JCL Blog

Book Review: Social Animal by David Brooks

I like David Brooks when he appears on the News Hour every week with Jim Lehrer and Mark Shields.  He regularly delivers insights I would not have on my own and in a way that is kind and even handed.  I also enjoy reading his column in the NY Times.  He has a writing style that draws me in and delivers a payload of quality analysis.

Somehow all of the things I like about David Brooks just don't make it into his books.  I thought the idea for his 2007 book, Bobos in Paradise, was great:  to describe the elites of the generation after the yuppies in a way that the generation before the yuppies would understand.  Unfortunately the satirical tone was thick enough that I just could not make it all of the way through.

I thought I would give him another try and recently read Social Animal.  Contrary to many of the not so flattering reviews, I did find it interesting and well presented.  My divergent opionion from that of the reviews in the NY Times, Forbes, and Salon, could be the result of my thinking of the book as an innovative way to present the mountains of research done for the book so that the reader could grasp the ideas.  As a work of non-fiction, the narrative of the two invented characters is much more bearable.

Here are the main themes I want to remember from the book:


  • There is plenty of research supporting the idea that there is something in between nature and nurture -- that in early life, the brain is being wired in a way that later will seem like hardwiring (nature), but in fact came from the environment (nurture).
  • The 90 percent of the brain that we don't use, as the saying goes, could be in charge of the show.
  • The crowning American achievement is upward social mobility -- and we have no idea how we achieve it.
  • Our culture has no idea what happiness is.


I still like David Brooks and I am glad I read the book.  It did give me some insights I would not have had otherwise.  It was a little sterile, so if you are looking for a real life counterbalance, here is my review of Life, Keith Richards autobiography.  I highly recommend it.