 1887, and Shiller later “found a 1951 article by John Allan May, who
recounted his efforts to manufacture and sell a wheeled suitcase starting in 1932.”
The suitcases finally caught on only when flight crews adopted them and
paraded glamorously through airports, pulling them along. Still, why then and
not sooner? In this instance, Shiller is strangely incurious. His readers, by contrast,
might wonder about social, technological, and business developments that could
have played a role. Here’s a plausible counter-narrative: Rolling suitcases caught
on at a time of rising global business travel, an increasing proportion of it done by
air passengers who were (like most flight staff ) women. Traveling light — carry-
on only — became imperative in dealing with both the growing crush and the

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