Bobos in Paradise

51EFCA29ABL By the time that I actually saw Monty Python's Holy Grail, a hundred college boys had already told me all the good lines in lousy English accents. "Bring out your dead" and "the knights who say nee." It kinda wrecked the ha-has. I expected that I would have the Holy Grail effect when reading David Brooks' Bobos In Paradise. The book came out in 2000 and by this time, I have heard so many second hand quotes and interpretations that I felt like I had read it. It was surprisingly different from what I had expected.

The first couple chapters of the book are written in the style of "comic sociology" as Brooks calls it. He talks about a class of educated elite who like to buy certain things. He goes on about how they like to shop at Anthropologie and Restoration Hardware. Maureen Dowd had a thing about Anthropologie in her last book, too. I declare an embargo on all references to that store by New York Times columnists.

That Bobo stuff was a bit too Style Section for me. He wasn't really describing a class, as much as three people that Brooks hangs out with in DC. They are way too rich for most of us mortals. He describes them with with a mixture of amusement and disgust, so it's actually a bit uncomfortable. After the stock market and housing busts, the shopping section feels dated. But if you muscle past the gag reflex induced by Chapter 1, the rest of the book is quite good.

The highlight of the book is Chapter 4, the Intellectual Life. Here, he stops writing about Bobos and their shopping tastes and describes the idea industry. He talks about life at a think tank where young researchers churn out papers and the Directors present their findings and take credit for their work. If you don't get out of those situations after a few years, then you can end up losing your identity. Publishing houses print books that can be summed up in a quick catch phrase. The morning shows air interviews with the authors, if they can quickly reduce their ideas to that catch phrase. If you can't do it, then you have to appear nude somewhere, like Elizabeth Wurtzel. He describes conferences as status stock exchanges.

An intellectual who can first-name his way across a cocktail room, planting a 4.7-second seed of goodwill with each familiar friend without ever being tempted to stop and pay more attention, is either an intellectual superstar or a top official at the Ford Foundation. 

That chapter also has the oft-repeated description of Status-Income Disequilibrium. All these smart people who are on the top of the food chain at conferences and on the talk show circuit still make less money than stock brokers, and it makes them bitter. 

He concludes that at least today's intellectuals have an audience bigger than the old intellectuals of the Partisan Review crowd, but after everything else he has said about the idea industry, it feels empty. The audience hasn't really read the books; they just know the catchphrases. Everything from their economic overspending to their superficial conferences to their out-sized ambitions means that they are just churning out hasty crap. Brooks comes close to making that claim, but never quite gets there.

Brooks also drops references to classics books throughout the book. I found myself jotting down books that I wanted to read or read again, like Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities
and C. Wright Mills' Power, Politics & People. He finds modern applications for classic writing.

Behind the brand name references, there is a real pessimism to this book. The super elites who are writing the best sellers and leading our industries and running for office are as fake as the reproduction door knockers at Restoration Hardware. He tries to make it light and comic, because, as he told me in Chapter 4, that's what you have to do to sell books. But Brooks hates them all.

One thought on “Bobos in Paradise

  1. Hm. Apparently imdb does not consider “Nice knockers” a memorable quote from Young Frankenstein. No Restoration Hardware for them!
    Brooks as a cultural pessimist who’s masquerading as a sociological jester. That’s almost interesting enough to get me to read him again.
    It sounds like he either wants to critique the winner-take-all aspects of the contemporary economy or capitalism itself but instead settles for writing something that will give him the chance to cash in. Maybe his hatred starts at home?


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