The Social Animal by David Brooks

9 02 2012

Jet-lag being what it is, I am getting extraordinary amounts of time to catch up on my reading. Halfway through David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal and finding it immensely stimulating. It probably helps that he references the last two “big” books I read – Christakis and Fowler, “Connected” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, as well as the other author I am reading in tandem with Brooks (Timothy D. Wilson, “Redirect”; only surprised that Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and his Emissary” doesn’t feature). But that explains less than 1% of his appeal.

A further 10% of Brooks’ appeal is that, as a working columnist rather than an academic, he allows himself “inappropriate” observations that make me laugh out loud at least once a chapter. For example:

“While working as an associate editor, [Harold] edited essays advocating the full range of oxymoronic grand strategies: practical idealism, moral realism, cooperative unilateralism, focused multilateralism, unipolar defensive hegemony, and so on and so on. These essays were commissioned by executive editors who had been driven insane by attending too many Davos conferences.”

(Of course this passage may not be funny to you, but I assure you that at 3am with 14-hour-time-difference jet lag, this one had me nearly inhaling my paper cup of decaf tea…)

Written deliberately on the template of Rousseau’s Emile, the book follows the intertwined lives of two characters, Harold and Erica. It is however far from being an itinerary of their “outer” selves; rather it gives a full account of their unconscious selves developing within that outer matrix. The structure emphasises the message that the development of the unconscious self is intimately related to our experience as social creatures. And the social connections are not just horizontal and contemporaneous, but deliberately vertical and generational; Harold’s story for example starts with the blind date on which his parents first met – and then delves backwards in time. In Brooks’ view, we are the product not only of our genes and our own life histories, but of the accumulated experience of our ancestors.

It is a compelling read, and a deeply thoughtful one. Brooks has a long-term engagement with his subject and appears to have read widely and deeply in arriving at his synthesis. Don’t be put off by the New York Times columnist tag; this is anything but a clown dreaming of playing Hamlet.

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