Ryan’s excellent introduction makes Tocqueville’s observations and anxieties vitally relevant for 21st-century readers.

ON TOCQUEVILLE

DEMOCRACY AND AMERICA

Tocqueville’s prescient analysis of American democracy, concisely and cogently explained.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), accompanied by a traveling companion, came to America charged by the French government to study the country’s penal system. During their tour, besides visiting prisons, they observed the social life and culture of the young nation. Five years later, Tocqueville published Democracy in America, two volumes that were acclaimed in his own time and remain relevant today. Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; On Politics, 2012, etc.) offers a clear, incisive introduction to Tocqueville, followed by selections from Democracy in America. Tocqueville came with an overriding question that concerned his own countrymen: How did democracy thrive? “A stable political order that was both democratic and liberal required distinctive social, moral, and economic attachments,” Tocqueville believed; “their analysis was an urgent task.” The French Revolution, after all, had resulted in “mob rule, the Terror, and mass murder, and thence to a conservative republic.” What made America different? Influenced by Rousseau, Montesquieu and Francois Guizot, Tocqueville identified individualism as a key factor in democratic success. To him, individualism meant “a strong sense of ourselves as moral beings with duties to perform and rights to protect.” Furthermore, he believed that America offered its citizens—except for Native Americans and blacks—the opportunity for equality. “Equality of condition,” according to him, “was not equality of income, education, or anything in particular; it consisted in the absence of social obstacles to whatever ambitions an American entertained.” Although he argued that America was not at risk of relapsing into tyranny or anarchy, he worried about the possible “tyranny of the majority” and of an insidious consequence of individualism: “a retreat from engagement” with the outside world.

Ryan’s excellent introduction makes Tocqueville’s observations and anxieties vitally relevant for 21st-century readers.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-87140-704-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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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 48 LAWS OF POWER

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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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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