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Wanted to Enjoy This Book
on March 8, 2011
I wanted to enjoy this book -- a grand idea to integrate disparate threads of human research by a smart writer I enjoy reading in the New York Times, a book profiled over two pages in Newsweek and featured by the Scientific American Book Club -- but unfortunately I found it ultimately unsatisfying. For someone who hasn't read about modern psychology advances, this may be a good primer. But for most people the wide range and added space of a narrative device results in too shallow a depth to be fulfilling. It's not that Brooks has things wrong or couldn't go deeper if he tried; it's that there is not room.
In the introduction Brooks explains "I'm writing this story, first, because while researchers in a wide variety of fields have shone their flashlights into different parts of the cave of the unconscious, illuminating different corners and openings, much of their work is done in academic silos. I'm going to try and synthesize their findings into one narrative." This is exactly what he does, combining the wide expanses of psychology from neuroscience to social groups and behavioral economics, using a literary device used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1760 for the book "Emile". We follow two fictional characters through their life, seeing how recent scientific findings shape them and their inner life. Some of this fiction is witty and insightful, all of it is well-written, but as fiction it is not enough. It does not work as literature that shows not tells. The science is fascinating, and fully referenced, but the sketches are too fast and pass too quickly. The insights and implications of human connection, friendship and love are illuminating and sometimes exhilarating, but somehow it doesn't quite gel. Many of the studies mentioned are so new they haven't been replicated, plus they are more complex and interconnected than Brooks lets on. There is no resulting new big idea. It can't stand on its own as fiction, and the science studies start to seem self-selected, without enough critical review.
All of which is too bad, as it was a promising concept. But somewhere between the conceptual framework and the smooth prose, there is something missing. I can certainly recommend as a first introduction, but for anyone who has read Freakanomics or Malcolm Gladwell or the many recent books on how humans make decisions, this book is not going to sustain your interest for 350 pages. I hope you find this review useful.