Gregory Korte, USA TODAY9:36 p.m. EDT May 10, 2015
(Photo: Random House)
One of David Brooks' great virtues as a columnist is his unpredictability. Hired as the token conservative on The New York Times' op-ed page, he's become the liberal's favorite conservative writer, alternately infuriating those on the far right and the far left. His columns often diverge into varied and non-political subjects like the psychology of pitching and the meaning of meaningfulness.
But in many parts of the commentariat, he's seen as also an off-putting egghead moralist — something Brooks acknowledges in the opening pages of The Road to Character (**1/2 out of four), his examination of how human nature has evolved from the classical era to the age of social media and the selfie stick.
"I'm paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am," he writes. "I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality."
That confession is the closest Brooks comes to a first-person confrontation with his own character. The Road to Character is not a memoir, but a series of hagiographic essays extolling virtues of humility, self-sacrifice, discipline and generosity.
The soundbite thesis of the book is this: There are résumé virtues, the kinds of talents and job skills that lead to material success, and there are eulogy virtues, the kinds of things you'd like to be remembered for after you die: kindness, honesty, faithfulness.
Borrowing from Joseph Soloveitchik, an Orthodox Rabbi, Brooks calls these Adam I values and Adam II values. In the first chapter of Genesis, Adam I is created in the image of God, and is told to "fill the earth and subdue it." Adam I is ego-centered, majestic and masterful.
But there's a different creation story in the second chapter, where Adam II is created from dust. Adam II is humble, vulnerable and communal. "It is not good for man to be alone," God says.
Throughout the book, Brooks uses words like sin, vocation, soul and grace — words loaded with religious meaning but which Brooks tries to humanize and secularize. He argues for a new moral vocabulary to help balance out the more self-aggrandizing tendencies of modern society.
In the biographies that form the meat of the book, Brooks chooses as subjects religious figures such as St. Augustine of Hippo and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement (herself on the road to sainthood); civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolphand Bayard Rustin; military leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall; and writers like George Eliot and Samuel Johnson.
At his best, Brooks is a normative version of Malcolm Gladwell, culling from a wide array of scientists and thinkers to weave an idea bigger than the sum of its parts.
The book grew out of a course Brooks taught at Yale University, and it sometimes reads like a series of undergraduate essays, with great thinkers thrown in haphazardly in an effort to impress the teacher. Like his columns, Brooks' chapters can be original and eye-opening, or inconsistent and hard to follow.
The title of The Road to Character suggests a map to help the reader develop the eulogy virtues. But it's not quite a self-help book, which Brooks sees as a fool's errand anyway. "The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work," he writes.
Instead, he says, "I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it."
It's not until the acknowledgements that the reader learns that this book wasn't supposed to be about character at all. What was conceived as a book about "cognition and decision-making" evolved into one about "morality and inner life."
Brooks can be unpredictable, even to himself.
The Road to Character
By David Brooks
Random House, 270 pp.
2½ out of four stars
Gregory Korte is a White House reporter for USA TODAY. Follow @gregorykorte on Twitter.