Saturday, August 13, 2016

Greatest book of twentieth century

I am prone to fits of wild enthusiasm. I'm okay with having them. On the whole they are more enjoyable than my fits of wild rage. But either way there's a lot of spinning tires to all these fits. That is, I've got my engine racing, and the tires are spinning wildly, but things aren't really moving much, maybe at about the same speed as a slow walk.

I'm just saying that I don't expect to convince you with my wild enthusiasm. I don't expect to even slightly convince you. I'm even pretty sure I'll look back at this in half a year and not be convinced.

But I believe it now.

And anyway, it's not about how fast the car goes, because when it comes to all of this, this, there is never anywhere to get to. That is the secret we should always keep with us somewhere, maybe in a spare pocket, much in a way a another kind of person might need to have a note on them that says "Please don't bury me. I'm just a super heavy sleeper!" A fail-safe, if you will.

 So just pretend, if you like, that we're merely moseying along, and pay no attention to all the burning and smoking rubber.

The Doorbell Rang, by Rex Stout, is the best book written in the twentieth century.

Yes, I know, there were a lot of books written in the twentieth century. Yes, some of them were super good. But I'm not going to list them for you. I am not here to make your argument.

I know that The Doorbell Rang is just another of 33 mystery novels about Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. It's not the first of his. It's not the last. As I march along through my middle years as a writer, I rather like that Stout was pushing eighty when he wrote this book in 1965, but that doesn't really make any difference to what it is. It's not unique in his canon. It's not miles better or very much different that his other 33 Wolfe novels. But it is a little better than them, just like it's a little better than everything else.

When it comes to greatness everything is bunched up pretty close there at the top.

Here's the thing, sometimes when one reads one comes across some great sentence or passage that says so very much that one wants to share it. That's how I felt about the sentences in in The Doorbell Rang.

Oh, which ones?

Pretty much all of them.

But fine, here, almost randomly, because I don't go around underlining books, are two:

She did all right. A woman who can toss you a check for a hundred grand without blinking hasn't had much practice listening to reason from a hireling, but she managed it.


The answer was really simple, but of course that's one thing we use our minds for, finding complicated reasons for dodging simple answers.

Yeah, this book is funny, dead smart, and too perceptive by half. It messes with the FBI with a cold, light clarity, as if it's hardly even the point, and it does it right there in the mid sixties. It's a piece of work this book, an easy pleasure that can keep up any day of the week with anything Shakespeare has to say on the human condition.

So should you read it?

No. Not after I went and built it up so much.


  1. Ah! I'm just wandering around randomly and I found another reference to Nero Wolfe! I gotta read that one again. I have all of them, but....and I know you're going to hate me for this, but I can't stand to read real books anymore. The great thing is, though, they're digital copies of the Nero Wolfe books at several libraries (and I have seven library cards). And you know what? They're all checked out! People are still reading them. That makes me very happy.

    1. Naw, I don't mind what your reader vehicle is. I'm so glad you love Nero Wolfe. I read one on my way to Rome and finished it early on. Later I needed a book and ended up at the Anglo American Bookstore in Spanish steps (near one of the best Gelaterias: La Strega Nocciola). I thought maybe another Rex Stout would be great, but the place had almost no mysteries and I ended up getting a Terry Pratchett book. Later I was back there and found a little section I missed with largish collections of (vastly overpriced) books by just two mystery authors: Agatha Christie and Rex Stout!

  2. Wow, I love that story. You got me into reading him again. I was afraid I'd remember them all and be bored, but it's been so many years (30?), they're like new again! I'm reading The Doorbell Rang now.

    I'm not much of a re-reader because they're so many books to read, but I just read Beautiful Ruins and that was a big waste of time. Ugh. I could have re-read something good. So maybe I'm changing my mind about that.

    1. Experience taught me not to expect to convince anyone so it's purely a perk it got you into reading him again, even if it is less points than if you were reading him for the first time.

      It only takes me a couple years to almost entirely forget a book. Thirty is downright impressive.

      I am such an inveterate rereader that instead of being the sort of person who says "Oh what I would give to be able to read that again for the first time!" I say "Oh what I would give to read that again for only the second or third time!"


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