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books: non-fiction

David Brooks

Among the species Punditus americanus, David Brooks is primus inter pares. As lead op-ed columnist at The New York Times, his 800-or-so word pensées are read by elites of every stripe. If you're a paid-up member of the anglo-American ruling classes and you say you haven't read him by 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays, you're either lying or taking the day off.

And here's the thing that's particularly galling for the rest of the op-ed hacks who toil in his shadow: Whether you happily agree with him or have trouble down holding down your porridge, the guy writes like an angel. His sentences have about them the burnished glow of polished oak furniture at the Century Club. His calm, cerebral, sensible and afebrile prose mirrors the faith and credit apportioned his views by the elites who consume him. The best (if slightly begrudging) description I've read comes courtesy of the decidedly febrile Rolling Stone's scourge of the financial classes, Matt Taibbi, who refers to Brooks as "the arch-priest of American conventional wisdom."

Brooks's latest book is an ambitious extension of his columns and previous works on suburban life in America ( On Paradise Drive) and the rich ( Bobos in Paradise). The book's tone and structure are an intriguing hybrid of highbrow academic analysis melded with a page-turning middlebrow American novel of manners. Think Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone mashed up with Judith Krantz's Ordinary People. Brooks's ambit is nothing less than to describe and deconstruct the nature of American success. What is it about the character of American achievers that has led them to forge "the greatest nation on earth" - or to at least to think they have.

The academic aspect of the book allows Brooks to sample a rich stir-fry of disciplines and approaches, from neuroscience to evolutionary biology to behavioural economics. As a result, there's all sorts of quotable arcana suitable for discourse at your next gathering of bright young things. For instance, in parsing the neuroscientific evidence that suggests the connection between the conscious and unconscious mind, Brooks reports the following bit of fascinating if slightly chilling research:

"The unconscious mind is extremely sensitive to context. … A group of doctors was given a small bag of candy and another group was given nothing. Then they were all asked to look at a patient's history and make a diagnosis. The doctors who got the candy were quicker to detect the liver problem than those who didn't."

As to the book's fictive element: Brooks explores the life course of Harold and Erica from birth to the grave. Each stands in for aspects of the American character. Harold is a sensitive, hard-working member in good standing of the WASP meritocracy. Erica is an up-by-her-own-bootstraps, half-Hispanic, half-Chinese member of America's striving class. They meet, start a consulting business, fall in love, strive and succeed, each in his or her own way. (Erica achieves worldly success as a business executive/politico while Harold's success is more in the spiritual/intellectual vein.) In pursuing all this, Brooks is the consummate wordsmith. The ideas are fluently, elegantly and accessibly put. The characters he weaves are engaging and believable. It's hard to find fault.

Still, given that Brooks, like Balzac or Trollope, is trying to paint a clear picture of how we live now, I find one element glaring in its absence: anger. At a moment where the county's financial elites have perpetrated the greatest money crime in history without, as the Academy Award-winning documentarian Charles Ferguson ( Inside Job) pointed out in his victory speech, "a single financial executive going to jail. And that's wrong." (To anticipate an objection: Bernie Madoff wasn't selling toxic subprime mortgages while at the same time profiting from their failure. And the government certainly didn't bail him out of his losses.)

Brooks has allowed his belief in the fundamental decency and honour of his class to blind him to their central shortcoming: a malevolent predilection for predatory exploitation. To have failed to address this or even to make mention of it renders an otherwise worthy effort weirdly incomplete. Mona Lisa without the smile; Macbeth without the murder.

At one stage in summing up the American character, Brooks writes: "We see injustice and we are furious. We see charity and we are warmed."

Which leaves me with a bromide of my own: Physician, heal thyself.

Douglas Bell is a media-watcher and a former New York Times subscriber who still reads David Brooks's column online.