Ever since Cain and Abel, societies have been shaken and shaped by brothers who competed with, supported or blithely ignored one another. George Howe Colt, the second-born of four brothers, has plowed through history to describe these powerful and perplexing sibling dynamics. He does so within the framework of recounting the ups and downs of fraternal relationships that prevailed inside his own family.

While Colt’s personal accounts of growing up and finding his place in the pecking order are the most vivid and psychologically revealing, he interlaces them with extended close-ups of brothers Edwin and John Wilkes Booth; John and Will Kellogg (of Kellogg cereal fame); Vincent and Theo van Gogh; John and Henry David Thoreau; and Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx. He found that brothers tend to heighten certain qualities in each other—good and bad—that might have lain dormant if not for that incessant grind of proximity.

George’s older brother, Harry, first served the role of hero. Then, when they were at Harvard together, Harry’s seriousness as a student became a living reproach to George’s hard-drinking, devil-may-care ways. More readjustments lay ahead as younger brothers Ned and Mark came along to fight for their own identities. As the author tells it, harmony now reigns among the Colts. Harry became a doctor, George a writer (whose 2004 book The Big House was also a family history), Ned a reporter for NBC and Mark, “the least competitive of the brothers,” a recycling coordinator at a school for the blind.

Brothers is meant to charm with its stories, not to be a template for predicting behavior. “Over the past three decades,” Colt writes, “studies of intelligence, personality, interests, attitudes, and psychopathology have concluded that siblings raised in the same family are, in fact, almost as different from each other as unrelated people raised in separate families.” Maybe so, but at least they’re around when you need someone to play catch with.

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