Starting this spring I began hearing a huge amount of buzz associated with a new book by David Brooks entitled The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. After a local librarian recommended it to me, I figured I’d better keep my eyes open for it lest I come across it during one of my weekend library trips. Then, one Sunday afternoon out of the corner of my eye I noticed a copy sitting on the shelf practically begging to be taken home. I swiped it without thinking and quickly made my way to the automated checkout station. With The Social Animal now safely in my possession I eagerly looked forward to reading this much-talked about new book. In the end I must have enjoyed it because I burned through The Social Animal in what felt like only a few days.
Published in March of this year, Brooks’ The Social Animal is bold and imaginative attempt to understand the various factors that drive human behavior and as a result help shape who we are. As we follow the cradle grave trajectories of brooks’ characters “Erica” and “Harold” we learn what exactly are those incredibly powerful but essential unacknowledged “hidden sources of love character and achievement” that Brooks hints to with his book’s subtitle. To accomplish this Brooks blends not only fiction with nonfiction but draws upon the wide spectrum of scientific knowledge including but not limited to the fields of sociology, human sexuality, neuroscience and psychology. To add additional intellectual weight to his arguments Brooks also draws upon the wisdom of such English Enlightenment luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith since they, unlike their French counterpart Rene Descartes believed that humans, while still social animals endowed with the ability to reason are nevertheless still ruled by their emotions. Brooks does all of this, especially in the first two-thirds of his book, with a surprising dose of wry humor.
Since Brooks, when not writing best-sellers, spends his time as a conservative opinion writer for The New York Times, I wondered while reading his latest book to what extent his political beliefs would help shape the narrative he weaves in The Social Animal. Perhaps true to his English Enlightenment-inspired sentiments, he seems to mistrust grand theories that rationally explain everything as well as the government-mandated attempts to rectify any or all social ills, (possibly linked in no small way to the earlier mentioned grand theory). But, unlike many conservatives, Brooks in his book dishes out ample scorn for empty-headed corporate chief executive officers who communicate through meaningless soundbites and lead and contribute by, well, doing nothing. As a seasoned political pundit, his take on the American electoral process, as practiced by both major parties was especially biting with its almost satirical portrayal as a manipulative and inauthentic game, empty of meaningful substance.
While many reviewers loved The Social Animal, some did not. Many accused Brooks, much like fellow Canadian turned New York resident Malcolm Gladwell, of cherry picking whatever attractive bits of scientific data he found useful in order to support his arguments. Jag Bhalla, writing in the Spring issue of Wilson Quarterly on one hand praised The Social Animal as a “book of grand and diverse ambitions”, but went on to call it a “marathon surface skim of a sea of scientific studies.” Since, just like Brooks, I’m not a scientist and therefore I’m not qualified to pass judgement in matters related to this area. However, I did find the science presented in The Social Animal, like everything else discussed in his book to be intellectually stimulating and made for entertaining and fascinating reading.
Whatever faults this book might have I still thoroughly enjoyed it. There is a strong likelihood it will end up on my “Best Books Read in 2011” when I compile my list at the end of this year. Come back in late December and we will see if The Social Animal made the cut.