If you are a contemplative individual, and are prepared to critically examine all your beliefs and cultural assumptions, you will find much to admire in David Brooks’s original book, The Road To Character. The book is really an account of the author’s effort to cultivate character and to avoid a life of smug superficiality and shallow punditry (as his role as political and cultural commentator for the New York Times invites him to volley his opinions at others). In order to determine what the road to character looks like, Brooks examines the lives of some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders including Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day (who the Pope mentioned in a recent speech to the U.S. Congress), A. Philip Randolph (yes, a lot of Americans made the list), George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, and Saint Augustine. It was through their internal struggles and a sense of their own limitations that they built a strong inner character.
After reviewing these biographies, Brooks is able to present the reader with a Humility Code to help us build a rich inner life marked by humility and moral depth.
Truth be told, I slowly worked my way through this book…one chapter at a time. The human stories are richly detailed and easily accessible but I occasionally felt like I was reading a commencement speech or a homily. Brooks’s message was thought-provoking, but I would have liked to see more personal revelation. How did his own process of character building develop? I wondered about the author’s own religious or spiritual beliefs.
My library book club members had a positive reaction to the book, praising its lucidity, insightful writing, and original content.
From the mini-biographies, I was intrigued by the chapters on George Eliot and Samuel Johnson, as I enjoyed studying the backgrounds of authors I had read in the past. The most thought-provoking part of the book were the chapters focusing on the 1950s to the present, and the change in society to a culture promoting the “Big Me.” As a parent, the book made me question what I am teaching and promoting to my own children. Am I really wrong to encourage resume virtues and to praise their accomplishments?
As our society continues to celebrate the individual with countless selfies, and self-branding on social media, it is important to take a step back (preferably in a quiet and peaceful environment) and evaluate the type of life we are leading and what values are most significant – resume virtues or eulogy virtues (humility, kindness, bravery, honesty, and faithfulness).
As of the date of this blog posting, there was no official set of discussion questions for this book available online. I invite your book club to utilize the list Guelph Public Library staff formulated:
Who was the most interesting choice of Brooks’s selections of greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders?
Do you believe the shift from the Little Me to the Big Me culture went too far? Why did we shift?
Is Brooks having a strictly secular conversation about morals or is there a religious component?
What do you think about the Humility Code?
Are parents and schools wrong to nurture self-esteem and value self-expression?
Do you believe that character is innate, or can it be taught, or is it best acquired through experience?
Can you be wealthy and still be humble and belong to the Little Me culture?
Do you feel social media is a bad thing that promotes only the Big Me?
Do you feel that people today are more fuzzy about how character is built?
Would you have liked to know more about how the author fared in his struggle for character?
What is Brooks most important message, in your opinion?
From where or whom do you get your morality, or moral center?
What resonated with you in this book and the author’s arguments about Adam 1 and Adam 2, resume virtues and eulogy virtues?
Discuss this passage from the book: Most people shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering. (Critical events that form people are usually ordeals)
What does Brooks mean by moral realism and by the Crooked Timber tradition?
Why would you – or wouldn’t you – recommend this book to a friend?
What do you know about the author?