Interviews August 2004

Onward and Upward

David Brooks, the author of On Paradise Drive, talks about the American creed, the dark side of hope, and life on the New York Times op-ed page

Four years after his book Bobos in Paradise marked the ascendancy of the "bourgeois bohemians" (children of the sixties who blend crunchy social values with the perquisites of power) David Brooks has turned his attention to a hotly contested chunk of real estate: the American suburbs. Over the years, social critics have spilled gallons of ink on the subject in the course of concluding that the suburbs are here to stay, and are—depending on who you ask—the site of everything that's right or wrong with America. In his new book, On Paradise Drive, Brooks tours this uniquely American territory, pen in hand—and tongue lightly in cheek—to chronicle how today's suburbanites shop, work, and raise their children.

Along the way, Brooks introduces such representative folks as "Patio Man" and "Realtor Mom," and meditates on "par" as a moral ideal. But alongside its comic-sociological insights, the book also aims to dig deeper, searching for the historical origin of the values embedded in the suburban landscape. Drawing on sources ranging from Tocqueville to Maxim, Brooks places today's exurban SUV-jockeys squarely in the westward-ho tradition of the pioneers.

But while Brooks concludes that a certain type of timeless optimism lies at the heart of America's prestige and well-being, he cautions that the frontier spirit also harbors a dark side that is inextricably linked to its potential.

This Paradise Spell is at the root of our tendency to work so hard, to consume so feverishly, to move so much. It inspires our illimitable faith in education, our frequent born-again experiences. It explains why, alone among developed nations, we have shaped our welfare system to encourage opportunity at the expense of security; and why, more than comparable nations, we wreck our families and move on. It is the call making us heedless of the past, disrespectful toward traditions, short on contemplation, wasteful in our use of things around us, impious toward restraints, but consumed by hope, driven ineluctably to improve, fervently optimistic, relentlessly aspiring, spiritually alert, and, in this period of human history, and maybe for all time, the locomotive of the world.

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and an Atlantic Monthly correspondent. Portions of On Paradise Drive previously appeared in slightly different form in The Atlantic.

We spoke by phone on June 2.

Benjamin Healy

You place your work in the tradition of fifties-era social-commentary like The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man, but I've never been completely clear on what the intended audience is for those types of books. Do they constitute an ongoing conversation among academically-minded elites? Or are they meant to be the sort of books that ordinary people will pick up so that they might reconsider the way they're living their lives? What function do you hope your own work will have?

I hearken back to those earlier books because I think they were written for a general audience, unlike most works of sociology today. So I guess my main imagined reader is your basic New York Times or Atlantic Monthly reader—someone who's interested in the world around them; not someone who wants to read a dry tract. And you know, I work hard to make the books enjoyable. The downside of that, of course, is that some people say my work lacks rigor. But I think there is rigor, I just try not to display it, because it gets boring.

There's not really room for charts and graphs, and that sort of thing.

That's right. I collected a lot of data for this book. But reading pages of numbers gets tedious. So I didn't put a lot of the data in there. There's more data in this book than in the last book, though—much more.

You've created your own mini-discipline—what you call "comic sociology." What's the underlying methodology? How much reporting do you actually do?

There are two chapters on raising kids in the book, one of which was based on the piece called "The Organization Kid" that I did for The Atlantic. That was mostly about Princeton, and since then I visited another fifteen or so schools. So for those two chapters, if you include all the dinners and going out drinking with students I did, as well as my experience teaching, I probably spoke to about three-hundred kids. Not all of that was in formal interview settings; a lot of it was just hanging out. So it may or may not count as science, but I do think it gave me a reasonable feel for what the mood among young people is like.

For my research on the suburbs, a lot of it was driving around and talking to people. I've visited something like thirty-six states in the past four years. I also went to a lot of conferences, like the Homebuilders' Association, and the International Council of Shopping Centers. It's those people's job to understand suburban markets. And I looked at magazines like American Demographic and at information put out by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. So there was a whole range of things I drew on. Maybe it wasn't the most methodological approach, but I drew on everything I could.

Throughout the book you emphasize that you're mainly focusing on the middle and upper-middle classes. But the book also claims to be representative of broad American themes and ideals—optimism, the frontier spirit, and so on. How much do you think the attitude you're talking about holds true for people outside the groups that were the primary focus of your research? For, say, racial minorities, or people low on the economic ladder? Do you feel that this sprit of optimism extends to those people as well?

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Benjamin Healy is an Atlantic Monthly deputy managing editor.

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