David Brooks' talk on 'Social Animal' charms civic center audience

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Rapid City Journal (April 10, 2014):  

Even a man from New York City can fit in perfectly with a West River audience.

New York Times columnist and bestselling author David Brooks charmed the crowd of 1,200 Wednesday evening at the Rushmore Civic Center sharing tales and anecdotes from his 2012 book "The Social Animal."  He was in Rapid City as part of the John T. Vucurevich Foundation Speaker Series.

"This is not my normal milieu," he said. "I didn't see a cow until I was 16. I thought it was going to eat me."

As a conservative political columnist for the New York Times since 2003, Brooks is sort of the resident fish out of water on the paper's opinion pages. Rather than promote one party line or the other, Brooks has a reputation for thoughtfully and gracefully examining a wide variety of topics.

That willingness to present more nuanced views of the world was part of the appeal for audience members.

"He angers people on both sides, but he's a very nice guy," said Peggy Saunders, 60, a middle school librarian.

From "The Social Animal," his message was for the crowd to embrace our emotional responses and uphold a culture based on mutual trust and humility. Brooks said the unconscious mind plays a greater role in our everyday relationships than we think.

The book examines a fictional couple named Harold and Erica through the prism of neuroscience and sociology to explain how their characters form and what forces lead to their successes and failures.

"You have to have a full sense of who human beings are," he said. "Your emotions tell you what you value."

Children brought up in overachieving households will not necessarily be wired for success without emotional maturity and a willingness to embrace modesty and form a common bond with others.

"We've turned them into sort of test-taking machines and resume gods. A lot of us who've been around long enough know there's more to life than that," he said.

"The thing that really correlates to happiness is the quality of a relationship," he said. "We are wired to be social. The ability to connect in all these ways is the key to building a successful society."

Paramedic Oliver White, 28, was about a quarter of the way through Brooks' book when he decided to go hear him speak. Even just starting to get into the book had made him think about societal issues in a different way.

"It gives a really interesting perspective on how human creatures are," he said. "It's clear the characters in the book have been shaped by the society they had.

"People in this region sort of have a tendency to take for granted the way we live our life," he said. "If we can examine that, then we can make things better simply by being aware of the problems."


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