The book’s subtitle—The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement—conveys its ambition. Brooks’s first two books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, were acutely witty satires of a social group whose name he coined: bobos, or “bourgeois bohemians,” the “affluent educated class” that frequents “gourmet coffeehouses” and issues corporate reports “with quotations from Émile Zola.” The books are smart—Brooks is a shrewd anthropologist of this fanciful type—and hugely entertaining. But they lack gravitas. The Social Animal is of a whole other order: authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope.
Its thesis can be stated simply: who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose; even, on a deeper level, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals (Brooks calls them “scouts”) that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. They are “mental sensations that happen to us.”
Brooks has absorbed and synthesized a tremendous amount of scholarship. He has mastered the literature on childhood development, sociology, and neuro-science; the classics of modern sociology; the major philosophers from the Greeks to the French philosophes; the economists from Adam Smith to Robert Schiller. He quotes artfully from Coleridge and Stendhal. And there’s nothing showy about it. He’s been busy, working on the book over the past three years during the stray hours when he isn’t writing his column, appearing on TV, or lecturing around the country. “I used to play golf,” he says. “I gave up every second that I wasn’t hanging around with my wife and kids.” (He has three, and lives, bobolike, in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md.)
To create a readable narrative from this daunting store of information, Brooks has written the book in the form of a novel, following an imaginary couple named Harold and Erica from womb to tomb.
Based on the summary here, it sounds like I will pick up this book somewhere down the road.
It is interesting that this reviewer suggests that Brooks was an “anthropologist” in writing his first two books. Brooks himself suggests in Bobos in Paradise that he was practicing “comic sociology.” This new book sounds more like anthropology as Brooks sets out to explore why humans are the way they are. Or more broadly, Brooks is approaching a question that many humans throughout history have asked(see a recent example here): what exactly makes us human?
Also, I am not sure about the idea that his first two books suffered from a lack of gravitas. Sure, the books were somewhat snarky. But there was also some truth in them about recent changes in American suburbs. Did they lack gravitas because they pointed out some of the foibles of bourgeois bohemians?
(Read other posts about David Brooks: making a pitch for sociology; a system that might discourage good candidates from running for political office; and defending the liberal arts.)