On The Unbearable Lightness Of David Brooks
I know I’ve been mostly absent, and will continue to be so. (At least until this makes it through copy editing.)*
I know as well that there’s too much to be talked about to waste much time on the utterly predictable.
And I also know that what I’m about to point out is far less an indictment than, say, today’s column should earn. I do plan to take a whack at that one sometime soon, unless, as I hope, Charles Pierce eviscerates, and I can just crib.
So this is just a bit of nastiness on my part, some pissed-off snark, on confronting the “look inside” excerpt now available for the divine’ BoBo’s new hacktacular, The Road to Character. As a matter of substance, I’ll just say that I agree with Driftglass, (via the above-referenced Mr. Pierce), that for David Brooks, such an avenue remains the road not taken.
But as a matter of pure spite, let me just say that nothing I’ve read of Mr. Brooks’ new minimum opus changes my core opinion. He’s got a gift for glib writing, the prose analogue to your easy-listening adult classics. But in any attempt to sustain prose over the long haul…the cracks show.
Exhibit A. The first two sentences of work:
“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.”
I’m sorry, but what tin ear, what grudge against English prosody, allowed these clunkers to pass? That’s the barker at the door, the first words one encounters while deciding whether to commit precious hours of one’s life into David Brooks’ care! Such blunt repetition, the rhythmic fail of the second sentence, the parody of explanation — “résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé” — forsooth! I never would have guessed! Even if Brooks didn’t mind such clumsiness, where in the name of all that’s pasta was his editor?
Trivial, I know, and I’m hardly a without prose sins of my own to regret. But as I read reviews that praise Brooks depth or countercultural mastery, it’s worth remembering passages like this one. Brooks is not a great writer, and the reason isn’t that he can’t manipulate words well when he pays attention. He clearly can. Rather, it’s that such hack writing hints at the hack thinker putting cursor to phosphor. Expressing bad thoughts clearly exposes their flaws…which can and hence must be elided in a fog of mediocre prose. As here you see.
Bonus reading, which has the added benefit of showing what happens when villagers (even genuinely capable ones) review fellow villagers. See, for example, Pico Iyer in last Sunday’s New York Times book review:
For every blurred piety here (“We are all ultimately saved by grace”), there’s a sentence that shames everything around it (“Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths”).
Umm. Iyer sees in that “Philosophy is likely to be…” a stunning epiphany, a sentence that puts mere piety to shame. I see a nearly content-free assertion that undercuts itself by word three. Seasoned Brooks’ readers will recognize the gambit: in order to justify one of his famous and very often risible claimed dichotomies (resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues) he must impose his judgment on possible contradicting authorities. Here, philosphy is drained of potency as it fights on the dubious ground of half-truths. And just in case anyone calls him on it — this magisteral dictum is only “likely” — thus granting Brooks his ex cathdra authority while insulating him, just a bit, from any instance of reality failing to acknowledge his infallibility.
In other words: this is pure Brooks, a seemingly epigrammatic heap of nonsense, structured to give him both the appearance of gnomic wisdom and plausible deniability. And this his exceptionally friendly critic sees as masterful.
We need a new culture.
*I can make one prediction with a fair degree of confidence. Shameless self-promotion to come much closer to the day.
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