Fiction and nonfiction releases from David Brooks, Bernard Cornwell, Rosamund Lupton and Condoleezza Rice.
In recent years, a growing number of colleges and universities have begun assigning "common reads" — books that all incoming freshmen must read over the summer and prepare to discuss in their first week on campus.
We also asked for the books you think should be required reading for all college freshmen. You wrote back with more than 70 suggestions for books about the environment, war and peace, religion, race in America and more. Below are 10 of your recommendations.
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
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
David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has covered some of the most significant events in recent time — the fall of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Iraq and the economic recession. Looking at the effects of these events from a broader view, Brooks began to think that perhaps other people besides policymakers — such as scientists, philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists — were the ones who had real insight on how people thrive, and what causes failure on such a large scale.
"When the Soviet Union fell, we sent all these economists into Russia, when what they really lacked was social trust," Brooks tells Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "We invaded Iraq totally oblivious to the psychological trauma and the cultural realities of Iraq. We had financial regulatory policies based on the ideas that bankers were sort of rational creatures who would make smart decisions."
In Washington, D.C., which Brooks calls "the most emotionally avoidant city on Earth," Brooks notes that decisions are made based on the assumption that people are cold, rationalistic individuals who respond to incentives. Those assumptions didn't quite match what the research in other fields began to illustrate, however.
"Scientists, philosophers and others were developing a more accurate view of human nature, which is that emotion is more important than reason, that we're not individuals — we're deeply interconnected," Brooks says. "And most importantly ... most of our thinking happens below the level of awareness."
To convey this new psychological research in a more accessible way for his new book, The Social Animal, Brooks created two characters — Harold and Erica, a married couple and successful professionals — and followed their lives from birth to Harold's death from natural causes on a porch in Aspen, Colo. He created the characters to make the book more enjoyable to read, to illustrate the science in the real world and, most importantly, to have the way the story was told match its subject — convincing us that personal connections matter.
Instead of relying on rational decisions, Brooks says, people tend to be influenced by their underlying, unconscious emotional state, which is in turn influenced by the social relationships surrounding them. For example, Brooks has covered education reform for 20 years and writes that he has seen little improvement from multitudinous policy changes.
"The reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah," he says.
Brooks emphasizes that what really matters in people's lives today is how they relate to one another. Scientists can now study an 18-month-old child interacting with his or her mother and predict with 77 percent accuracy whether the child will graduate from high school. While Brooks cautions against letting these early signs determine a child's future, as mentors or other strong relationships can intervene along the way, he stresses the importance of looking at the impact that emotional relationships have on our lives from the very beginning.
"It's tough to talk about that in a world of CBO [Congressional Budget Office] reports, but that actually is the most important thing when you're talking about how we raise our kids, how we conduct business and everything else," Brooks says.
Viewing people's actions through the lens of the unconscious feelings and how they're influenced by the people closest to them has caused Brooks to see events like those unfolding in the Middle East in a new way. He notes that in situations like the one in Egypt, signals transferred from person to person affected the mood and emotions of the entire country. A key way to understand why individuals make the choices they do, Brooks says, is to "think of the models in their heads, to think of the way they see the world."
Brooks finds himself much more suspicious of the free market after his research into the social nature of relationships, and sees the financial system less as an Ayn Rand-type vision of rational individuals, but instead as several groups of people competing and collaborating with each other. The most successful groups, he says, are the ones who take turns having a conversation and are good at signaling each other.
"The free market produces a lot of wealth, but it's embedded ... in a series of understandings. And if you don't have those relationships, then people can't thrive in that free market," he says.
Susan J. Gilman
When it comes to story telling, the writer Frank McCourt once said: "The happy childhood is hardly worth your while."
But what about the happy adulthood? David Brooks' new book, The Social Animal, follows the lives of two extremely contented grown-ups.
"This is the happiest story you've ever read," it announces. "It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives."
If you're cynical, this probably sounds repellent. But thankfully, these two people turn out to be fictional. And the book's subtitle, "The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement," is misleading. The Social Animal doesn't reveal "hidden" formulas at all. Rather, it's 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. Along the way, we meet Harold's parents, his roommate, Erica's coworkers, even a wildly charismatic presidential candidate named, of all things, Grace.
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, including the Greek concept of thumos, the Hamiltonian ideal of democracy, IQ assessments, moral reasoning and behavioral economics. There are also arguments about achievement and the unconscious, which, I must say, are often reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell.
The Social Animal is a sort of theory of everything — a valiant attempt to synthesize a multitude of ideas and characters. It's ambitious and entertaining. But it's also messy.
Brooks has a great novelistic eye. In the first half of his book, he makes Harold and Erica come alive vividly. Yet midway, they devolve from protagonists to mouthpieces — stand-ins, perhaps, for Brooks himself, delivering thoughtful prescriptions for culture, companies and politics.
Brooks has a terrific sense of humor, too, but it's oddly deployed here. The Social Animal opens with a wicked parody of cultural elitism — or what Brooks calls the "Composure Class."
But this class seems to be the very group that Harold and Erica wind up in. By veering into satire, Brooks muddies his intentions. Are we supposed to admire his characters, or mock them? Empathize, or view them as cautionary tales?
Strangest of all, for a book that claims to be about our "emotional" inner realm, there's little if it depicted here. Neither Harold nor Erica suffers from the daily insecurities, compulsions, and anxieties that plague most real people. The biggest emotional challenges in their lives — children, infidelity, aging — are glossed over in a few pages. Mostly, Harold and Erica face concrete, defined problems — which they solve promptly, using street smarts and research.
Yes. But irritating! For all its intelligence and imagination, Brooks' narrative suffers from its own lack of real suffering. Is the happy adulthood of Harold and Erica worth your while? To an extent, The Social Animal is very much like the unconscious it explores. It's creative, helpful and thought-provoking. Yet it's also unwieldy and elliptical. And in the end, you just can't help thinking there's more to be illuminated.
Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is the memoir Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.