Tag Archives: The Road to Character

The Road to Character by David Brooks

It’s kind of a strange first book to take on, but it’s the one I finished on Sunday, so here goes.

Here are my general impressions:

He starts with a great introduction about why he wrote this book. A while ago, he had this experience with a strange juxtaposition of the modern day “Wow I rock!” mentality compared to an old broadcast from the end of World War II which exhibited an example of humility extraordinary to us in that it was the social norm.

This led him to the decision that he would write a series of biographical essays. He chose some incredible people to profile: Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, Augustine, and Samuel Johnson. Heavy hitters.

Each essay is one person after another struggling with his or her own internal demons. And after each example he seems to keep asking the reader, “This is a good person. He feels tortured. Why don’t you feel tortured? If you were a good person, you would feel more tortured. Crawl over the fucking shards of broken glass, dammit!”

Brooks refers to anything developing or aggrandizing the outer self as “Adam I” and anything related to inner development is categorized in “Adam II”. It’s all very biblical. In fact, that shows up over and over again in the book, almost like he’s selling the whole Christianity bit a little too hard. Considering that he’s a Jewish guy who started out working for William F. Buckley, that’s not all that surprising. He probably spent so long earning his stripes punching that Christianity card it’s become habit to wrap everything up in a big ol’ Jesus bow.

He’s obviously a talented writer. Some of the passages are breathtaking in their combination of truthfulness, eloquence and nuance. And for these passages, the book is worthwhile. For example: “The parental relationship is supposed to be built upon unconditional love – gifts that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of meritocracy and is the closest humans come to grace. ” When I read this I thought, “Wow. Square on the head.”

He loses me in the very next sentence with this: “But in these cases the pressure to succeed in the Adam I world has infected a relationship that should be operating by different logic, the moral logic of Adam II.” I agree that the relationship has been infected. People have become focused largely on doing, as opposed to suffusing their lives with the act of being. But if your guide to being is framed by morality instead of spirituality, it’s like a fallen souffle. The ingredients are there, but there’s no air. Sometimes the nothingness is the very thing that holds it together. You need both spirituality and morality. If his point is that we have decided it’s only about spirituality at the cost of not teaching morality, he might have one. But if his point is that we used to have souffles all the time because people knew a lot more about the ingredients, I don’t think that’s tenable. I mean, people sucked just as much then, arguably more so.

I think the intention of the book is beautiful and it was a worthy cause. Still, it left me wanting. I found the interpretations in his biographical essays too simplistic, not reflective enough of the complexity in these people’s lives, not to mention societal compounding factors.

In my opinion, my friend Melissa has it better summarized (she is not a published author, nor has she ever been on the New York Times Bestseller list): “Everyone’s a dummy sometimes. And sometimes that dummy is you.” She alternates this with “I hate people.”

I think she might be right. Perhaps all that’s required is the awareness that at any moment, you could be the dummy. That should be enough to keep anyone in line, spiritually and morally.