When I left England to live in the United States for one year last August, there was only one book I took with me - Alistair Cooke's 'Letter From America'. What else could I have taken? Cooke saw into America like no other Brit (or no other non-American, for that matter).
Starting at the mid 1940s, the book winds its way through post-war America nearly right up until the authors death in 2004, picking out the best of his weekly broadcasts. The subject matters range from politics, history, current affairs, entertainment and topics from the New England fall, jazz, Robert Kennedy's assassination (which he witnessed first-hand) and the O.J Simpson trial.
But it is not the subject matter that makes this book so special (for we already know about most of them anyway) it is none other than Cooke's insight and writing style. The articles flow like the finest novel or poem (which is probably attributed to Cooke's background in theatre). Each time you come back to read the book again it feels as though you are receiving the opinions of a familiar friend, and not some distant journalist.
There are drawbacks. Cooke was often criticised, and quite rightly so, for ignoring the darker side of the American dream. The other possible drawback, depending on your viewpoint, is that Cooke was a committed conservative, particularly in the latter half of his career. Many of the final articles from the late 90's and early 00's lament the current position of America and (what he saw as) the sliding standards of journalism. Maybe, but you also can't help feel that by this point he was slightly out of touch.
These minor quibbles, however, cannot undermine Cooke's overall achievement of helping us better understand this important nation, which could more accurately be described as love letters to America.