David Brooks Wants to Be Friends
Atlas, James, Newsweek
Byline: James Atlas
Turning away from Washington's shallowness and the warfare of partisan politics, the New York Times columnist has written a book about the human longing for contact and community.
Seated in a booth at equinox, a generically posh restaurant across the street from his office in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, David Brooks seems shy for a public figure--someone who would rather talk about his heroes Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton than himself. At other tables, men in suits talk in loud voices; Brooks talks in a soft voice, and is wearing a gray sweater, no tie. His media persona, the ubiquitous commentator you see on television, popping up after State of the Union speeches to analyze the president's performance, is nowhere in evidence. The self-assured columnist we read in the Times has been supplanted by a nervous author preparing for the reception of his new book, The Social Animal. A mint copy had just arrived that morning with no blurbs on the back, only a brief description of the contents adapted from the text. "I don't think blurbs do much good. I just wanted to explain the book."
There's a lot to explain. 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 Emile 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. Harold is a diligent student, fascinated by the classics, who grows into a passive, underachieving adult, writing recondite books on American history and stumbling into a job at a Washington think tank. Erica is more driven. She starts her own consulting business and fails; joins an elephantine media corporation that sounds like AOL Time Warner; and ascends to political power as deputy chief of staff in the administration of Richard Grace, an Obama-like president with a "cautious, cerebral, thoughtful, and calm" temperament. It doesn't quite work as fiction, but the plot is just scaffolding designed to elucidate Brooks's real preoccupation: how Erica and Harold came to be who they are. …