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What We're Reading, March 8-14

Mar 8, 2011

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David Brooks' The Social Animal combines neuroscience with philosophy to uncover the secrets of happiness. Or, if long life is your goal, consult The Longevity Project, which digests life lessons from an 80-year study of 1,528 10-year-olds. Finally, an all-black crew explores whiteness on an expedition to - where else? - Antarctica in the wickedly satirical Pym.


The Social Animal

The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

by David Brooks

David Brooks' The Social Animal begins with the announcement that "This is the happiest story you've ever read. It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives." The book isn't a story, however, so much as a giant parable about the power of our unconscious. It suggests how we might improve ourselves and our world by understanding how we really think. In the tradition of Rousseau, Brooks illustrates this through narrative. He invents two characters, Harold and Erica, whom we follow from childhood to grave. Watching their lives unfold, we're treated to commentary about how and why these characters behave and believe as they do. They become vehicles through which Brooks highlights a dizzying range of philosophy and research - everything from the Greek concept of thumos, to IQ assessments, moral reasoning and behavioral economics. The Social Animal is a sort of "theory of everything," a valiant attempt to explain human behavior through a multitude of ideas and characters.

The Social Animal is ambitious and entertaining. But it's also messy. Midway through, its characters devolve from protagonists to mouthpieces who deliver prescriptions for culture, business and politics. On occasion, Brooks veers into satire, which muddies his intentions. Are we supposed to admire his characters or mock them? Oddly, for a book that says it's about our emotional inner realm, there's little of emotion depicted here. Neither Harold nor Erica suffers from the daily insecurities and neurosis that plague most people. Mostly, they face concrete, defined problems in their lives - which they solve promptly, using street smarts and research. In the end, The Social Animal is very much like the unconscious it explores: it synthesizes a wide range of ideas creatively, yet is unwieldy and elliptical. One senses there's more to be illuminated. — Susan Jane Gilman, Reviewer for All Things Considered

Hardcover, 448 pages; Random House; list price, $27; publication date, March 8


The Longevity Project t

Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study

By Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin

The Longevity Project has two big things going for it: universal appeal and a sterling pedigree. Who doesn't want to know the secrets of long life? And how better to uncover them than by tracking 1,528 bright and healthy 10-year-olds through their entire lives? Over 90 years the project charted nearly 10 million pieces of data on these kids' character traits, habits, personal lives, career paths, ups and downs and ultimate fates. Its founder, Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, wasn't interested in longevity. His thing was how to predict achievement. (He invented the IQ test still in use today.) Terman's successors seized the chance to address diverse questions: How does personality affect health? Is it better to be an optimist or a worrier? How does divorce (your parents' or your own) affect your lifeline? Does it help to believe in God?

There's scarcely a page of this slender book that doesn't predict its revelations will startle and amaze you. This is the rhetoric of self-help books, and it would be OK if the authors really delivered. On that I have to give a mixed report. Does it surprise you to hear that people who are conscientious, prudent and persistent live longer? Well, then consider what the authors call "one of the biggest bombshells" of their study: "Cheerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts!" (Too much optimism doesn't serve you well when life disappoints.) Some other myths get busted. Worrying can be good, especially if you're a widowed guy who might otherwise neglect your health. A high-stress career doesn't shorten your life - as long as you stay on the "healthy pathway," which involves a lot of friends. Interesting. But don't expect to learn how much this or that trait contributes to longer (or shorter) life. There's presumably lots of fact and analysis beneath this book's pronouncements, but the authors think their readers have no appetite for that kind of thing. I would have appreciated a little bit of it, though, to help decide how much to believe the sweeping pronouncements. — Richard Knox, NPR Health and Science Correspondent

Hardcover, 272 pages; Hudson Street Press; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 3


Pym

A Novel

By Mat Johnson

Mat Johnson's bitingly satirical Pym pushes along at breakneck speed, driven by the protagonist's obsession with Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The protagonist is the "blackademic" Christopher Jaynes, a professor of African American Literature and self-described "octoroon" who is fixated on "the pathology of Whiteness." When he is denied tenure for teaching Poe instead of Ralph Ellison, the professor is freed up to chase down the veracity of a manuscript he finds suggesting that Poe's outlandish novel was based on fact. The alleged facts include the presence of white, Sasquatch-like snow monkeys in Antarctica and an island of black people with black teeth. Manuscript in hand, Professor Jaynes sails south aboard the good ship Creole with an all- black crew and a dog called White Folks. The snow monkeys (or "snow honkies " as one character calls them) enslave the crew of the Creole. Except, that is, for one crew-member who buys his freedom with junk food. As Johnson piles on the ironies, events build to an apocalyptic climax.

I am not sure I would want to meet Mat Johnson. Or try and befriend him. I fear he would skewer my foibles like so many shish kebabs. But I enjoyed reading his book. Pym is an amusing, dazzling and, at times, excruciating meditation on race. Among his many targets: diversity committees, Morehouse Men and the "Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade. Johnson upends the centuries-long literary discussion of what it means to be black in America and asks what it means to be white in America. Reading Pym makes you feel like a kid on a bike holding on to the back-bumper of a moving car. The rushing wind makes you laugh so hard you forget the danger. — Luis Clemens, NPR Senior Editor

Hardcover, 336 pages; Spiegel & Grau; list price, $27; publication date, March 1
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