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Kinetic Beans Review: The Social Animal

In Reading on March 1, 2013 at 8:26 am
Turkeys are social creatures, right? At least I felt like one reading through all of David Brooks' book.

Turkeys are social creatures, right? At least I felt like one reading through all of David Brooks’ book.

I recently finished David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. While there were certain moments of surface brilliance – such as when Brooks opens the book by mocking the “culture class” and the upper class techie-come-do-gooder lifestyle that seems to be very a-la-mode right now (which unfortunately, he then embraces wholeheartedly later on) – overall the discussion felt shallow and forced.

The primary reason for this shallowness, I contend, is Brooks’ choice to frame the discussion around two imaginary characters, Harold and Erica. Brooks’ intentions may have been good, but it was difficult to emotionally or mentally connect with Harold and Erica’s lives. I think there’s an important lesson to be learned here. These characters might have had interesting stories to tell, but we’ll never know. They remained one-dimensional, screens upon which Brooks could project facts and stereotypes to support his arguments. For me, this proved to be very unsatisfying.

Throughout the book, Brooks explores the influence of the unconscious on human development. He breaks up the Harold/Erica fictional narrative with discussions of real-life studies. These studies examine a number of areas, such as the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) influence of environment, relationships, peers, and parenting on our lives. Many of them were already familiar to me, but it was a good review of some of the more prevalent research in the field.

It’s here that I found another flaw. While Brooks presents the positive findings from the studies he references, he rarely discusses the weaknesses. This stuck out because, just as I was reading this book, I stumbled across an article from The Chronicle Review about John Bargh, one of the best-known researchers on unconscious influences, who is facing challenges to his earlier work. Given that such challenges exist, and given that there’s still an active debate in the intellectual community about the weight or validity of some of these studies, I think the book would have benefitted from presenting both sides.

Now here’s my confession: I almost stopped reading the book around the time that the fictional characters joined a political campaign and headed for to the White House. I just don’t have the patience for that kind of thing. I stuck it out, however, and actually found Brooks’ discussion of political party affiliation and voting trends to be interesting, although I’d seen read about such studies before. This research reinforces my views about the ridiculous nature of two-party politics, particularly in the United States. I have no doubt, in fact, that Brooks could come up with a psychological study to explain precisely why I feel this way (not that I’m sure that it would help much).

Towards the end, the book explores the mental and psychological changes Erica and Harold experience in their later years of life, closing with what is intended to be a bittersweet moment (which unfortunately for me, was impeded by my lack of empathy for the characters).

My overall verdict: I reluctantly finished the book, but wish that Brooks had spent more time diving into the research, rather than the Harold/Erica narrative. Would I recommend it to others? Nope, but if you decide to read it anyway, follow these two conditions (and possibly a third – see the postscript for more details). First, don’t feel compelled to read every single page or to buy into Harold/Erica. Second, after you’ve finished, take some time to read other books or articles on the subject. Brooks’ book is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with this line of effort, but for those, like me, who’ve already done reading on the subject, it may seem a bit redundant.

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POSTSCRIPT

I wish I had stumbled upon PZ Myers’ snarky Salon review of The Social Animal sooner. It would have saved me a lot of pain and suffering. Myers’ claims to have only made it through the book by yelling “Die, yuppie scum, die!” at the end of every page. Hilarious. My favorite Myers quote about the book: “it’s like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls, posing them in their expensive accessories and cars and houses and occasionally wiggling them in simulated carnal relations…while periodically pausing to tell his audience how cool it all is.”

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Best (Random) Books of 2012

In Reading on December 12, 2012 at 11:32 pm
Mini Darth zealously guards the KB best book of 2012 list.

Mini Darth zealously guards the KB best book of 2012 list.

The time has come for me to share some of the e-book gems that I stumbled across in 2012. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but I’ll also throw in a teaser or two just to spice things up. In no particular order, the Kinetic Beans Best (Random) Books of 2012 are:

Raising Stony Mayhall (Daryl Gregory): This book is about zombies. Oh yes. Had I known this book was about zombies, I might never have picked it up, but I am glad I did. It is an imaginative romp through a post-zombie apocalypse world, with one big difference from your typical zombie story: the zombies are still real people (mostly). I’ll stop there before I give too much away, but let’s just say that after reading this book, I immediately sought out more of Gregory’s writing. It was that good.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (Gail Caldwell): I shed many a tear over this beautiful book about the power of friendship and the equally life-changing power of loss. Intimate, raw, and moving. Caldwell captures the nuances of the grieving process in a gentle yet searing way, and helps us understand why the acts of loving and grieving are inherent to our humanity.

Anathem (Neil Stephenson): This book was one of the exceptions I made to my random book selection in 2012. I have been trying to get back to my roots by reading more science fiction. Several friends highly recommended this book, so I took it up. Stephenson weaves the story of a planet divided and facing a crisis the scope of which is known only to a select few. As the story unfolds, the reader is compelled to look past the surface and dig deeper and deeper into our understanding of time, space, and human consciousness.

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean (Susan Casey): Fascinating and frightening. Casey goes in depth into the world of big wave surfers, following several god-like figures in the sport, while also doing extensive research on the natural phenomena that lead to the existence of giant waves. I can safely say that I will never look at the ocean in the same way. As for the surfers who pursue these waves, a quote from an article on endurance sports comes to mind: “If you are running more than 15 miles a week, you are doing it for reasons other than health.” The same holds for giant wave surfers. If you want to surf 100-foot waves, you’re doing it for reasons other than health, and frankly, it’s unclear to me whether or not personal demons of that nature can be truly exorcised in this life.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John le Carré): Before I’d ever even picked up this book, I’d heard all kinds of mixed reviews about the movie based on the story. Now having read it, I might have an inkling as to why that is the case. The book opens quickly, and before you even realize it, you are embroiled in a tangled web of fact and fiction that seems to fuse together until even the main character in the book, George Smiley, can’t seem to keep it all straight. Yet even as you sense that you are in over your head, you still feel compelled to keep turning the pages, desperate to find out how it all ends. A mesmerizing mystery, but make sure to read it in as few sittings as possible to avoid losing track of the complex twists and turns of le Carré’s imaginings.

Last Call (Tim Powers): I sympathized with Scott Crane, the main character in Power’s romp through Las Vegas and a magical world of poker and Tarot cards. Not only is poor Crane down on his luck, but more than that: he is doomed. That is, unless he can somehow track down his father, unlock his inner powers, and harness all of the luck that Vegas has to offer. I dove into this book completely without expectations (I don’t even like poker!) and was delighted to find a compelling cast of characters, an interesting twist on the much-explored father-son rivalry, and an imaginative ending. A great vacation or travel read.

The Wave (Walter Mosley): I know what you’re thinking: two books about waves in one year? Don’t worry. We’re talking about all together different kinds of waves here, more specifically, alien waves. Mosley delivers a neatly packaged, page-turning sci-fi read that reaches right into the core of humankind’s fear of the other. Interestingly, most of the book takes place in/around Los Angeles, which will be no surprise to the discerning reader, as we all know that Los Angeles is no stranger to weird happenings (hello, Kardashians).

40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania (Matthew Chapman): If the name alone doesn’t sell you, then let me assure you that story itself is worth the time. Chapman’s book evolves from his fascination with a small Pennsylvania community torn apart by a debate over school curriculum. While the story itself and the implications of the case are serious, Chapman is able to capture the moments of humor as well as reflect the humanity of people on both sides of the verdict.

Blue Nights (Joan Didion): This was my first foray into Didion’s writing. From the opening lines, when she describes her melancholy attraction to the Blue Nights of New York City, she enraptures the reader. The book reads more like a stream of consciousness – words and stories repeat but are spun differently each time, revealing new facets of emotion and memory. Unlike Caldwell, Didion struggles to address her grief directly, using flashes of memory and small stories to capture the essence of loss and fear of aging.

The City and the City (China Miéville): While this was not an easy read for me, I found the book fascinating. Miéville spins the tale of a city divided. The cause of the divide is not immediately clear, and becomes less and less clear as the story moves on. An exploration of boundaries and identity, Miéville’s story, through its enigma, invites the reader to question the given lines of demarcation and accepted truths that control our lives.

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Since 2013 is imminent, I’m taking suggestions for next year’s reading. Any books that you would recommend? Send them my way (even if it’s not exactly random)!

Confessions of a Random E-Book Reader

In Reading on December 8, 2012 at 12:11 am
Where would I be without my kindle?

Where would I be without books?

One of the benefits of being a voracious reader is that every year I’m exposed to a wide variety of stories and ideas. This year, the emphasis really was on “variety” because my book selection method radically changed from previous years. I’ve always been a library rat – I’d much rather wait for a book from the library than purchase it at the store. While not the original intent, this goes nicely with my new minimalist-consciousness, since it means that I accumulate fewer books than I would otherwise. This preference for library books, however, kept me from entering the digital book world for some time, because I was very afraid that if I bought an e-reader, I would suddenly find myself racking up monthly, if not weekly, book bills that would horrify my inner budget geek.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I discovered that the DC Public Library has a rapidly growing collection of e-books. Without hesitation, I quickly went online and purchased my first e-reader. Of course, it helped that I was about to embark on a month-long trip and needed to bring along a healthy reading supply while also keeping my travel bags light. I encountered my first major e-reader challenge when I went to select books online. What I discovered, much to my dismay, was that, much like paper books, the current e-books of the moment often had holds placed on them, sometimes 50 people deep. Given that I was leaving in a matter of days for my trip, I realized I had to quickly figure out another method for selecting books from the library or else go broke from buying new e-books or, just as terrible, go mad from a lack of reading material on a 14-hour flight. Necessity is the mother of all invention, or so they say. So it was the case for me. I needed books but I couldn’t wait for the ones I wanted to get off the waitlist.

Frantic, I resorted to the next-best method: I clicked on the box that said “show available titles only” and sorted the titles alphabetically. I then arbitrarily picked a letter of the alphabet, say “P,” and began combing through the available books, eventually selecting a collection of 10 random books. I used the word random deliberately. Modern-day Dracula, neurotic sisters reuniting, hostile alien worlds, and geriatric Mexican-Americans trying to escape a nursing home. These were only some of the topics that I encountered using this method. Had the characters from these books ever had the opportunity of interacting, I’m sure they would have agreed on one thing: that the person who chose them clearly had to be suffering from some serious multiple personality disorder. Who else would enjoy such an eclectic smattering of the book world’s delights and disasters?

The person most surprised by the success of this experiment, of course, was me. In opening myself to such a panoply of books, I realized how trapped I had been reading in my usual “serious, life-changing fiction” genre. My eyes had been opened and a new world of book diversity awaited my discovery. Since then, the randomness has continued, tempered, however, by a slight modification to the methodology. I now cross-check each book I pick against its Goodreads page, just to make sure it is not a complete dud, which is a fairly basic filter. Even with this precaution, I still find myself starting books and realizing that there’s no way I will ever finish them. Risk is inherent in this method – if I were more of a betting woman (or an economist), I would say that the risk of loss is higher but the potential for reward is even greater. And remarkably, that is precisely what I have found to be the case. Duds aside, I have discovered some truly delightful and thought-provoking books over the past year which I might never have discovered had I continued choosing books in my stodgy, old-fashioned way.

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I’d be curious to hear from others on how you pick your books. How do you avoid slipping into ruts or just going to your favorite authors? Also, look out for my next post, in which I’ll feature some of my favorite books I discovered in 2012 using this method.