Friday, May 20, 2011

Why Can’t We All Just Be Nice To One Another?

The word 'social' is hot right now. Social networking is the new dotcom boom, and everyone seems to be piling onto Twitter and Facebook in the hope of striking it rich. So when New York Times journalist and author David Brooks was asking – as he claims at the back of his book– “roughly twenty-four million people” for the title of his book, The Social Animal seems a pretty shrewd selection.

But the title definitely works. Forget narrow definitions of Internet services, humans are social animals, and we use (no, need, no, crave) social networking in order to achieve anything of any value in order to survive, thrive and be happy.

You know this of course. I know this. Each of us needs all of us, no man is an island. The American Pledge of Allegiance start with “I” and ends with “all”, etc. But the fact that there are plenty of quotes, homilies and folk wisdom for our interdependence gives us a big clue as to its fundamental place at the core of what it means to be human. What David Brooks does in The Social Animal is to show us – through stories, examples and research – exactly why this is so.

The use of the word success on the cover is also revealing. Dale Carnegie, the granddaddy of success literature, once wrote that “you and I don't need to be told anything new. We already know enough to lead perfect lives . . . The purpose of this book is to . . . kick you in the shins and inspire you to do something about it.".

And what a kick in the shins (or perhaps to a more delicate area) this book is. It is a laudable feat of concentration and discipline, as Brooks takes us through the lives of two different people, Erica and Harold, and explores what it is that made them successful, even before they were born. At the outset he explains his goals for the books – his desire to write in the style of Rousseau’s Emile, i.e. take the learnings of modern research out of the abstract, and into the concrete through the two characters he creates. That’s a very high bar to set – and we expect him to take a spill, but for the most part I reckon he pulls it off.

We follow Harold and Erica through their lives, and along the way collect fantastic pieces of insight and research in terms of how children develop, how we make decisions, the groups we fall into at school and beyond – and the ways we fall in love. The relationship between Harold and Erica doesn’t always ring true – hardly surprising given that he puts their lives through as many ‘mangles’ as possible to allow him to explore the maximum number of fields of human interaction. But you do develop a fondness for the characters, and you care enough so that the end – when it comes – does leave genuine sadness.

As a manual for living, there are gems throughout. As a parent with young boys I found myself making notes at times on issues such as resolving homework disputes, and how to encourage a lifelong passion for music. Some of the passages on Harold – his somewhat squandered adolescence, and some of his philosophies in middle age, did get a bit close to the bone (particularly a fixation on suffering, and a small but fascinating section on how we are all either 'Guessers' or 'Askers'). There’s also a mine of book recommendations scattered throughout – I’m now desperate to get hold of The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton (and I’ve ordered a copy for the shop...).

Talking of Greece, the book does have the feel of a marathon. There is a mass of research, and in covering so many areas it did occasionally get a bit too much for me – although I found it impossible to ‘skip ahead’ for fear of missing some piece of crucial research, buried in the story. I even experienced my own 17-mile ‘wall’ to break through, and this occurred when Harold and Erica get involved in a presidential campaign, which feels very shoehorned in so that the author can say what is wrong with modern politics, society in general and leadership. He talks about Hamiltonian politics, and Abraham Lincoln, familiar to anyone who (like me) has read a fair amount of US success literature in his time: he’s the ‘go-to’ president for anyone wanting to evoke all that is wonderful about presidential leadership.

It does get very US-centric, although at one point there’s a bone thrown to the Brits (or more accurately, to David Cameron) about British Society, its ills, and possible fixes. His suggestions have apparently resulted in David Brooks being invited over to talk to MPs about The Big Society. Anyone somewhat befuddled as to what the Big Society actually is might get a big clue from reading Brooks' book. As far as I can understand, plenty of Conservative (and Lib Dem) MPs are doing just that.

At times you feel the author is simply trying to make the plea “Why can’t we all just be nice to one another?”. But at least he is offering up a wealth of proof to show why we should be nice to one another – or at least respectful of our place within the social network - and how that can have a major positive impact on our lives.

But any criticisms do feel a bit small-minded and mean-spirited. This is a major work of passion and erudition, a constantly surprising distillation of someone who cares deeply about the current crisis of humanity and ways it might be fixed. As a tool for self-knowledge, I’ve not read anything to touch it in many years. Just be warned: it might make uncomfortable reading at times. This bookshop owner feels his shins are well and truly bruised – but in a good way.

1 comment:

  1. Ironic that just about everything in modern life is devoted to promoting social isolation from self-service check-outs at Libraries and supermarkets, to electronic telephone trees, getting rid of Park Keepers, Sheltered flat wardens, direct GP contact and keeping people one person removed from humanity (ask any OAP). Even social networking sites have been blamed for promoting social isolation in real life as people start talking more electronically than they do to real friends in real life. Maybe I should write the contrary book, much though I agree that human beings do need human contact, else there wouldn't be the level of depression and substance-abuse around that there is when people are denied it or human contact becomes something they have to pay for.

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