BOOK REVIEW: Once more, with feeling

THE SOCIAL ANIMAL: THE HIDDEN SOURCES OF LOVE, CHARACTER AND ACHIEVEMENT
By David Brooks
Random House, $27, 448 pages

Self-help books are quite popular these days, as are serious works of nonfiction. The two genres don’t often meet in the same book. That means those who want to take an analytical/intellectual approach to improving their lives don’t have that many literary options.

New York Times columnist David Brooks attempts to fill this vacuum with “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.” It’s a well-written and engaging tour d’horizon of much of the literature on brain development, male-female relationships and what factors cause people to live happy lives. However, the book’s effectiveness is at times diminished by the author’s glibness, selective use of evidence and insufficient attention to opposing viewpoints.

Mr. Brooks contends that while wealth and intellect can be helpful components of fulfilling lives, love, character and healthy emotions are more important. He makes his case by combining two narrative techniques. Part of the book is a fairly typical pop sociology-psychology work, with many references to scholarly research and the author’s own worldview sprinkled liberally throughout. But he tries to be somewhat different by telling much of the story by profiling the lives of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica.

Mr. Brooks synthesizes a great deal of academic literature, almost all of which backs up his thesis. He tends to overwhelm the reader with so much information that it is sometimes hard to keep it all straight. This is an example where less would definitely have been more.

His fundamental argument is sound, as anyone who has been in a healthy emotional relationship can attest. But he is occasionally imprecise in making his points.

“People who lack emotion don’t lead well-planned logical lives in the manner of the coolly rational Mr. Spock. They lead foolish lives. In the extreme cases, they become sociopaths, untroubled by barbarism and unable o feel other people’s pain,” he writes.

Talk about an overly broad statement. For starters, do people “lack emotion,” or are they just not good at displaying it? Many people who are driven more by their heads than hearts, and aren’t great at showing emotion have lived successful and meaningful lives. President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch come to mind.

Mr. Brooks is at his best when he talks about how childhood experiences shape people’s emotional development.

He notes that the affluent are often raised in an atmosphere of “concerted cultivation” that gives them exposure to a broader array of experiences, more contact with adults and they learn how to connect action to consequences. But they have a more stressful pace of life. This can often make the adjustment to adulthood easier.

By contrast, less-affluent children are often given more free time because their parents can’t afford a myriad of extracurricular activities. This causes children to have a less stressful existence - and apparently to whine less - but Mr. Brooks argues that it doesn’t prepare them as well for the modern economy and doesn’t cultivate advanced verbal skills.

This brings us to Harold and Erica. Harold was raised in the first type of environment and Erica the second. They started as business partners and eventually fell in love. Both had fulfilling lives though Erica achieved greater professional success.

Mr. Brooks uses their life experiences to demonstrate how life is richer and more fulfilling if you combine intellectual prowess with emotional awareness. It’s an interesting technique, and used before by authors from Jean Jacques Rousseau to Edmund Morris. It worked well with Rousseau, less so with Mr. Morris (in his book on President Reagan) and doesn’t add much to this book.

One has the feeling that Mr. Brooks took that approach to help stretch out the material because at times “The Social Animal” reads like a book-length magazine article.

Readers will learn a great deal, but they will wish it was shorter and that Mr. Brooks had been more even-handed.

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