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David Brooks’s Moral Journey

The New York Times columnist's new book, “The Second Mountain,” is a fount of easily won wisdom.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

David Brooks is an easy character to dislike. In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, he concocted ethnographies of the habits of conservative voters to tell a story about cultural divisions and the red-blue divide that just so happened to confirm everything his readership already believed. His specialty as a columnist is to identify some just-so failure of the “welfare state” in order to promote the kind of “entrepreneur” whose semi-private innovations are austerity by another name. He loudly supported the war in Iraq. He taught a course on “Humility” at Yale that prominently featured his own works. Although it is his job to interpret the currents of American culture for an audience of millions in the pages of The New York Times, he has never been good at looking beyond his own instincts and experience.

Random House, 384 pp., $28.00

A defining experience came when, in 2013, Brooks divorced his first wife, Sarah, and several years later married his much younger research assistant, Anne, whom he met while writing a book called The Road to Character. Ever since, it’s been too tempting to read everything the columnist has written as an unspooling roman à clef of his divorce and May-September romance. And the central conceit of his new book The Second Mountain lends that reading a lot of credence: One “climbs” or “conquers” the first mountain in life, which consists of professional success and some kind of “companionate” marriage, followed by a tumble into a valley of introspection in a divorced-guy apartment, followed by “surrender” to a second mountain (how can one surrender to a mountain? best not to think too much), which is a new-model wife and a spiritual epiphany in a train station.

The book, whose subtitle is The Quest for a Moral Life, combines Brooks’s patented brand of quick-sketch pop sociology with a heartfelt but paper-thin and incomplete religious conversion narrative. It gives career advice to imaginary college graduates who dissipate their 20s in pursuit of an “aesthetic” life, who see life as “possibilities to be experienced and not projects to be fulfilled or ideals to be lived out.” Spend too many years on “the Instagram life,” he warns, and you will end up in “the ditch.” The ditch is not to be confused with the “valley,” which is the necessary passage between the first and second mountains, except for those who start out on their second mountains and never leave. He advises on achieving a “maximal marriage,” which is charming in its intensity but which sounds an awful lot like crippling codependence. He concludes with a set of numbered theses on something he calls “relationalism.”

In all of these related but wildly disparate pieces, he seeks a remedy for the central psychic ailment of modern life: that people—inevitably, people who very closely resemble David Brooks—just don’t connect to each other the way they used to. Yet through of all this he paints, unintentionally I think, a picture of a spiritual awakening very different from the one that is the ostensible through-line of the book.

Brooks grew up in a Jewish family, but attended Christian schools and Christian summer camps and became a kind of Protestant Jew, a recognizable figure to anyone who grew up among unobservant Jews whose main social circles were the unobservant Christians at the country club. He and his first wife married in a Unitarian church. In the early part of their marriage, they were, like many affluent, professional people, only superficially religious. But Sarah seems to have had a deep and genuine spiritual awakening. “A few years later she converted to Judaism, went to work at our synagogue, decided she wanted us to to keep a kosher home, and send our children to Jewish school.”

As for Brooks himself, “I’d been on a trajectory away from Judaism,” he writes, “but now I was back in.” He and his wife “settled into the Halachic life,” but, Brooks says, his “attitude toward the kosher rules oscillated between ferocious resentment and profound respect.” Observant Judaism, with all its obligations, rigors, and rituals, is an awful lot of work. Judaism does not really traffic in the beatific and the epiphanic; there is no moment of “surrender,” to use Brooks’s term. There are many mitzvot in this world, the Talmud tells us, for which we enjoy dividends in both this world and the world to come: honoring one’s parents, acts of loving kindness, making peace between one person and another. But—and it is the most thundering but in all of Judaism—the study of Torah is equal to them all. There are no shortcuts.

And so Brooks finds himself seduced in his second life by a simpler epiphany. “Now, I don’t ask you to believe in God … But I do ask you to believe that you have a soul.” Brooks isn’t ready to call himself a Christian. He doesn’t necessarily believe the Nicene creed. He does think Jesus was groovy, and he wishes our society, which has since the 1960s (of course) been on a suicidal course toward “hyper-individualism,” would consider more deeply the communal ethos of Christianity. (That Christianity, especially modern Christianity, emphasizes personal faith and personal expressions of faith in a way that Jewish worship and identity do not is a theme left unexplored.)

He does not, of course, want a more communal society. You will find no suggestion here that capitalism, the ubiquitous ordering economic and social system of our entire civilization, produces consumerist individualism. What we need are a few more marriages, a little less sexual license, and a few more church socials and bowling leagues. The 1950s of the popular imagination, in other words, but with less racism and without unions.

The Second Mountain loves examples, but it eschews specifics. In a late section on community building, for example, it races through a litany of community groups and non-profits, to zero cumulative effect. “The Becoming a Man program works with at-risk kids on Chicago’s west side,” we learn. “Small groups of young men gather regularly for ‘check-ins.’” They report how they are doing “spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and physically.” If they are not “full vulnerable,” then their peers “get on” them. “And?” I scribbled in the margin. What happened? Does it work? Were there outcomes? Successes? Setbacks? Did a new sense of community blossom? No time to check. We’re off to “Bubba Can Cook,” to the “Roots of Empathy” project, to something called Thread, whose “nominal point” is to “help underperforming teenagers,” but whose “real point … is to build a web of relationships.”

For a book that so confidently outlines a hike toward happiness, it is notably hard to follow. The book’s tone alternates, sometimes within a single paragraph, between the citation-heavy pop psychology of a TED talk and the aw-shucks wisdom of a homily at a prosperous stone church in a D.C. suburb. Meanwhile, the concepts Brooks leans on most heavily are both elusive and parsed within an inch of their lives: Early in the book, for example, he enumerates five “layers” of joy. There’s physical joy, “collective effervescence,” emotional joy, spiritual joy, and, finally, moral joy. The title of this particular section is “The Levels of Joy.” (Technically, it covers only the first four layers; “Moral Joy” gets a section of its own.) Level and layer aren’t exactly the same. Levels suggest a hierarchy, the advancement from inferior to superior qualities of joy. Layers suggest depth: a build up of types of joy, supported by other varieties of joy, perhaps, beneath them. Which does he mean?

This is a quibble, but it is evidence of a real problem with this book as a book. Brooks has never been an especially elegant stylist or interesting craftsman, but The Second Mountain reads as if it’s an early draft that was inexplicably rushed to print. It has the inchoate quality of an idea that’s still gestating. “Those of us who are writers,” Brooks writes, “work out our stuff in public, even under the guise of pretending to write about someone else.” The problem is that this is not an opinion column, nor is it a book of essays. It is one thing to range widely, quite another to paste together the outlines of at least three separate books and call it a day. This is hardly Montaigne, confessing at the outset “I myself am the subject of my book,” although I think that is what Brooks means it to be. For a man so publicly concerned with “humility,” it is awfully self-flattering.

Montaigne appears only once in The Second Mountain, but he is an obvious animating spirit behind this strange book, which strives to emulate the great essayist’s discursive style and his habit of dropping the precise, pithy quotation into a paragraph. Montaigne famously retired to his castle with a library of a thousand volumes to write his Essais, which are shot through with bits from the great Roman authors and orators as well as with stories and anecdotes from both their contemporaries and subsequent chroniclers. Brooks seems to have retired to his study to wait for a research assistant to drop off the notecards. His citations and quotations come with a density that approaches parody.

Just over the course of Chapter 4 (“The Valley”) of Part I (“The Two Mountains”), for instance, we are treated to citations of: Leo Tolstoy, “The Jungian analyst James Hollis,” “ writer Ada Calhoun,” William Deresiewicz, Nietzsche, Seamus Heaney, “a friend named Casey Gerald,” David Foster Wallace, “the young writer Veronica Rae Saron,” “The English philosopher Simon May,” “The great sociologist Robert Nisbet,” “the pollster Daniel Yankelovich,” “Robert Putnam of Harvard,” George Eliot, William Damon, Balzac, Hannah Arendt, Nabeelah Jaffer, John Keats, W.H. Auden, “The theologian Paul Tillich,” and “The poet Ted Hughes.” The chapter is 11 pages long. At no point does David Brooks evince any particular engagement with any of these sources. It’s as if he laid out the schema for the book and then sought to backfill its segments with snappy insights. Find me a quotation about young people, loneliness, and social media. Find me a poll about trust in government.

The Second Mountain eventually trundles into a vague spiritual awakening, but it is also almost admirably straightforward about the fact that it is a book by a yuppie and for yuppies. Brooks experiences the “third layer of joy … what you might call emotional joy” because he sees his kids playing with a ball and because his “lawn, for some reason, looked perfect.” Despite his talk about relationships, communities, souls, and salvation, he never wanders far from the cul-de-sac. “I can’t unread Matthew,” Brooks writes of his ongoing attempt to navigate his Jewish identity and burgeoning Christianity. But isn’t it in Matthew that we find Jesus’s shocking exhortation: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Brooks does not really want a faith that is dangerous or radical.

For all his claims to the contrary, a singular desire cuts through The Second Mountain. David Brooks wants to feel good about himself. The second mountain isn’t the search for surrender. It’s a plea for approval. The summit is in view. If only you, dear reader, would enlist as a spiritual sherpa and haul him to the top.