The Social Animal by David Brooks ( Short Books)

It’s not short. It’s not a novel. It’s not perfect. But  hugely recommended and I’d love to hear  what people think of it.This book is compellingly interesting and even when skipping parts I never wanted to stop reading.

It’s a popular socio/science book but it’s more than that  – and approaching a novel, crossed with a database of interesting facts, crossed with an argument that facts ain’t it. And not just a novel but a novel of Tolstoyan, George Eliotesque proportions. As a novel it’s not good enough, but it’s not good enough on the grandest of scales, and a great effort is always worth this reader’s time. I loved it for that great effort to think something new about  all our old human stuff.

The sub-title  ‘a story of how success happens’ would have put me off , because I wouldn’t have said I am interested in ‘success’. And yet I bought it because I read somewhere that David Cameron and the Cabinet are reading it and I thought, rather irritably, I would see what they were  up to. When my husband saw me with it he said ‘I’ve already bought you that on the kindle because I knew you’d be interested in it.’

 That’s one problem with the kindle – you can’t see its books lying around.

So David Brooks has tried to write about what we know about being human from a scientific/brain scanning/psychology/business book point of view. And he has had the brilliant formal idea of  setting that info  within two life stories, the stories of Erica and Harold.

It’s a great idea, this clashing together of two forms and it worked well enough to  keep me reading to the very end and more than that,  to make me cry at the end, as if I were reading a novel.

Of course a greater novelist would have done it better. But when I tried to think of which greater novelist, only Tolstoy and George Eliot came to mind. Mr Brooks – that is one helluva compliment. There is no one  out there now who could do this.

Why not ?

I think that is something to do with the main intellectual content of this book, the scale of the project, the idealism.  Most contemporary novelists can’t do it because of what we  culturally believe, how we are, at the moment. You’d have to have some pretty large beliefs, sensibilities, a kind of free flowing willingness to think in different departments…a novelist  would need to be interested (as Marilynne Robinson is) in the very  small scale human, and also the grandest scale universal. But MR is working on a different level – deeper, deeper.  And so far she has not  been interested in what I’ll call the outside world. The master is Tolstoy. But who else? Who now?

There is a really moving account of thinking  in the chapter called Learning, around page 94. Everyone who has to write should read this.  Harold is learning to do creative thinking ( which this book might call emergent thinking – emergence, a wonderful concept that the  book explains very well).  David Brooks wrote this book in the same sort of way the Harold writes his essay. Sometimes that feels very exciting, sometimes clunky. The book is an experiment, and I like that.

The chapter on learning is a great tale for teachers and also for young people who are by and large not learning to write in deep language. We are losing our minds as we lose our language. The need to put the unthought  into  order, at the level of the word, the clause, the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter brings us FORM. That is the act of creation that written language offers. Brooks brilliantly captures that process – this is novelistic writing. Wonderful!

This brief note doesn’t do the book justice but it would take me half a day to write a decent account of what’s good so  take this as a flag wave that says ‘ Try this’. It is, in a funny, hidden, unconscious (?) way a sort of religious book. It’s in that field, though mostly not in that language. ‘Virtue’ might have been a better word than ‘success’. ‘The Social Animal, a story of why virtue matters’  would have been a less marketable title, but more truthful.

BTW – good that David Cameron and the Cabinet have been reading it. It has some very good ideas.