Book Review: The Road to Character

Random House   321 pages    April 2015

Hardcover $28, eBook version $12

 

In a Nutshell – Nationally known writer and political pundit explores the subject of character along with profiles of others who have demonstrated tremendous virtue.

Who’s it for? – The overworked and overachieving who are seeking meaning from life.

Quote from author – “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.” David Brooks

 

David Brooks is best known for his work as a political columnist for the “New York Times” and as the author of bestselling books that explore American societal and political shifts. His newspaper column provides the ideal forum to understand his perspective of the current political landscape in a style both insightful and succinct.

In the longer book format, Brooks’ presentation is much different, more like a drawn out series of essays. Which leads us to his latest book “The Road to Character,” that explores the issue of human honor and integrity.

“The Road to Character” quickly introduces the duality of our self-identities or virtues. There are résumé virtues, the kinds of talents and skills that lead to material success and eulogy virtues, what you’d like to be remembered for after you die: kindness, honesty, faithfulness. Brooks unfortunately believes that modern American society emphasizes the resume virtues much more than it did 50 years ago.

To show this contrast between how individual character has developed (or regressed), Brooks uses a series of biographical summaries of people that in his mind possess for lack of a better term: The characteristics of character.

President Dwight Eisenhower provides one of the book’s most surprising profiles. Digging deep into his childhood and background, Brooks details the former leader’s personality, showing much more character, humor, and depth than history books and accounts have previously provided. He is influenced by the strong will of his mother, who teaches him that hard work, discipline, and enduring the difficult parts of life are ultimately rewarded.

Brooks takes time to explain the unlikely story of English writer and poet Samuel Johnson, who battled physical ailments from an early age, but persevered with his literary gifts to communicate and teach others the virtues of creative thought and debate.

Other profiles are lesser known such as Francis Perkins, who for decades fought for workers’ rights in New York State before serving as the first woman appointed to the U.S. cabinet. It is clear that Brooks chose Perkins because of her remarkable work that sought a higher purpose, but seldom the validation of others.

Brooks examines how society’s definition of strong character has shifted dramatically over generations. He ends his book with a look at our current society and how technology has shaped our idea of self and character.

Through it all it’s evident that in “The Road to Character” Brooks is confronting his own personal struggle through this revealing quote: “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.”

It is fair to say that “The Road to Character” is not a book that readers will bore straight through without pondering their own situations. Author Brooks took three years to research and vet the subject of character. In the end he does not wrap his subject up with bullet point conclusions. Yet with its wide historical context and Brooks’ engaging writing, the book provides thoughtful parameters for those seeking modern day survival against sin and for virtue.

Chris Wendel is an author and business consultant as well as a commercial lender with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

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