A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Social Animal by David Brooks

David Brooks. A lot of his jokes are terrible, and a lot of his science seems like junk. He talks about Davos all the time. But he has an avuncular charm. I got his book The Social Animal right away and read it incredibly fast.

The structure of it is a neat experiment which I'd say doesn't work. It is the story of a fictional couple, but every time they do something there's like a paragraph or two going into the behavioral science, sociology, or just speculative theorizing that explains why they did it. The man in the couple is named Harold and the woman is named Erica.

Some of the decisions Erica and Harold make seemed implausible. David Brooks likes them more than I did. Many of the studies Brooks cites sound like nonsense. The thing about people named "Dennis" becoming dentists, for example, I think has been pretty thoroughly debunked. The sociological descriptions are all over the place. The description of a charter school was exactly like the one charter school I ever saw, but the intellectual development of a teenage boy was pretty ridiculous. There's a perfectly rendered Averellian character in Harold's college roommate 'Mark,' but Brooks also imagines that a lot of guys in college talk into the night about Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman.

But I still enjoyed this book, skimming whenever I got bored. I was bored by the parts about the psycho-biological bonding of moms and babies, right at the beginning, but I bet many WIR readers will be enthralled.

My favorite chapter was about politics (294-311), which struck me as a very insightful view of the insider psychology of politicians and campaigns. The part about aging I found oddly moving.

You can read this book fast and I'll bet you'll be engaged. I'll list the best things I thought about or learned from it. I hope everyone does this for nonfiction.

"The writer Andrea Donderi argues that the world is divided between Askers and Guessers. Askers feel no shame when making requests and are willing to be told no without being hurt...Guessers hate asking for favors and feel guilty when saying no to other people's requests. In Guess culture, Donderi writes, you avoid putting a request into words unless you're sure the answer will be yes." (186-7)

"Adulthood can be defined by four accomplishments: moving away from home, getting married, starting a family, and becoming financially independent. In 1960, 70% of American thirty-year olds had accomplished these things. By 2000, fewer than 40% had done the same." (190)

"Warren Buffett used to say that most of the money he'd earned over his lifetime came from fewer than ten decisions." (260)

"A happy life has its recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony." (208).


  1. For accuracy, all of SC's reviews should include the line "I read it incredibly fast."

  2. Could someone give me the concise version of this one?