David Brooks is a New York Times columnist and a best-selling author. This book contains biographical sketches of ten famous people: Frances Perkins, a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet; President Dwight Eisenhower; St. Augustine; civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph; General George Marshall; English novelist George Eliot; English author Samuel Johnson; French author Michel de Montaigne, and Dorothy Day, a champion of the poor. The focus of each sketch is the individual’s lifelong struggle to overcome weaknesses and develop character.
The book emphasizes inward growth, not improvement in the ability to achieve wealth, power, and status. Brooks believes that humility is necessary for a person to grow in character and that this is often difficult in our era of the “big me,” with its emphasis on self-aggrandizement. This makes sense to me; if a person considers himself already extraordinary, he probably will not be sufficiently aware of his weaknesses to carry out the moral struggles important for character development.
Brooks shares some interesting statistics on contrasts between the past and our present time. On a narcissism test, with statements such as “I like to be the center of attention,” “I am extraordinary,” “I like to look at my body,” and “Somebody should write a biography of me,” the median score has risen 30 percent in the past twenty years. In a 1950 Gallop poll, 12 percent of high school seniors thought that they were very important people; in 2005, this figure was 80 percent. Few people ranked fame as an important life goal in 1976, but in 2007, 51 percent of young people chose becoming famous as a top personal goal.
If you aren’t interested in reading the entire book, you might want to read the sketches of the individuals who intrigue you.
(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)