F is for Friends

I fell for this book a little like I do for some men. Cute cover, intelligent-sounding, interesting ideas, quirky humour and, if we’re being completely honest (at least recently), a foreign origin. And a little like some of those other episodes, without stretching the comparison too far, I perhaps expected this book to turn out a little bit differently to how it did. But such is both the reading (and romantic) life.

You see – and we’re back on the subject of books now – our ‘F’ book is a little non-fiction number called How Many Friends Does One Person Need? and I was expecting it to be an insightful contemporary commentary on social networking. And Robin Dunbar’s book does touch on this and much to do with personal connections but in a much wider context than I expected, moving through a series of interconnected subjects and intriguing facts and research about the many, many different reasons people are like they are. And if I had thought about it more when I had read the blurb I may have realised this, but I had latched on to a particular notion of ‘what it was all about’, judged the book by its title and wasn’t considering what the book’s true aim was (and now we refer back to the ‘man’ scenario). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I had imagined, so I had to adjust my reading brain.

Yes. We’re reading non-fiction. And a book on evolutionary biology of all things. Well, a change is as good as a holiday (a recent one on which I barely turned a page – the shame!). But I’m not very good at reading non-fiction for pleasure, unless it is presented in a narrative fashion,  even if I find the subject matter interesting and the writing entertaining. Both of which, I am keen to point out, I do in HMFDOPN?

I’m just not skilled at reading information for information’s sake. I seem to require stories, some kind of narrative arc to guide me through the data, a character to follow. Give me glorious facts and theories, and though I truly do sit there and think, ‘Isn’t that bloody amazing/wondrous/smart/mind-boggling’, I struggle to keep my attention on the book and its structure and fail to retain a lot of what I’m ‘learning’. It’s a bit like the mental version of those vague notes and diagrams you used to sketch for yourself in university lectures thinking they would jog your memory later, only to discover at assessment time that they jogged nothing. And that’s the other thing when reading ‘books about stuff’, I worry the whole time that I’m not taking in anything and feel a little like I’m going to be tested afterwards.

I mention these things to illustrate my failings as a reader, not of Robin Dunbar as a writer (and presumably an evolutionary biologist). Because his book really does contain many intriguing and fascinating insights into human behaviour. He has a lovely, delightful tone and his writing is chatty but still intelligent. I would like to have lunch with this man. Several long lunches, in fact, where I hope a mere skerrick of his smarts would rub off on me and I could discover so much more about why human babies are actually born 12 months earlier than they should be, how women developed language, why skin colours vary, why we tell stories. I recall these things now because the book is fresh in my mind though I am already forgetting the reasons why these things are so. I’m starting to worry about that test.

Fascinating, entertaining and approachable, cute package. Not a bad thing in a book or a bloke. But alas, I am not a reader made to feel compelled to keep reading this kind of book out of a sheer will to learn more facts and theories. It’s not what I want to snuggle up in bed holding or loll about on a banana lounge with – for that I need stories. How Many Friends Does One Person Need? is more a Saturday morning, eating eggs kind of reader, where you can look up from your page and say to your pancake-eating partner (or dog, or whoever is there), ‘Did you know…?’ before getting back to those eggs.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the answer is 150. That’s how many friends we need; in fact that’s in the upper limit of people we can accommodate in our social networks who we actually know, socialise with, enjoy their company and care about to some degree. The author describes them as someone you would be happy to approach and catch up with when you see them across an airport transit lounge at 3 am. Everyone else is an acquaintance, a colleague, a family member you’re not close to, someone you met once, or you know, only a Facebook friend.


71 thoughts on “F is for Friends

  1. I love this! =) I am so much into books and I love talking about friendship. And I am so glad to find both in your entry. =)

    I think I want to read that book.

  2. I am so totally the same way about reading non-fiction.

    I was reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (U.S. Amazon link: http://amzn.to/btOn2c) and I’ve only gotten a few chapters in. I really like the book, I’ve learned interesting stuff, and I haven’t touched it in a few months now.

    I think it’s a question of concentration. I, for some reason or other, feel like I need to commit a lot of energy to reading non-fiction. It’s not like some Clive Cussler “popcorn movie”-type novel where I can read a few paragraphs and not actually care about what’s being said. I recognize a book that has Important Stuff in it, and should give it the proper attention is deserves. Of course, by waiting for a time when I can give it the proper attention, months go by and I don’t read it at all.

    This book, though, sounds like fun. I’ll have to look for it when it gets released here in the U.S.

    • Yes! I feel it requires a lot more concentration to read non-fiction. Which probably isn’t true. Think of all those people you meet who never read fiction but will sit and read a military history or a biography completely at ease.

      The book is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and Australia. Doesn’t seem to be up on the Farrar, Straus & Giroux website yet (they ‘do’ Faber in the US) but maybe it’s on the way…?

  3. So when I paired my Facebook friends down from 900 to 130 it was no coincidence… I always kind of wondered what that number would be. I deleted everyone that was only an acquaintance and left people I WOULD actually like to talk to.

    • Yes! You were doing the same kind of cull as ancient villages, roman armies etc etc. My problem is that I like talking … so sometimes that’s a lot of people. Though with FB I am hovering around 140 so true to the theory.

  4. There’s nothing wrong with a look-up-from-the-eggs kind of book every once in a while. I’ve tried to limit my Facebook friends to people I actually know and people I actually like, so I don’t understand the friend requests from people I barely knew in high school or, stranger yet, people I sort of knew in elementary school.


    • I tend to have fonder memories of people from primary/elementary school than high school. But largely they all just want to tell me they’re married with children. Lovely, but not enough to make me want to look up from my eggs.

  5. Interesting book and your observations on it!

    I do feel that the term ‘friends’ is a loose term at the best of times. What actually constitutes a ‘friend’ is anyone’s guess.

    Goodness if we need 150 friends to actually meet and socialise with I would barely have time to live, and what value does that many people bring I wonder, plus I’d hate to imagine the cost of all those birthday gifts!

    • I don’t think we NEED 150. It’s just that 150 is around our upper limit of who we can cope with/care about etc.

  6. I’m so glad to have come across this review. I write a blog–and am working on a book–about my search for a BFF in my adopted hometown of Chicago (I left all my oldest dearest friends behing in New York). Because I’m so focused on the nitty gritty of modern day friendship, I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve read of Dunbar’s research but haven’t actually gotten to his book yet. I’m going to read it, but it’s always nice to hear what to expect. I write about my own experience with Dunbar’s research here:


    • I think you’ll find the book interesting fodder on your quest. It will at least enlighten you on a whole lot of reasons why people are like they are.

    • It must be something to do with how we process information, I think. It’s like how some people can watch documentaries for hours on end, and some can’t. Actually there is a section in the book about why as a species we tell stories!

  7. Good read, thanks.

    I was reading a series of non-fiction books and while feeling a little superior and enlightened, it was a struggle. And then I picked up a murder mystery and was hooked all over again. “Nothing like a good plot driven story” my friend remarked. It’s true. It’s addictive. Still – I love a book where I can look up and say, “did you know…” makes me feel superior and amazed all over again.

    I’m glad you let us in on the number – very kind of you 🙂

    • Thanks, Erica. It makes me feel all superior too – I have a biography of Beckett sitting in my pile which makes me feel superior every time I look at it, but I’ve had it for about three years and still haven’t cracked it open! There is nothing like a plot-driven story…

    • I think that just means you’re discerning and have room to meet more discerning people if you choose. Plus the 150 is an upper limit – not a requirement.

  8. “How Many Friends Does One Person Need? is more a Saturday morning, eating eggs kind of reader, where you can look up from your page and say to your pancake-eating partner (or dog, or whoever is there), ‘Did you know…?’ before getting back to those eggs.”

    Damn good description, there should be a label (warning?!) for those kinds of books… and maybe for people too.

    • I like it! And yes, definitely for people too. But maybe a ‘good for eating eggs and reading with’ label for them. 🙂

  9. I so rarely read non-fiction (even though I read ALL THE TIME) but this book looks and sounds intriguing… thanks for the recommendation, I will check it out! :o)

  10. 150! Does anybody really have that many friends? I can barely scrape together 30 in my little social circle, and at times even that is overwhelming!

    Hopefully the contents of Gorey will better meet your expectations. At least the drawings will match the cover! Looking forward to G…

    • It’s that whole concept of what is a friend, isn’t it? There are many, many people I like and know… but are they all friends?

      I think Mr Gorey always meets my expectations. Stay tuned.

  11. I do love knowledge books where I might learn a fact or dozen, they make a nice change from devouring fiction.

    I remember learning about Dunbar and his work on mating preferences in humans in the field of evolutionary psychology and thoroughly enjoying learning about his findings and reasoning, so will definitely look into this book.

    • Thanks, Tom. For me non-fiction just has that ‘school’ factor for me. ‘What? I have to learn something?’ That’s why non-fiction written in a narrative style works for me… it kind of tricks me into reading it. Or the style in this book, where all the sections and chapters are interconnected and/or follow on from each other, can work too. Good luck with your blog. I’ve added it to my favourites.

  12. When you think of the hundreds of people we’re connected to through social networking it’s perhaps surprising to think how few of these we would count as friends. Might have to take a look at the book, a great post!

    • Thanks. There’s quite a few number-y type things which may interest you. I often think I’m lucky when I consider how many friends I have, but it’s interesting to think about what that means and who would really be there for you when ‘the chips were down’, or who indeed, if you had to put some kind of limit on it, you would be willing to part with. I also like the idea of how those people in the 150 can change – the borders of the 150 must be quite fluid.

  13. Truly fascinating. Like you, my love for reading doesn’t revolve around non-fiction, but I’ll happily read it under the right circumstances. This is one book in which has grabbed my interest, especially since my husband is known as The Great Networker (ha ha ha). Thanks for my next read and a great post! 🙂

    • Thanks, Alessandra. I cannot possibly answer that question properly! Plus it changes a lot. My standard answers are: Emma, David Copperfield, Playing Beattie Bow, Blood Meridian and the Inspector Montalbano series … but I’m not sure they even scratch the surface. Plus I like to try and find new favourites all the time. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Nicole. I often worry about ‘not knowing something’. Must be the perfectionist in me.

  14. Great post! I’m the same way. I have trouble getting through non-fiction even if it’s really interesting stuff. I’m reading a book now about famous hypochondriacs like charlotte bronte but it’s still taking me a while. This sounds like a good one to peruse leisurely though. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!


    • Hi Lauren
      I like your notion of perusing leisurely through something. I usually like to read one book at a time (my brain has enough going on in it without trying to keep up with 3 different stories) but perhaps with non-fiction I could just dip in and out every few days in addition to the fiction reading. The hypochondriacs one sounds interesting. Will look out for it on your blog!

  15. i so agree with your take on non fiction…its as if you are supposed to give some test afterwards!!! but any book should be read without prejudice…spoils the fun otherwise

    • I think you’re always going to have some pre-conceived notions about the books you’re reading – just like with people. Usually mine are minor and superficial (on both counts!). And I’m always willing to be pleasantly surprised when a book turns out differently to how you expect, and you still like it.

  16. I will be picking this up. I read an article in Wired where they conducted a study of social networks and found that even those who had 500 friends, via pictures, they could determine that, on average, we only have about 6 ‘real’ friends. They claim our brains are not set up to handle to complexities of more than 6ish friendships. So I would be interested in finding out how they came to the number 150.

    • Well that is interesting. I guess, again, it depends on how you are defining ‘friends’. Dunbar gives many reasons for the ‘magical’ 150. But it’s a big leap from 6, isn’t it?

    • Well the 150 comes from the author’s own research. I guess there are a lot of theories out there! Hope you enjoy the book.

  17. Yipe! What if you don’t have 150 friends?
    Great review. This might be a book I’d pass over, instead I’ll put it in the “good gift for the right person” pile.
    Thanks for the answer…now to work on finding those 148 people I can call at 3 a.m. to catch up…
    Cheers, sweetman

    • I don’t think you need 150 friends, it’s just the upper limit of what you could cope with. I’m not sure I want 150 people feeling like they could talk to me at 3am at an airport…
      Hope you find the right person for the book!

  18. Nice. I’m with you. I’m a narrative kinda girl. This kind of book I’d skim read in day and retain very little of it even though I do find the subject matter interesting. By the way, congrats on appearing on Freshly Pressed today! Bet your stats go beserk. (Yours is the only blog I visited from FP today because I’m bookish too)

    • Maybe we all retain more than we think we do. Enough to pass ourselves off as knowledgeable anyway! My stats did go a tad berserk… it was quite exciting.

  19. I find it interesting the book you recommend, and
    how you describe it, I hope to find love reading
    Chilean bookstores, greetings

  20. Sounds like an interesting read — even if, like you said, it’s not a book to cuddle up with. I don’t know how many people I would possibly be excited to see at 3 a.m. in an airport… maybe I should read this one and get a better handle on who my “real” friends are! 🙂

    • I think if I did meet someone in the wee hours while in transit I’d be too concerned about what I looked like (smelled like?) to be overly happy to see them. Especially if I was on my way home from a trip… always cranky then.

  21. I was looking for a new non-fiction piece to get into. Very interesting premise.

    I’m not sure if this will help, but try approaching a non-fiction piece the way you would an English or a research paper. In most cases, it’s essentially an extended version of either with a compounded thesis.

    Thanks for posting! I never would’ve found this book otherwise.

  22. Looks like Robin Dunbar’s book is definitely something you would be interested in (seeing as you have already blogged on the idea of social networking). Glad to have brought it to your attention.

    You’re still making reading non-fiction sound like work… but I guess we all read for different reasons. Something I’ve been meaning to blog on.

  23. Fun review! I especially enjoyed this:

    Fascinating, entertaining and approachable, cute package. Not a bad thing in a book or a bloke.

    I’m the type of girl who reads 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces for fun though, so don’t trust me too much when I say this book doesn’t sound half bad.

    Keep up the quality reviews!

    • Thanks, Charli. The book is GOOD. I just have to train myself to read books of this kind. Does the mis-pronunciation book come with a CD? 🙂

  24. Pingback: 2010 Pile o’ Books: The Aftermath « Pile o' Books

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