Salon made me read David Brooks!

Brooks has this new book out called The Social Animal(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), which has pretensions to being all sciencey, which is, I guess, why Salon asked me to review it, because so do I. Only it turned out to not be very sciencey at all, but a lumpy mélange of sciencey anecdotes tied together by a fictional story about two privileged upper middle-class twits named Harold and Erica…a badly written story, by the way, with two characters who were loathsomely tedious. How tedious? Read the excerpt in the New Yorker and find out.

As the scientist went on to talk about the rush he got from riding his motorcycle in the mountains, Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most–having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness–time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

After the lecture, Harold joined his family and they went downtown to their favorite gelato shop, where Harold had his life-altering epiphany. He’d spent years struggling to dazzle his Mandarin tutors while excelling in obscure sports, trying (not too successfully) to impress admissions officers with S.A.T. prowess and water-purification work in Zambia, sweating to wow his bosses with not overlong PowerPoints. But maybe the real action was in this deeper layer. After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like. So resolved, he boldly surveyed the gelato selections before him and confidently chose the cloudberry.

Imagine a whole book written like that, with breathy superficial pop science presented to justify how this yuppie wanker makes decisions about what flavor gelato to buy. It’s the kind of book that could inspire the Revolution to come ten years earlier.

Read my review here.

Guess what? I didn’t like the book at all.

If you really want a good book about the application of biology to human behavior, I can’t recommend Robert Sapolsky highly enough. He’s witty, intelligent, humorous, and he writes about the intersection of behavior and biology with insight and an appropriate level of explanation. He also writes about baboon troops living on garbage dumps, creatures I find infinitely more interesting and revealing than Harold and Erica.