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'Modern Romance:' Love In The Age Of Demography

Editor's note: There is some adult language in this piece that some readers may find offensive.

They say that all actors really want to direct. That all journalists dream of being novelists. That all babies want to grow up to be cowboys. And that all comedians want to become data analysts. Okay, maybe not all comedians. Maybe just one: Aziz Ansari. And with his new book, Modern Romance, he finally gets his shot at living the dream.

The book is an investigation. A sociological study writ large, and dressed in a very dapper suit. There's more hot focus group action in this thing than you'd believe, fewer jokes about masturbation than you'd expect (but not, you know, none) and more Photoshopped pictures of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson than any book being put out by a major publishing house this year. Which, I think, is a respectable thing to brag about.

But if you pick this up expecting a hilarious couple hundred pages of Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation riffing on the problems of dating and relationships in this modern age, you will be wickedly disappointed. So let me set expectations for you right here and now: Modern Romance is not a comedy book.

When Ansari says, early on (like, literally, in the second paragraph), that he has always turned down offers to do comedy books because "I thought stand-up was the best medium for me," he is NOT KIDDING. There are a few jokes, sure, but most of them are statistics-driven. Or about food. And, for the most part, they're delivered in Ansari's cutesy man-child comedy voice, which — and I can't believe I'm writing this sentence — has a tendency to undercut the extensive research conducted by Ansari and his partner, noted sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

Seriously, they did a lot of research. Hundreds of interviews, focus groups, surveys, international, boots-on-the-ground data-gathering. They poked around people's cell phones and dating site profiles, got respondents to admit to some surprising things (like how often they'd cheated on their romantic partners or stalked their exes), and created enough graphs and charts to buttress their findings that there are sections of Modern Romance which, at a quick glance, look like something out of a 101-level econ textbook, not something written by the guy who created

Ansari was obviously committed to his goal of investigating the way that people (primarily heterosexual, primarily middle-class and smart phone-owning) find each other, pair off and form relationships. The man put in the time and effort. And what he comes away with is ...

... pretty much exactly what you'd think. Because it's not a self-help book or a guide to modern dating (either of which might've allowed Ansari more latitude with his voice and personal stories) but is a rigorously researched and data-driven field study on the dating-and-mating habits of modern humans, the conclusions he draws are largely of the "Well, duh ..." variety — a problem not exclusive to this book by any means. Like so many sociological texts, what Modern Romance provides is not a series of shocking discoveries that fundamentally alter our view of the world and everything in it, but a slow accretion of data which gives weight to things that we, as humans, were pretty sure we knew already. Like that young people today have more dating options than their grandparents did, that kids like sexting and old people don't get Tinder and French people love having affairs — all pretty obvious stuff.

...ultimately, I found myself wanting more masturbation jokes and fewer graphs made from demographic data.

So the question then becomes, is the book interesting because Aziz Ansari is writing it? And the answer is — kinda? I mean, on the one hand, we've got a sentence like this: "Philip Cohen, one of the leading demographers of the family, has documented the steep and widespread decline in global marriage rates since the 1970's [and] according to his calculations, 89 percent of the global population lives in a country with a falling marriage rate."

And then we've got sentences like this: "When you hit that point, you realize how fruitless trying to find love by barhopping can be; you have enough data to know that statistically the smartest thing for you to do when you walk into a bar is go to the bathroom, jerk off, and leave."

They're not equally balanced in terms of content. The book has far more of the former sorts of paragraphs than the latter. And, ultimately, I found myself wanting more masturbation jokes and fewer graphs made from demographic data — not just because graphs are dull and masturbation jokes are funny, but because if you read those two passages again (and accept the fact that both exist as commentary on accumulated facts and statistics), it's the second passage, vulgar though it may be, that's actually saying the more interesting thing about love, sex and our modern dating scene.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

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