Review: Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari’s humorous stroll through the jungle of modern (highly digital) dating is a treat to read. With its breezy, often hysterical, style and well-researched tidbits about human behavior and the neuroscience behind why we act and react the way we do during mating activities, its bestseller status is no surprise to me.

This is not a “comedy” book per se; it’s a very serious book about a silly topic, as written by a funny person. Ansari seems to have really found his voice here – it’s the voice of a slightly goofy smart guy observing, not quite believing the silly things he sees, and delving deeper into the research to show us that things really are this silly in most modern internet-enabled dating.

To write this book, Ansari teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and designed experiments, surveys, even dedicated Reddit forums to collect information and (often sad and hilarious) personal stories from people all over the world. They do an excellent job of illustrating the modern “problem” of becoming paralyzed and exhausted by having so many choices, the ability to endlessly research them all, and the conviction that if we CAN have “the best” then we SHOULD have it. Of course, when we apply this set of ideas to dating, we’re setting ourselves up for fatigue, misery and probably, failure. This is demonstrated in a number of ways, data and anecdotes.

A highlight for me was the overview of the neurochemistry behind “companionate” vs “passionate” love (a subject I would expect to see explored more thoroughly in more relationship books actually) and the comments from Jonathan Haidt, an NYU psychologist specializing in morality and emotions. Some of the soundest relationship- and life-advice came from this section. I was also happy to see that Dan Savage was consulted and quoted with regard to exploring non-monogamy as a serious option.

With any book about modern dating, I expect to be appalled at least some of the time by sexism, but on the whole I think Ansari does a good job of representing the bullshit that women face and remaining neutral, not falling into many potential sexist or slut-shaming traps. Regarding different reasons for women vs men to date and get married, I enjoyed the discussion of how the internet has freed young people (especially women) in repressive cultures to interact more freely in secret than their parents might allow. It’s interesting to think about how technology that seems to make life harder for more privileged women (i.e. giving dudes more power of choice, lowering women’s perceived “market value” – a horrible idea and worth a whole different discussion) also makes life easier for women in more restrictive cultures (giving them more freedom to participate in the world).

I have some quibbles with the book. At times it is repetitive and some of the jokes are mighty dumb. Another annoying thing that comes to mind is the glossing over of the Tinder origin story and the sexist erasure of co-founder Whitney Wolfe. They did so much research, you’d think they would have Googled a bit about Tinder and given credit where it was due, instead of participating in erasing Wolfe from history and giving her accomplishments to her male co-founders. (Catch up here if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Even more tragic, the way Wolfe was ousted from Tinder would have made some great dating horror story material, very relevant to this book!

I think this must have been an honest oversight – I hope so – Ansari has always struck me as more of a feminist, interested in fairness, in truth. Perhaps this is the type of thing that could be corrected in the next edition – I know I’d be happy to read another chapter in a few years, covering whatever new innovations in online dating come up in the meantime.

Book review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg
4/5 stars

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