The Road to Character

by

David Brooks

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The Road to Character Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on David Brooks's The Road to Character. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of David Brooks

David Brooks was born on August 11, 1961 in Toronto, Canada, then moved to New York City where he spent his childhood. His parents were both academics, his father teaching at NYU and his mother studying history at Columbia University. Although he was raised Jewish, Brooks rarely attended synagogue and hasn’t since fully converted to any religion. His family moved to Pennsylvania where Brooks graduated High School in 1979. From there, he went to the University of Chicago to study history. After graduating, he became a police reporter in Chicago, where witnessing crime led him into more conservative political views. He then accepted an internship writing reviews for The National Review and got a taste of high-class life. After his internship ended, he wrote reviews for The Washington Times and then was hired by The Wall Street Journal as editor of the book review section. He published his first book in 2000, a social commentary called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. It received considerable acclaim and got him noticed by the New York Times. He began writing for the Times in 2003, filling an important role as a conservative commentator who could nonetheless understand the liberal point of view. Brooks has appeared as a guest lecturer at Duke University and Yale University, is a commentator on NPR and the PBS News Hour and continues to write for the Times. He currently lives in Maryland.
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Historical Context of The Road to Character

David Brooks’s work mostly focuses on modern culture and the societal shifts that have occurred from 1900 to the present. For instance, in his first book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, he examines the makeup of the modern-day upper class and classifies it as a combination of the liberal idealism of the 1960s and the self-interest of the 1980s. In The Road to Character, he outlines the major cultural shift from moral realism to moral romanticism that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s after the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. He critiques modern-day culture for its self-interested, individualistic approach, arguing that people have disregarded the need for community and stopped pursuing moral improvement as a primary goal in their lives.

Other Books Related to The Road to Character

David Brooks in part modeled The Road to Character on Plutarch’s Lives, a collection of 48 biographies of famous Greek and Roman men written around the early 2nd century. Like The Road to Character, Plutarch’s Lives arranges biographies so as to highlight the moral attributes of famous characters.  Brooks was also influenced by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book The Lonely Man of Faith from which he got the concept of the Adam I and Adam II sides of human nature. David Brooks’s other works also contain similar themes to those in The Road to Character. For instance, his book The Social Animal explores the theme of character and what motivates a person to build it. The Road to Character can also be put in the same category as The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. This bestselling book, published in 1987, criticizes the moral relativism that Bloom argues has taken over society and prevented the access of genuine truth. Other contemporary writers who’ve tackled questions of character-building through overcoming obstacles, albeit from a popular psychology perspective that arguably emphasizes Brooks’s Adam I more than Adam II, include Angela Duckworth in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016) and Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012).
Key Facts about The Road to Character
  • Full Title: The Road to Character
  • When Written: 2015
  • Where Written: Maryland, United States
  • When Published: 2015
  • Literary Period: Contemporary 
  • Genre: Social/Political Commentary, Biography
  • Antagonist: Adam I
  • Point of View: Third person, occasionally first 

Extra Credit for The Road to Character

Friends with Opposite Views. Between 2001 and 2020, David Brooks held a political analysis and commentary hour called Brooks & Shields on the PBS News Hour with counterpart Mark Shields. Although Mark Shields was an avid liberal and David Brooks a moderate conservative, the two were good friends and engaged in respectful discussion throughout all their years on the show. For many people, this stood out as a rare instance of civil agreement during politically charged times.

Presidential Character. On an episode of the PBS News Hour during the 2020 presidential campaigns, Brooks speculated that presidential candidate Donald Trump might be a sociopath.