Democracy In America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1838, George Dearborn & Co., Adlard and Saunders)
As much as I love P.J. O’Rourke for exposing how our government actually works, I love de Tocqueville equally for demonstrating how our government used to work. Every cynic and naysayer who believes that localized governance is a practical impossibility need only read this piece of history to be proven wrong.
The book was constructed using de Tocqueville’s notes from his 1831 trip through America, and a sequel book (often bound with the first in modern editions) was released years later based on further travels. The chapters tend to be fairly small, ten pages or so, and each addresses the way the social and political structure of the country operates. Chapters build upon each other, presenting a clear picture of the operation of the country in the early 19th century.
As an outsider, the French de Tocqueville is obviously impressed by the workings of the relatively young nation but is able to recognize existing failures and likely future issues. He details the problems that slavery is causing in the philosophical underpinnings of the country, for example, but he nevertheless shows the reader not just an admiration of the American system but why that admiration is merited. His criticisms are not bitter. They are the condemnations that come when someone admired is failing to live up to their potential.
It’s a necessary book, it’s a quotable book, it’s a useful historical document… and it is a message of hope.
Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout (1944, Farrar & Rinehart)
Rex Stout wrote books other than Nero Wolfe mysteries, but those are deservedly his most famous. Wolfe, the sedentary quarter-ton detective and Archie Goodwin, his clever aide, are the subjects of almost three dozen novels and even more novellas.
Most of the books have at least one distinctive element, and in the two novellas present in this collection the unusual aspect is that Archie Goodwin is serving his country in WWII as a Major, and Wolfe is refusing entreaties to join Army Intelligence because he wants to engage in combat duty.
The Wolfe books are a non-guilty pleasure. They are narrated from the perspective of Archie Goodwin, who is portrayed as a nearly perfect person: handy with a gun and his fists, loyal, honest, faithful, smart, intuitive, sympathetic and possessed of the ability to recall long stretches of conversation verbatim. His lack of faults would diminish the series if it were not for Wolfe. Wolfe has many faults: overweight, short-tempered, lazy, misogynistic. But he is also utterly brilliant, and between his deductive skills and his insistence on precise language he diminishes Goodwin by comparison. Goodwin by himself would be cartoonish, if brilliantly written. With Wolfe, the pair become mythic and yet believable.
The result is a series that invites not merely reading but re-reading, which is the highest compliment any fiction author may achieve.