A capacious overview of an enduring human value.



The acclaimed literary scholar considers the shifting significance of the term "character."

Garber, a Harvard professor of English and visual and environmental studies, brings a wide range of sources to her erudite, illuminating study of the “complex, sometimes self-contradictory, and often elusive concept” of character, whose meaning has changed throughout history. Claiming the idea of character to be a cultural obsession involving politics, entertainment, education, psychology, neurology, art, and literature, Garber examines many questions it has generated: “How can it be perceived, measured, assessed, developed, trained, or ‘built’?” Is character “innate, learned, taught, or instilled? Are character traits fixed or changeable?” Is there such a quality as a national character? Is character synonymous with personality? Is a person’s character visible, able to be “read” by head bumps, as phrenologists believed, or analyzed by physiognomy? As the author explores such questions, she turns to sources as varied as Shakespeare (Garber is a noted Shakespeare scholar) and other playwrights, Greek philosophers, photographers and artists, education tracts, and contemporary political rhetoric. The idea that character can be trained, she asserts, was promoted by many 19th-century self-help books as well as the Scouting movement. Character building “was an invitation to personal initiative.” The popular 19th-century educational series McGuffey’s Readers, Grimm’s fairy tales, and even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz all contain moral teachings to help a child build character. Garber traces the 18th-century fad of physiognomy, which later emerged as phrenology, which asserted that qualities such as greed, wickedness, melancholy, and maliciousness could be assessed from physical traits. Rubrics of character traits have been popular for centuries: As far back as the fourth-century B.C.E., Theophrastus came up with a list of 30 character types, including The Flatterer, The Reckless Cynic, The Officious Man, The Vain Man, The Oligarch, and The Slanderer, most of which, Garber astutely notes, are recognizable today.

A capacious overview of an enduring human value. (32 pages of b/w illustrations)

Pub Date: July 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-12085-6

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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