Monday, March 14, 2011

THE SOCIAL ANIMAL by David Brooks

Last December a couple of magazine editors asked me to read a galley of David Brooks's then-forthcoming book, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character, and Achievement, and consider reviewing it. After reading the galley, I declined.

I didn't hate the book as much as P.Z. Myers does in his hilarious Salon review, "David Brooks' Dream World for the Trust Fund Set," though you might want to read Myers before tackling Brooks. Equally dismissive but more analytical is Will Wilkinson's "Scornful Review" on his Forbes blog. And while philosopher Thomas Nagel, who analyzes "David Brooks's Theory of Human Nature" in the New York Times, is not dismissive, he too seems less than impressed by Brooks's argument and presentation.

I sent one of the editors a lengthy e-mail explaining why I didn't want to review the book, which was published last week. Here's what I told him:
... I’m less enthusiastic about it than I hoped I’d be. Brooks is writing about the primacy of the unconscious over the conscious mind, and secondarily (I think) the primacy of interpersonal relationships over rational constructs. Basically he’s synthesizing a lot of books he’s read, and he’s presenting the findings in more-or-less story form as he follows the lives of two imaginary characters, Harold and Erica. Weirdly, he has his characters living in the eternal present, as he warns us up front—at every stage of their life, they seem to be living in about 2010.

This framework allows Brooks to pontificate on lots of things that are dear to his heart, especially in the chapter “The Soft Side” in which Harold joins a think tank and ruminates on everything that Brooks thinks about (“He spent those years writing his essays, peppering the world with his policy proposals. Not many people seemed to agree with him. There was a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to his own, and a few others. Still, he plugged away, feeling that he was mostly right about things and that someday others would reach the conclusions he had reached.”)

The book also includes a great deal of typical Brooks humor. Unlike some reviewers of his previous books, I generally enjoyed the humor, though it sometimes seemed discordant with his sociological musings.

Summary: the book put a lot of interesting research together, but it did not break any new ground. Harold and Erica kept my attention, but I didn’t identify with either of them – and I’m not sure that many other readers would either. Erica is a driven over-achiever from an underprivileged background who ends up in the halls of power, partly thanks to Harold’s support and occasional wisdom. Harold doesn’t really seem to be anybody, though he has good people skills. They have quite a lot of money and no kids. When they retire, they lead overseas tours three times a year until they can’t do that anymore, and then they buy a second home in Aspen. Who are these people, and could they exist anywhere but inside the Beltway?

Anyway, I do plan to comment on the book on The Neff Review, though I won’t publish my comments until March, when the book is published. But I’ve lost my enthusiasm for writing a review for [your magazine]. This is by no means to say that it shouldn’t be reviewed. Brooks says some fine things about relationships and the unconscious and why we need to get past mechanistic Enlightenment reasoning, or at least move from the French to the English Enlightenment. Another of your authors may be perfectly suited to review it.
I loved Brooks's first book, Bobos in Paradise. I liked his second, On Paradise Drive. I managed to finish reading his third, The Social Animal. I appreciate the irenic tone of his op-ed pieces, and I wish him well. I hope he takes a refreshing sabbatical before starting another book.

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