Just a minute

The good

1. New York Times columnist David Brooks tackles thoroughly the root of all evil which, to him, is not the love of money but pride. You can rely on this book as your one-stop primer on why people are essentially good, why it is necessary to struggle to be a lasting success and why it is better to be decent than to be happy. He does so in precise, methodical and well-paced sentences.

2. For all his insistence that he is shallow at heart, Brooks is an avid bookworm who is happy to share his trove of accumulated wisdom. So reading this book is like keeping company with the greatest ideas of deep thinkers such as the French essayist Michel Montaigne, the German psychologist Immanuel Kant and the English novelist George Eliot. The bonus is that Brooks is particularly adept at explaining their most complex thoughts.

3. His most important refrain is that every human being is, at heart, both good and evil. So, he points out, the flip sides of courage, honesty and self- confidence are recklessness, brutality and pride. This idea is seldom emphasised enough, but an understanding of it will free a person from judging others too quickly and so help them more readily.

The bad

1. His occasional use of jargon is as inexplicable as it is distancing. Given that his book is about an issue of the widest concern, that is, integrity, his use of terms such as "moral ecology" and "mental furniture" hinder more than they help the reader grasp his big ideas.

2. All but one of his moral heroes in the book are from the West; so too the religions and cultures from which he draws his examples and lessons. For example, he mentions India's sage Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in passing, and focuses his point about non-aggression on an American, Philip Randolph, who was taken by Gandhi's teachings. But compared to Gandhi, Randolph is relatively unknown even to Americans, and so the example of his life will not resonate with most readers.

The iffy

1. In arguing a point, Brooks can seem stilted and preachy. So you will likely be engrossed whenever he regales you with inspiring stories of inspiring people, but yawn whenever he veers towards analysis.

2. He is often so unapologetic about his shortcomings that he risks seeming most naive. For example, he despairs of not being able to teach others compassion like any other classroom subject; but how can anyone teach compassion? Yet, he is the same writer stunning readers later with his insights about the difference between willpower and love.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline '(No headline) - SUKBIG02B'. Print Edition | Subscribe