Guest Reviewer: Walter Isaacson on The Social Animal
Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He
is the author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men:
Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.
David Brooks has written an absolutely fascinating book about how we form our emotions and character. Standing at the
intersection of brain science and sociology, and writing with the wry wit of a James Thurber, he explores the
unconscious mind and how it shapes the way we eat, love, live, vacation, and relate to other people. In The Social
Animal, he makes the recent revolution in neuroscience understandable, and he applies it to those things we have the
most trouble knowing how to teach: What is the best way to build true relationships? How do we instill imaginative
thinking? How do we develop our moral intuitions and wisdom and character? Brooks has always been a keen observer of the
way we live. Now he takes us one layer down, to why we live that way.
An Amazon Interview with David Brooks
We talked with David Brooks about, among other things, Jonathan Franzen, Freud, and Brooks's own unfamiliar emotions,
just before the publication of The Social Animal. You can read the full interview on Omnivoracious, the Amazon books
blog, including this exchange:
Amazon.com: Speaking of Tolstoy, I bet a lot of people are going to quoting the first line of Anna Karenina to you:
"Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Is there a consistency between what
makes a family happy, the way that this family turns out to be?
Brooks: You know, I never bought Tolstoy's line.
Amazon.com: I didn't either.
Brooks: I didn't know many happy families that were alike. One of the things you learn is that we're all so much more
complex. We all contain multitudes, so someone who might be a bully in one circumstance is incredibly compassionate in
other circumstances. We have multiple selves, and the idea that we can have a very simple view of who we are, what our
character is, that's actually not right.
One of the things all this research shows you is how humble you have to be in the face of the complexity of human
nature. We've got a 100 billion neurons in the brain, and it's just phenomenally complicated. You take a little child
who says, "I'm a tiger," and pretends to be a tiger. Well that act of imagination--conflating this thing "I" with this
thing "tiger"--is phenomenally complicated. No computer could ever do that, but it's happening below the level of
awareness. It seems so easy to us. And so one of the things these people learn is they contain these hidden strengths,
but at the same time they have to be consciously aware of how modest they can be in understanding themselves and proceed
on that basis.
A Letter from Author David Brooks
© Josh Haner, The New York Times
Several years ago I did some reporting on why so many kids drop out of high school, despite all rational incentives.
That took me quickly to studies of early childhood and research on brain formation. Once I started poking around that
realm, I found that people who study the mind are giving us an entirely new perspective on who we are and what it takes
to flourish. We’re used to a certain story of success, one that emphasizes getting good grades, getting the right job
skills and making the right decisions. But these scientists were peering into the innermost mind and shedding light on
the process one level down, in the realm of emotions, intuitions, perceptions, genetic dispositions and unconscious
I’ve spent several years with their work now, and it’s changed my perspective on everything. In this book, I try to
take their various findings and weave them together into one story.
This is not a science book. I don’t answer how the brain does things. I try to answer what it all means. I try to
explain how these findings about the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our
kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics. This story is based on scientific
research, but it is really about emotion, character, virtue and love. We’re not rational animals, or laboring animals;
we’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with each other and connect to larger ideas.