I sat in a chair, reading the books of David Brooks and sipping a pumpkin-spice latte, enjoying the warmth in the store and in my stomach on a chilly afternoon. Just a few minutes earlier, when I entered the Yale Bookstore, I faced a stark choice. Half a flight of stairs down or half a flight up, two different destinations defining two different worlds.
Down the stairs lay a harshly lit realm of dorm decorations, school supplies and empty shelves formerly used to house textbooks. It is the Yale Bookstore half of the Yale Bookstore, the half not organized according to the demands of intuitive customer use, the half that rewards sales associate consultation rather than browsing, the half that is hopelessly out of touch, but no longer quaint because the books have migrated to Labyrinth.
Up the stairs, by contrast, lay a vast collection of books. Organized by subject around a central walkway, the books attract the eye with colorful spines and cover designs. The walkway is like a mystical corridor, every turn opening the door to a magical world of ideas defined by distinct disciplines: history, philosophy, literature, culture. It was in the latter section that I found David Brooks’ books, but not before I visited the source of sustenance for the armchair Odysseus, the Barnes & Noble Starbucks Cafe.
So there I was, a bobo in Paradise reading Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise,” combining the bohemian conceits of espresso and cultural commentary with two bourgeois stalwarts: corporate branding and sweet syrupy drinks.
Brooks writes that the American upper middle class is culturally defined by a combination of the counter-cultural bohemians values of the late ’60s with the bourgeois yuppie drive of the ’80s. On the whole, Brooks claims, the bobo culture is a positive development. In synthesis, the bourgeois and the bohemian mutually balance each other’s excesses. This balancing is coupled with a distrust of radicalism, of dogma, of ambition, of grand pursuits and the result is stability and a mutually tolerant decency.
According to Brooks, “Bobos can be proud of [these] achievements.” But to some degree, he writes, they must also be wary. For the eschewal of the grand project, so central to bobo cultural balancing, could take the form of complacency when faced with large problems that fall outside the sphere of the bobo synthesis. Against the specter of complacency, Brooks suggests the renewal of national greatness, of “reform at home and activism abroad,” of becoming “engaged once again in public life” and “promoting democracy and human rights everywhere” around the world.
The call to patriotism at the end of the book shocked me out of my bobo revelry.
If the renewal of national greatness were necessary, I couldn’t possibly have been in Paradise. Then where be Paradise? I turned to another Brooks’ books for an answer.
In “On Paradise Drive,” Brooks argues that American greatness lies in the collective imagination of a Paradise attained through hard work. Although forever unfulfilled, this promise of Paradise remains. Since the constancy of American labor is the cause of American prosperity and influence, the collective vision of a Paradise is America’s unique strength.
Brooks’ argument is an attempt to define our national greatness, and thus in one sense it is the fulfillment of the task set for bobos at the end of “Bobos in Paradise.” But in another sense, the content of Brooks’ version of national greatness undermines his previous work. For if America is driven by a vision of unrealizable Paradise, then Paradise can’t be the bookstore cafes or the other creations of bobo culture.
At the end of “On Paradise Drive,” Brooks notes that in the past “intellectuals … have assumed that the way to see truth, to realize their highest selves, and to promote social change is to rebel against the supposed complacency of middle-American life.” The problem, he writes, is no longer complacency, but the intellectuals who, like Brooks in “Bobos in Paradise,” support grand projects out of a misguided distrust of the sufficiency of the American imagination to motivate her people to greatness.
Though America wins out in the end, the bobos, it seems, are left in the lurch. For the bobos understand that the vision central to the American imagination is a mirage. For Brooks, this doesn’t seem to matter — he finds meaning in his rapturous description of the noble lie. But most bobos will return to their bookstores and coffee shops, thankful that they need not shoulder the burden of the national strength, yet melancholy because they have no purpose to serve and no banner to carry.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.