I just read ‘The Social Animal’ by David Brooks. It is a strange book. It purports to be an introduction, for the lay person, to the latest developments in Neuro Science; a bold undertaking made even bolder by the fact that the device Brooks uses to structure his book is fictionalised biography (or something like it). The book follows two ‘representative’ characters, Harold and Erica, from womb to tomb, and each phase of their lives is used to illustrate how we should be living, according to the latest research on the mind.
The book is, in the words of one of Brooks characters, ‘a noble failure’. Despite being promised by the book’s blurb that I was about to read the ‘happiest story…ever’, Harold and Erica’s lives ended up depressing rather than inspiring me. Partly because Brooks is a much better journalist than he is novelist, so I never really cared that much about the characters; and partly because of the many unattractive features of their lives. They appear, for example, to have absolutely no friends.
The other problem with the book is the fact that, by some bizarre coincidence, the last thirty years of research into the mind conducted all around the world by thousands of scientists, psychologist etc.. all wholeheartedly supports the very particular kind of conservative social agenda that Brooks has been spruiking for his entire journalistic career. Call me Mister Sceptical, but that struck me as somewhat suspicious.
It is, however, a book where the parts to a large extent redeem the whole, and every page contains at least a line or two that you want to read aloud to anyone within earshot (sorry, Susie). A good example is the following corker of a line re the conversations that parents have with other parents at the playground (the supporting reference is to an article in the New Yorker);
‘Mothers all want forgiveness, fathers all want applause.’ Discuss (I dare you).
A less inflammatory, but more interesting, quote relates to early childhood attachment. A pioneer in this field was the British psychologist John Bowlby, who Brooks quotes as saying that ‘all of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our primary attachment figures.’
It is fascinating, and terrifying, to consider the extent to which our whole lives are shaped by the kind of attachment we form to our parents in the first two years of life. Yet the fundamental thesis of The Social Animal is that it is relationships that form individuals, not the other way round, and if this is the case, then our first, foundational relationships must have an incredibly profound effect on the kind of individuals we become.
What a relief to know that all those hours spent doing laps of the loungeroom with Arsenic Hour Tilly strapped to my chest weren’t just a recipe for insanity and osteopathy. It is also comforting to know, given how little thinking and earning I have been doing in the last year and a half, that we are, after all, primarily social animals, and not rational or economic ones.
Which reminds me of another great factoid from the book. Now don’t ask me how this can be measured, but apparently a regular monthly social commitment does as much for your happiness (quotient?) as earning an additional $100,000 a year. If that doesn’t get men flocking to my seriously undermanned monthly book club, I don’t know what will.
I guess I should stop wasting my time sending words out into the ether and start working out how to bond more effectively with Tilly while she’s napping. There must be a way.