Learning How to Be a Social Animal: Talking with David Brooks

The Social Animal Back in September, New York Times columnist David Brooks joined the post-publication fray about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, arguing that it's "a brilliantly written book that is nonetheless trapped in an intellectual cul de sac." Little did we know then that Brooks was writing a fictional marriage story of his own. His new book, The Social Animal, has been getting even more varied responses than Franzen's, from "weirdly compelling" to "weirdly disorienting," I think in part because it's a strange hybrid of a book (that's where the "weirdly" comes in). On one hand, it's a pretty familiar Gladwell-style popularizing of the latest social science, but on the other it's, as I say below, one of the most experimental novels I've read in a while (though I don't think Brooks himself sees it that way).

On the social science side, it works as a kind of encyclopedia of behavioral research, synthesizing results that will often be familiar to readers of Gladwell, Dan Ariely, Chip and Dan Heath, and many others into an argument that our understanding of human nature has been too wrapped up in ideas of individual rationality, when instead we should see ourselves as, as the title says, social animals, with our consciousness (and especially our unconscious) built out of networked connections with our world and the people around us.

But seen as a novel, it's the story of a married couple, Erica and Howard, who live out what Brooks says research has told us about ourselves--and who learn in some cases to use that knowledge to build happy lives for themselves. Has anyone ever constructed a novel out of research-based probabilities, in which each character's actions are followed by explanatory parentheticals like "Around 96 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old Americans agree with the statement 'I am certain that someday I will get to where I want to be in life.'"?

I'm still not sure what I think of the book as a whole, but it's big and, yes, in Brooks's buttoned-up way, weird enough that I wanted to keep reading and thinking about it (and I still am). When I talked to Brooks recently he didn't really buy my whole "crazy experimental novel" line of questioning, but we did get back, at the end, to his dissatisfaction with Franzen and his disagreement with Leo Tolstoy: happy families, like the one in his book, are every bit as complex and strange as unhappy ones.

Amazon.com: I wanted to talk about the format of this book. On one hand it's pretty familiar in the way you connect the latest research to the way we live our lives. But as someone who's read a lot of what you might call Gladwellian anecdotal books lately, I was very grateful for the other side of it, which is that you structure your discussion in the story of two fictional characters. In some ways, if you look at it as fiction, it struck me as one of the most experimental novels I've read in a long time. How did you come to this style?

Brooks: I still consider it nonfiction--maybe more allegory--but I wanted to use the novel, or at least the characters, for a couple of reasons: one, I think it makes it a lot more fun to read; two, because it takes a lot of the research out of the lab and the fMRI machines and brings it into real life. And the third thing it does is it allows you to go deeper, so the book is not just about material success, it's about a different view of human nature, a view that is more social and less rational, and that emphasizes the connectedness of things, and less the idea that we're all just individuals striving for worldly success.

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