Aziz Ansari came to Dayton, OH (where I was living at the time) the week before I moved to California and I just missed buying tickets before they sold out. So when I saw him coming to San Francisco for any purpose, I swiped tickets that day. They were for his new book tour, Modern Romance. With the ticket for the talk came a “free copy” of the book. C’mon, Aziz, your’e not fooling anyone – that book was built into your ticket price. Still, thanks to your semantics you get a technicality review on my site. And I’m so glad this one made it onto my list as I truly believe it should change the way academia functions.
(Consider this part 1 of my “this sort of qualifies as a free book” reviews. I’m hoping Part 2 is heading your way within the next few days, but my blogging has clearly not been on schedule this month.)
This book isn’t your typical comedic biographical write-up, nor a collection of short stories if that’s your thing (I’m looking at you, B.J. Novak). Ansari and a sociologist combined qualitative and quantitive data to look at not only what connects singles in today’s modern era, but also how that connection changes across time and culture. In short, it is in-depth sociological research on attraction and romance written by a comedian.
In the acknowledgments section of the book, Ansari thanks the sociologist who helped him design and complete all of the research for the book, Eric Klinenberg. He states, “If you are a renowned sociologist and best-selling author, teaming up with a comedian to write a sociology/humor book about modern romance is not necessarily a safe or logical bet.” While this is meant in jest, what’s sad, and what many individuals who pick up this book won’t realize, is how true that sentence is. Sociological academic research is designed to be written in academic jargon and then peer-reviewed prior to publication in (largely) sociology-only journals. If you’re up for tenure, the publishing of a book with Aziz Ansari isn’t necessarily going in your positives column.
And that’s frustrating. Let me make this about me for a moment (it is, after all, my blog.) This book addresses head on all of the problems I had with academia and why I left it. When I wrote my thesis, I spent months doing ethnographic research by sitting in therapy groups at a women’s prison. In order to write it I made myself available and transparent to the women in the groups. While I easily received authorization from my university’s human research review board for the project, I spent four months in process with the Ohio Department of Corrections review board to gain professional access. In my writing I focused on the way that therapeutic techniques in prison are based off of studies with men (as so much of our healthcare needs are), and how women in general – but particularly women in prison – have an entirely different set of therapeutical needs. I wrote about the way in which therapists were already trying to adapt their programs to be more amenable to the women they work with, but what was truly needed was a change in policy for therapy in prison. It was a very policy-driven paper, and to the chagrin of all the professors on my thesis committee, I used everyday language rather than scientific jargon as much as possible so that it could be understood by anyone. (Many of my friends have read, understood, and loved it.) My thesis advisor was sure that after making my own contacts in a prison system and getting past a DOC Review Board as a master’s student, I was a shoe-in at any PhD program focused on prison studies that I wanted. And given my findings she was eager to have her name next to mine when I published.
I didn’t publish.
I didn’t publish and tanked my academic career. Spending 6-10 hours/week over a period of months in therapy with those women…if now is the most physically draining portion of my life, that was the most emotionally draining. And when it was all over, I was told that I needed more sociological buzz-words, that I should draw only from sociological theory (not any psychological theory), and that I should publish in a research journal where (most likely) only other sociologists would read it and we could all self-masturbatorily discuss it without it actually being applied to any of the policy it was written for. These are the core problems of academia: we don’t cross disciplines and we only write for each other in a language that only we can understand. How fucking stupid is that?
But publishing a book like this solves all of those ivory tower issues and I can tell you it is nothing short of brilliant. I am so, so excited about this book.
This work is genuinely sociologically sound. The methodology and results are detailed (including focus groups in retirement homes, with teenagers and their parents, etc.), and compared to other current research. They’re even up front about gaps in the findings: from the beginning Ansari states that this is mostly heterosexual research, as trends inclusive of homosexual dating habits would require an extra book. And yet, because it took on the voice of Aziz Ansari, we can all understand the language and analogies written. For example, when talking about how dates are more successful if they are at an event where two people can get a sense of each other, rather than the repetitive coffee date, Aziz titles the section “Our Boring-Ass Dates.” He writes, “One of the social scientists I consulted for this book is the Stanford sociologist Rob Willer. Willer said that he had several friends who had taken dates to a monster truck rally. If you aren’t familiar with monster truck rallies, basically these giant-ass trucks, with names like Skull Crusher and the ReJEWvinator, ride up huge dirt hills and do crazy jumps. Sometimes they fly over a bunch of smaller cars or even school buses. Even more nuts, sometimes those trucks assemble into a giant robot truck that literally eats cars. Not joking. It’s called Truckzilla and it’s worth looking into. Frankly, it sounds cool as shit, and I’m looking at tickets for the next one I can attend.” Now, if there was a sociological article in a journal titled “Monster Truck Rallys and Dating: A Sociological Theory of Attraction” which explored sociological terminology like group dynamics and social norms, I wouldn’t be half as interested as I was reading just that intro paragraph Ansari threw in.
Essentially, this book takes a sociological concept that is applicable to the real world (how we date, what that means, and what it says about our future), and then it is written and dispersed in a way (a comedic book) that makes it accessible to those for whom the knowledge would affect (any person in the population interested in starting or continuing any type of romantic relationship). Ansari has 10 pages of journal article references in here full of information peppered throughout his pages, but I’d bet big money you will never read ANY of those articles. Yet you might read this book. That’s huge. That’s MONUMENTAL. Not only is the research accessible but because it was written by a popular comedian it is actually a desirable read. Reading relevant sociological research is suddenly so desirable it’s a New York Times best seller. That’s bigger than what anyone seems to be giving Ansari and Klinenberg credit for accomplishing, and frankly, I believe it is what every sociologist should aspire to.
Beyond breaking down the walls that the ivory tower has held up for decades, the book is a legitimate read. Ansari makes clear that this is not a how-to book, but there is enough information on what works and what doesn’t if that’s what you’re in it for. I feel like I learned so much about how wrong I’ve been doing online dating, and I felt more comfortable with the fact that I am single going into my 30s. I learned how many people are still meeting in real life instead of through a virtual hand-held world. THERE WAS EVEN INFORMATION ON HOW TO DO THAT. Aziz Ansari just single-handedly changed the way I date.
He also may have single handedly changed the way I want to communicate, or at the very least, shed more light on our current state of communication. When talking about the way in which we respond to voicemails versus texts in the modern era, he discusses a woman in his focus group who was saying she got a really sweet voicemail from a guy recently. When asked to play it, it simply said, “Hey, Lydia. It’s Sam. Just calling to say what’s up. Gimme a ring when you get a chance.” Aziz states, “I pleaded to know what was so great about this. She sweetly recalled that ‘he remembered my name, he said hi, and he told me to call him back.’ Nevermind the fact that this was the content of LITERALLY EVERY VOICEMAIL IN HISTORY. Name, hello, please call back.” He goes on to describe that as we are calling people less our reactions to it as a form of communication now differ; we either love it (as in the case of this woman, who is happy with any voice communication what-so-ever) or hate it. But on the whole, the take-away was if you’re dating and make a phone call, you’re going to make an impression. (But if you’re going to play it safe and text, he has some basic research results on the 3 things that will make you successful. I’ll keep that mystery alive for your own read.)
He also discusses our focus on texting as primary communication in a way I never would have thought about. He lists many actual text message exchanges throughout the book, including some with his own girlfriend (taken, ladies and gents. I know. I’m sorry.) Ansari talks about the power of not getting a text back immediately, describing our beginning to wonder, “Why the fuck didn’t she write back? What’s wrong? Did I screw something up?” He discusses this with an MIT anthropologist, Natsha Schull, who likens our relationship with texting to gambling addiction. We are now so used to putting a quarter in that slot and getting an immediate return – such is our way of communicating. No more of this waiting a few days to call you back bullshit. But when we don’t get that immediate response we’re conditioned to expect, we go into withdrawal sweat mode – why didn’t we get that text? WHY DIDN’T WE GET THAT TEXT? Just taking the time to understand our communication psychology could completely unravel it.
In the category of advice in the book, the piece I found most interesting was what Aziz called googling the fuck out of each other. It turns out that the more you know, the less likely you are to be into it when you get together. So take it from me, kids: keep the mystery alive. Drop your phone prior to your date.
This book is also (obviously) really funny. I laughed out loud more times than I can count. At one point Ansari actually describes trying a masturbation trend for men going around in Japan. I can’t believe he did it let alone gave us a detailed description in the book. Similarly, while talking about open relationships, he describes having a very loud conversation in a public place with his girlfriend about the idea of her having a one night stand with Tyrese. Through what could easily be some pretty dense material, Ansari keeps it as light as his stand-up.
I should point out that this is much more than just a how-to book and includes information for everyone, whether you are in fact active in the dating circuit or you’ve been married for years. There is information about how the way we communicate has changed and what that means, and how we can communicate more successfully with anyone important to us in this changing environment. There’s information about why that change happened, what the landscape used to look like, and what we might want to anticipate in the future. And there’s information about what modern romance looks like in other parts of the world in comparison to our own: how these social norms that we’ve created are in fact very culturally specific and perhaps if we understand why we can break down some of our current assumptions. In short, it was about the function of love in society and what creates a successful or failing relationship.
I think it really could have gone one step further on that front. For example, Ansari and Klinenberg throw the word “love” around frequently throughout the book, whether they are talking about the U.S. or Buenos Aires or historically. But love is a very culturally specific word, and it changes over time. Even the very definition of sexuality has changed: our sexual preferences being part of our identities (gay, straight, etc.) rather than simply an action we do is a very recent concept/change. (Wink – shout out to my boy Foucault.) While the authors looked at the way entering into loving relationships differed across time and culture, they failed to mention that the actual idea of what this “love” thing is holds just as much debate.
The largest problem, though, is that there is little to no criticism in the book, and this is where I think the deviation from traditional academic writing took a nosedive. For example, when speaking with Dan Savage about the ideas of open relationships, Ansari writes about how Savage “contends that the women’s movement during the twentieth century fundamentally changed our approach to the problem. Women, he explains, rightly contested the presumption that men could fool around while they had no outside sexual options. But the decisive shift came when, rather than extending to women the lee-way men had always enjoyed to have extramarital sexual escapades, society took the opposite approach. Men could have said, ‘Okay let’s both mess around.’ But instead men got preemptively jealous of their wives messing around…When a nonmonogamous relationship fails, everyone blames the nonmonogamy; when a closed relationship fails, no one ever blames the closed relationship.” One problem with this commentary is that Savage isn’t quite quoting history correctly. And even more-so, you would need statistical evidence regarding open relationships to see what typically dooms them to justify including such claims. Aziz does somewhat provide his own counterpoint; for example, the same chapter is filled with anecdotal evidence that non-monogamous couples often get into such a relationship for the wrong reasons and it becomes the singular thing that tears them apart. He further ends the chapter on a lovely quote from Pitbull about how everyone should do what’s right for them (and then explains how excited he is to end a chapter on a quote from Pitbull). So there is some underlying criticism, but nothing conspicuous – there are little to no actual opinions from Ansari or (as far as I can see) Klinenberg throughout the book. It’s more like a bunch of information thrown together. In some sense this is dangerous. When throwing all of this information out into the world, the experts should give us the low-down on what information appears most legitimate and why, because if you buy into the whole thing, you might be buying into really shitty information along with your really good information. In reading the conversations the two writers had with other “experts” along the way, without putting in the effort to dig, analyze, and critique, it’s hard for the average reader to tell which parts are actually shitty information. (For example, these awful sections with Dan Savage.)
Still, given the vast amount of legitimate academic information and research that is contained in this book, and given the leaps and bounds that this made for academic writing, I’m inclined to consider it a success. Kudos to Ansari for having the idea and making it happen. Sociological information should inherently be accessible to the people it pertains to, and I am so proud of my field for producing this.