Friday, June 26, 2015

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

Like the individuals profiled in The Road to Character, David Brooks's book is flawed, but not without its redeeming qualities.  Brooks wants to recover the "eulogy virtues," noting that the "resume virtues," while they tend to be more highly valued in modern culture, tend not to produce "deep satisfaction."  To this end, he profiles a wide variety of individuals.  It's a varied group; I wonder if there's ever been a book to feature St. Augustine, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and Joe Namath?  As you might expect, if you've read Brooks's other books or New York Times editorials, he is a colorful story teller and brings the subjects to life.

The variety and quality of the individuals about whom Brooks writes is the first problem I have with The Road to Character.  As individual pieces, the biographical essays are okay, but they didn't adhere to one another the way I think Brooks wanted them to.  The result is a loosely assembled structure, not a finely honed argument.  Further, while his subjects demonstrated admirable character traits, too many of them had an overall character that I would not want to emulate (and some that I definitely would reject as an example).  That's part of his point, too.  As he says, "The good news of this book is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is." 

There are plenty of bright spots, worthy of reflection, in The Road to Character.  One of my favorites, since it reminded me of something my parents always told me, the third of four children, was "The more you love, the more you can love.  A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. . . . Love expands with use." 

So in spite of writing about some people I didn't end up liking, Brooks's overall project comes through.  Dignity, love, self-control, and, most of all, selflessness are character traits anyone can agree are worthy of pursuing, no matter your cultural or religious preferences.  By focusing on the eulogy virtues--kindess, bravery, honesty, faithfulness--we can build the kind of character that might be written about in a book about character.

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