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Fictional Non-Fiction: “The Social Animal” by David Brooks

“The happiest story you’ll ever read,” claims the book jacket, and while I don’t know if I’d go that far, David Brooks’ The Social Animal is definitely an engaging read, particularly when you consider the depth of what Brooks attempts to do.

Written much like Rousseau’s Émile, The Social Animal uses a series of fictional characters to illustrate and demonstrate a huge collection of philosophical and theoretical points about everything from education to politics to marriage. The story of Harold and Erica begins with a brief story of each of their parents, then launches into an analysis of their childhoods, educations, young adulthoods, careers, and marriage, used as a fictional anecdote to explain research into the ways social bonds and relationships build our world and influence our levels of happiness.

The book is fascinating, and certainly approachable for all its density. The use of familiar characters, who are more than simple archetypes, is scattered appropriately so that the change between theories and the plot are smooth and keep one section from getting too dry before it moves into another. It’s a fairly easy read, and discusses a lot of recent and not-so-recent discoveries and opinions in the realms of psychology, political science, and philosophy without reading like a textbook. I also cheered a bit when I noticed that Brooks’ use of pronouns alternates, so without following stereotypical patterns, you are as likely to encounter an abstract “she” as an abstract “he.”

Unfortunately, the simplicity which made it readable also led to the biggest issue I had with the book. I’m willing, for the most part, to forgive some of it because of the presentation style and the audience, which somewhat preclude going too far into depth on a lot of the questions Brooks raises. On the other hand, though, there are a great deal of assertions that really need to be unpacked further to avoid being a simple perpetuation of the status quo. There are no challenges in this book; it details the circumstances of happy people without discussing the cultural and economic circumstances that make their choices possible (or not). Without consideration of the reasons married people are happier, or that people with educated parents tend to have higher lifetime incomes, Brooks is not showing anyone anything truly new or helping anyone achieve happiness if their lives don’t fit the standardized mold he presents.

There’s an incredible dependence on normativity; characters are assumed to be heterosexual and seeking marriage, following a standard life plan which will lead to college, career, family, home ownership, and a relatively wealthy and travel-heavy retirement. Again, I forgive part of this because the fictional characters are used as an anecdote to illustrate some complicated ideas. But it’s unclear whether Brooks is using his characters to demonstrate an option or simply ignoring the possibility of other paths to happiness. There are hints of evolutionary psychology, as well, although at various points Harold and Erica challenge the findings Brooks presents, and it’s again a bit murky as to whether he is presenting these challenges as mistakes or successes on the parts of the characters.

I wanted to enjoy this book, and in many ways, I did. Brooks does discuss the importance of communities and interpersonal interactions in real terms, stressing the need for healthy relationships, extramarital friendship and comfortable workplace situations in the search for happiness. In his discussions of interactions between people and cultures, in fact, the book is generally quite good. It’s the considerations of the reasons people choose to conduct their interactions that made me squeamish. The final chapter went in directions I wasn’t pleased with, as well, mostly because it presented a more conservative political viewpoint than I’m comfortable with in contrast to the rest of the story.

Overall, this book passed the “I didn’t want to throw it across the room” test, and it was entertaining enough to fill the few spare hours I had on my trip last week. But I can’t recommend it without a lot of caveats. Expect to hit passages that make you cringe, but it’s worth a library check-out if for no other reason than the fact that I foresee it being one of those books that gets covered a lot on talk shows.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement / David Brooks. Random House, 8 March 2011. U.S. $27.00

Cover image from Amazon. Post image (puppies are social animals, right?) from my personal collection.

2 replies on “Fictional Non-Fiction: “The Social Animal” by David Brooks”

This is on my to-read list and one of the books I’m trying to get my book club to read.

When you say: “There’s an incredible dependence on normativity; characters are assumed to be heterosexual and seeking marriage, following a standard life plan which will lead to college, career, family, home ownership, and a relatively wealthy and travel-heavy retirement.” does he outline what ‘happy’ is? I mean, does he define ‘happy’ as hitting all those items outlined in that sentence?

Not explicitly, and that’s where I get to wondering if those are just the circumstances of the characters that happen to end up happy.

He does talk about how married people are statistically “happier” than single people in the long run (not much information on what that entails, though), and that the white-picked-fence life is something lots of people consider signs of happiness and are therefore happier upon achieving them.

But he never out-and-out lays a path to happiness, and the main characters never end up having children (though there’s some indication that they might have been “happier” if they had).

It was a sticky question, because I spend so much time reading and thinking about social justice stuff and the right of people to seek happiness, with support from their communities, in whatever way suits them best, but I obviously include people who take “traditional” routes in that, as well.

I talked through a lot of it with G while I was reading it, and we couldn’t come to a good conclusion together, either.

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