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Book Review: The Road to Character

I admit that I probably would not have picked this book for myself but when given it as a choice I felt it was the best of the lot presented. Now I wonder how good the other two books may have been given how much I enjoyed this one!

The back cover of the book says that the author, David Brooks, “challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our “resume virtues” – achieving wealth, fame, and status – and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, and faithfulness.” What an interesting concept! I had not thought of them as separate but it makes perfect sense.

David starts off by talking about the two opposing sides of our nature as written by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in 1965 – Adam I and Adam II. He goes on to suggest that Adam I is the external Adam, the one who works to have that great career, who competes to succeed, who lives in the fast lane. Adam II is the internal Adam, the one that strives to live by a strong moral code and takes the time to cultivate it.

The book itself is not very long, only ten chapters. Each of the middle eight chapters presents a different person who exemplifies or cultivated one particular Adam II character. Self-conquest is shown through the life of Dwight Eisenhower, for instance. We see how his upbringing where ‘thrift was essential, self-discipline a daily lesson’, serves him well in his later career. We also see where his mother, Ida, suggested that he conquer his own soul, which sets the stage for his journey.

I loved this approach David Brooks takes in making his point because not only was it fascinating but so were the eight people he chose to illustrate his message, many of whom were 'strangers' to me. Other than Eisenhower and Saint Augustine, I had never even heard of the rest. They came from all walks of life, modern day and centuries old, men and women. They were diverse, interesting, and their stories highlighted all the ways we travel on that road to developing our character. No spoilers here, you will have to discover them for yourself as I did!

It was fascinating to see how cultural shifts had an impact on the people in this book and just how the those shifts have changed our way of thinking as a society. It is through this look that David shows how we have drowned out our Adam II in favor of the external gratifications. At the end of the last chapter he gives us what he calls a Humility Code to help restore balance, to cultivate the eulogy virtues, and to revive what we have accidentally left behind. Best of all he reminds us that it’s ok to be flawed just like the people he described.

I would absolutely recommend this book. David’s writing style is easy to read though I did find myself looking up words in the dictionary a few times. He tells a story without laying blame or making one feel stupid. In the process it feels uplifting and encouraging without it being a typical self-help book.

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