It’s hard to know where to begin with this book. I am inherently suspicious of books that claim to teach character in the same way that I’m immediately suspicious of character education programs. But the questions are valid: where does a person’s character come from? What is its natural state? How, if at all, can it be shaped?
I’m vaguely aware that there’s an issue of biography here. When William Bennett came out with a book about character, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere near it. I know that Brooks has some sort of public persona; I just don’t know what it is. I read this because I want to attend a book club discussion about it. I know from the picture on the book jacket that he’s a white male, and I know he writes newspaper articles. That’s it.
Oddly, it’s the newspaper experience that got my attention first. I sometimes find that writers who are accustomed to newspaper or even magazine-length pieces (see Barbara Ehrenreich) have trouble when they try to write books. Their ideas start to feel stretched thin. I look at my annotations in the book and see that 90+% come in the first 60 pages. After that, the book was more of a chore than anything else.
The biggest reminder I got was how reading biographies can be a way into discussing , a point Brooks belatedly acknowledges. I’m not sure why Brooks chose the metaphor of a road when he wrote the book like a race track loop (without the speed that implies). After a strong intro, we read one biography after another. It becomes clear that Brooks has the vocabulary for a theory – phrases like “moral ecology” and “agency moment” pop up with some regularity. But instead of structuring the book around his theory, he circles back to the beginning with the start of each chapter.
The worst thing is that I turned out to be right. He does have a carefully outlined theory which he only shares, along with an overdue discussion of historical context, in the final chapter of the book. What would have happened if he’d organized the book around the 15 points he makes in that last chapter?
Finally,there is the question of who he chose to profile. This was, I’m sure he knew from the beginning, a no-win situation. There is an attempt at balance – black / white, male / female, and even rich / poor. Still, that he chose no one living gives this book its (for me) fatal taint of stodgy nostalgia. People were, with a token disclaimer or two, clearly better in the old days.
Then there’s the question of focusing on individuals. So some character development issues are discussed in relation to leadership, how is the road to character different for some groups than others? There is some discussion of what it means to be an individual in a society, but there are many missed opportunities to discuss what it means to be part of a group in society – not a group, as in the case of, say, George Eliot, that holds you back – but one that you embrace. What about a profile of a group?
So read the first 60 pages and the last chapter. And about anyone who interests you. Then go read a biography.