Book Review: The Road to Character by David Brooks

By Valerie Diefenbacher in Poetry & Literature

The Road to Character

I chose ‘The Road to Character’ to read because of the intrigue of the title. Most of us have given character building at least a perfunctory try, enough to know it is at best a painful and at worst an entirely ineffective process.  Why would a bestselling author choose a title that stirs the level of excitement equal to a book entitled, say, “How to Get Your Dentist to Extract Your Teeth Using only 15th century Methods” ?


However, David Brooks is one of America’s leading writers and commentators and has topped the New York Bestselling lists with The Social Animal, Bobos in Paradise and other semi-satirical works commenting on human behavior in the 21rst century.  If he and Random House say this title works for the selfie generation, chances are it does.


Brooks’ startling premise is that a moral code has been lost in the last few decades that formed an integral part of American democracy. He says we “believe we can achieve deep satisfaction by hauling ourselves forward with selfish and venal means” and that this is “a false assumption”.


Brooks then does a quick but thorough biography on eight case studies of people in prominent roles in history, ranging from the much-quoted Augustine in 354 AD to Eisenhower’s mother to the writer George Eliot.  The biographies are not a listing of achievements as much as an appraisal of the forces developing each character and the choices that moved them in the direction of usefulness to society.


Scattered in amongst the biographies Brooks throws in commentary of old-fashioned concepts like “sin”, remarking that it has “changed in context until its most common use is in describing a fattening dessert” (33) Succinct paragraphs like the one which aptly carves lust from love (192) make one gulp at the chasm of wisdom represented in these 270 pages.


Brooks shows experience and insight on comments about aid distribution, making a strong case for not ‘serving the community’ but rather ‘serving the work’ (25), explaining how ‘benevolence is the twin of pride’ and encouragement for social workers to ‘check their sympathies’ (32) and remember their task is always to offer options, in no way to force their own decisions to prevail over others just because they are poor.


Brooks has put much effort into being all-inclusive, which begs the question of what audience will be truly satisfied with this book. The reviewers who thought Social Animal contained a moralistic tone will be intolerant of the Judeo-Christian values promoted in this book, also. Christian readers, however, may object to the desperate efforts to milk honorable traits from the needy, undisciplined character cast Brooks has chosen to showcase.


The redeeming qualities of the book remain in the nuggets of insight into human nature. Some may choose to spend the approx. $25 for a hardcover version in order to have a plethora of ‘quotable quotes’ at their fingertips.