February Books

On Uncommon Type and The Road To Character.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories
by Tom Hanks

A collection of short stories by Tom Hanks (yes, the actor), difficult to categorize. At a stroke I’ll go for “contemporary Americana.” Hanks sketches a diverse cast of characters with empathy and humor. As I read, I felt the structure of each story shine through, classic techniques expertly implemented. A few weeks out, the characters stick more than the stories. A quick read, and a good vacation book.

The Road to Character
by David Brooks

This book was a gift from my parents on my 30th birthday. I started it with one sound recommendation and few other expectations. Having completed it months later, I learned from it, but did not particularly enjoy it. I’m not sure yet whether I’d recommend it to others.

This book is a collection of biographical essays focused on the moral development of their subjects. I’ve always had a hard time with biography, and most of these subjects were unfamiliar to me. I have an even harder time reading a biography when I have no context, and Brooks does few favors here, telling each story chronologically and saving their historical significance and the reasons to consider their example until late in each chapter. That made this book a difficult read for me.

Recommendation #1: If, like me, you struggle with biography and don’t know these figures, drop the book and look them up as soon as they are mentioned.

Second: I’m a very structured thinker, and struggled against Brooks’ meandering style. I recently read The Truth About Leadership, another book that sets out to describe a set of principles. That book did more or less what I expected – it’s organized around the principles, giving a structured argument for each backed by research and examples. This is not that book. Brooks organizes his essays more by person than by principle. He tries to highlight a certain principle in each person’s life but it doesn’t always shine through. The book begins with a clear thesis: A recent decline of moral realism in society has stunted our collective moral vocabulary, which is essential to the development of character and a life well-lived. This culminates at the end of the book in a fifteen-paragraph “Humility Code” attempting to summarize the wide-ranging themes covered in the intervening space. So a lot of synthesis is left to the reader.

There are moments of borrowed brilliance. Brooks draws on a number of excellent sources. Looking back at my notes, a lot of my highlights are places where he quotes others. My absolute favorite image is borrowed from Paul Tillich:

The pain involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through a floor they thought was the bottom floor of their soul, revealing a cavity below, and then it smashes through that floor, revealing another cavity, and so on and so on. The person in pain descends to unknown ground.

I also appreciate Brooks’ balance of a Christian worldview, and indeed examples of how a Christian approaches these topics, with a rigorous effort to argue the general applicability of these principles and include examples of morality independent of religion. I imagine everyone will have a different take on this, but I felt like he did a good job here.

So, a tough recommendation. If you prefer fiction, a lot of the “eulogy virtue” wisdom in this book is echoed in Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven if read with a critical eye.

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