Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Brief Update on Whatever David Brooks' Book is Called Now

Oh, has it been three months since I declared my intention to never read David Brooks' new book? My, the time does pass, and with it comes change. In particular, two things have changed about the book.

One: A new title. When we last met, this book had the uninspiring title The Committed Life. A month or two ago, it acquired the more interesting and more perplexing title The Second Mountain. We'll get into what the hell that means in a bit.

Second: With the title firmly decided, it finally has a cover:

Okay, I'm joking. This is not the cover of The Second Mountain, but rather a cheap mockup that I hacked together in GIMP in fifteen minutes as I waited for the tea to finish. This is the kind of thing I would have put on one of my self-published novels and been quite proud of, but for a professionally published book it's obviously sub-par.

Here's the real cover:

Much better.

Now, I have been keeping tabs on this book, which is to say I check the Random House page about once or twice a month. I have no intention of reading this thing in total, but I do still have the Earnest Lazyman option of reading the first 10% for free on Amazon. I'd say that this is unfair, but on the contrary, it may be the most honest way to read the book. The Road to Character was 90% wasted space - people who cited it focused mostly on the opening and closing chapters which contained Brooks' argument and ignored the rehashed book reports in the middle that only served to justify things that Brooks already believed. It may just be a time saver.

So the new title, um...what the hell is the second mountain? When I first saw this, I immediately thought of the "seven mountains of culture" that form the basis for what was once called Dominionism, but that's certainly too much of a commitment for Dave. However, it appears that the description on the Random House page has changed slightly. I failed to save a copy of the old version, so I don't know how much of this is really new and how much I just missed, but let's take a look anyway.

Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy—who seem to know exactly why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. 

If I needed proof that Dave was writing (or at least overseeing) his own copy, well, here it is. Many authors subconsciously favor certain words, and Brooks loves the word "radiate." In fact, I wondered at first glance if this was a recycled line, and it is - there's an extremely similar sentiment in The Road to Character:

Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy.

I included a longer chunk of this quote to demonstrate that he was pledging to show you how to be one of those radiant people in The Road to Character as well, so yes - it looks like he really did write the same book twice, the sign of a man who cares deeply about vocation. The questions are twofold: Could The Second Mountain actually be worse than The Road to Character, and will it receive the same degree of praise from the onanists who celebrated it before?

I also gave you the whole thing to demonstrate just what a bad writer Brooks really is - flat, dull, repetitive, lifeless, etc. But if he's bad with words on a sentence-to-sentence, he is truly rotten when he tries to write larger sentiments. I've touched on the awfulness of his metaphorical constructs before, and we're going to see a great example here. It's time to explain the two mountains:

Life, for these people, has often followed a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. 

So far, this is trite but fine. There's a long history of using mountains as symbols of ambition, and climbing them as analogous to worldly success or victory. The idea that people "climb mountains" - seeking wealth and status and such - only to find it hollow certainly sounds like Brooks.

They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain. And so they embark on a new journey. On the second mountain, life moves from self-centered to other-centered. They want the things that are truly worth wanting, not the things other people tell them to want. They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment.

And now I'm lost. This is an analogy that falls apart on several levels.

  1. This is just the whole "resume virtues and eulogy virtues" thing again. That was probably the most popular bit from The Road to Character, getting quoted everywhere. I actually saw it in an artist's statement in Lawrence, Kansas, and I wanted to find that artist and shake him until his admiration for David Brooks tumbled out of his head. I can understand Brooks wanting to recapture that lightning and gather those accolades again (even though I know there's some overrated public intellectual who argues that a virtuous man shouldn't even want that), but there's something funny about seeing a man retreading old ground in a book alleging to teach you the value of vocation. Then again, walking in a circle is a pretty good metaphor for Brooks' entire career, if you think about it.
  2. If climbing a mountain is a metaphor for worldly ambition, then climbing a higher mountain (the same thing, only presumably harder, with a bigger reward at the end) is a metaphor for greater worldly ambition. You start a company, get a lot of money, find it doesn't make you happy, so you...start another company, but a bigger one, with grander ambitions. That's obviously not what Brooks is going for, but that is where the analogy takes you. And this would still work with Brooks' destination...except he seems to think that the next mountain is the good mountain, that this is the one that's going to make him fulfilled. In this analogy, he's seeking to glorify himself further, which is probably unintentional honesty.
  3. Mt. Everest is higher than Mt. Denali, but I'm sure that there are differences in the ascent beyond the former being, presumably, harder. Nevertheless, they are both mountains and thus require comparable skills and entail comparable challenges. Brooks is using two mountains to represent things that are meant to be entirely different. Why is Denali "self-centered" and Everest "other-centered"? If climbing a mountain is "self-centered," then shouldn't the "other-centered" challenge be something else, like...I don't know, deep sea diving? Circumnavigating the globe? Walking the length of the Grand Canyon? Something that's the opposite, demanding a different skill set. Again, it doesn't make sense as an analogy.
  4. And then, y'know...there's all the other stuff about how most Americans aren't narcissistic, compulsive status seekers who are sabotaging their fellow climbers in a mad scramble for glory like Brooks seems to think, but I've feel like we've touched upon that a number of times, so I'll skip it.
The rest of it is what we saw before: Learning how to surrender to a spouse (whom you'll one day dump for someone younger), a vocation (which you'll keep for the easy paycheck long after you've ceased caring), a faith (which you refuse to talk about lest someone judge you), and a community (which you praise even as you spend your entire adult life living elsewhere). There's no sample yet, but clearly Brooks is continuing to deteriorate as a writer, so I'm actually expecting less now. Maybe we'll take a cursory glance at this thing in April (conveniently enough, just about the time my current contract expires) or maybe not. Don't hold your breath; we'll see.


  1. Still reading, still enjoying it. Keep it up!

  2. Late to the party but well done. Yes Brook's second mountain analogy falls apart the instant you look at it. Still one has to wonder why he missed the obvious - what is usually below you when you are at the top of a mountain - a valley - people live in the valleys not mountain tops - there is an long tradition of folks returning from the mountain top to engage with the human race. it seems so obvious. how the heck could he miss it?

  3. Here's the fatal flaw I see: Based on the analogy, either (1) you only start being virtuous (second mountain) after you've achieved worldly success (first mountain); or (2) you can't achieve worldly success if you're trying to live a virtuous life, and vice versa.