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Churchill Paperback – October 26, 2010
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"Johnson . . . give[s] the reader the definite sense of having known Churchill, or at least of having hung out with him for a bit . . . Churchill lets you spend some time in the man's company, and who wouldn't want that?"
—New York Times Book Review
"Johnson’s distillation of life lessons from Churchill’s stories career [is written in] . . . vivid prose and [with] consistent intelligence and urbanity.”
—Jon Meacham, Slate.com
"[If] you appreciate clarity, authority, and verve in historical writing, you will understand why I gulped down [Churchill] and now declare it the most exciting biography I read in 2009."
—Jesse Kornbluth, Huffington Post
"Johnson clearly shares and revels in Churchill's generosity of spirit and limitless intellectual energy. He has produced a book that is a joy—and a worthy tribute to both of them."
"You read Johnson to be provoked and entertained, and on both these scores his biography, like its subject, succeeds wonderfully."
—The American Conservative
"With deft narrative skill and keen insight, Johnson masterfully sketches the phases of Churchill's life . . . Along the way, Johnson gives us wonderful insights into Churchill's character . . . Rich with anecdote and quotation, Paul Johnson's Churchill illustrates the man's humor, resilience, courage, and eccentricity as no other biography before."
"Paul Johnson is the most celebrated and best-loved British historian in America."
—Wall Street Journal
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But the study of Great Men lives on, in this case in the form of Paul Johnson’s “Churchill,” a brief biography of Sir Winston Churchill, the British statesman, soldier, parliamentarian, and his nation’s Prime Minister during most of the Second World War.
Johnson’s biography of Churchill is of an older school, which seeks not just to analyze its subject, but draw from it moral lessons for the reader. In this manner, it is comparable to Plutarch’s “Lives .” As Johnson writes at the start:
"Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical , moral, and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency."
Churchill’s life is well-known, and Johnson glosses over the details to cover the important points the reader needs to know: his early childhood with a vaguely disapproving father; his military career , which established the young Churchill as a popular journalist; his political career with his rise to Cabinet rank as First Sea Lord during World War I; his role in laying the foundation for Britain’s welfare state, and his fall from power; his “wilderness” years out of government, when even his fellow party members rarely wanted him around and during which he warned incessantly about the rise of the Nazis in Germany; his return to power when the Nazis started World War II, again as head of the British Navy and then Prime Minister; and his postwar life and career, with one more pass as prime minister, until his death in 1965.
That Johnson can cover all this in just 170 pages while telling a fascinating story and educating the reader is a mark of how good a writer he is. “Churchill,” if it was a joy for him to write, is also a joy for us to read. Johnson’s style is delightful, and he deftly weaves in small details and observations that humanize for us a towering figure who might otherwise be lost behind the noble statues and stern portraits. For example,one that sticks with this reviewer is the revelation that Churchill found happiness in, of all things, bricklaying. So much so, that he tried to join the bricklayer’s union. (He was declined.) Most people know that he was an accomplished painter, but a bricklayer? That such a common, workaday craft should bring satisfaction to a man born in a palace and who dealt regularly with kings and presidents, who commanded his nation’s armed forces in a global war, can’t help but build a bond between reader and subject, reminding us that Winston Churchill, for all the statues and portraits, was still a mortal man.
“Churchill” is not without its weaknesses. A degree of superficiality is inevitable, given the task of compressing so full a life into such a short work. And it touches very lightly on his flaws, such as his Romantic fixations on strategies of dubious worth, for example his attempted defense of Antwerp in the First World War, or his obsession with invading Norway in the Second. A late Victorian in a rapidly changing 20th century, his attitudes toward non-European people were often at best patronizing, sometimes downright bigoted.
But, to dwell on these lacks would be to criticize “Churchill” for not doing what it was never intended to do: to be a “balanced, modern” biography. As much hagiography as biography, Paul Johnson’s goal was to introduce us to the life of one of the greatest men who ever lived and show how it could serve as an example and an inspiration, especially for the young. In this, he has succeeded admirably.
Format note: Churchill is available in both Kindle and softcover formats. I read the Kindle edition and can recall no problems with editing or formatting.
Paul Johnson's 166-page chronicle of Churchill's amazing life and leadership has received excellent reviews. The page count also works. The author's masterful scan of Churchill's 90 years (1874 to 1965) includes insightful detail, laugh-out-loud sidebars and absolutely relevant commentary on leadership and politics, war, success and failure (lots of failure).
If you're under 40, don't skip this book--thinking it irrelevant to our Twitter times. Churchill was a member of Parliament for 55 years, 31 years as a government minister, and almost nine years as prime minister. He served in the trenches of (and reported from) 15 battles, was awarded 14 campaign medals, "had been a prominent figure in the First World War, and a dominant one in the Second."
And get this: he published nearly 10 million words, including his 880-page book, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. His five-volume War Memoirs book deal in 1947 paid him $2.23 million ($50 million in today's dollars). And in his spare time, Churchill painted over 500 canvases. In 1953, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He overcame family challenges. His cousin noted, "Few fathers had done less for their sons. Few sons had done more for their fathers." Yet the author writes, "Among all the twentieth-century ruling elites, the Churchills must be judged to have had the most successful marriage."
In the epilogue, the author includes five specific ways that leaders can learn from Churchill. Number 2: "There is no substitute for hard work." Yet, this giant of a world leader "also manifestly enjoyed his leisure activities," including his painting, which created a sanctuary-like retreat for his mind and body. He worked 16-hour days (often with full working mornings in bed--to conserve energy). "The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position."
He knew the value of face time. He forced himself "to travel long distances, often in acute discomfort and danger, to meet the top statesmen face-to-face where his persuasive charm could work best."
Speaking of charm, the writing enticed me page after page. Churchill's famed oratory: 111 words per minute, "with Gladstone's 100 as the standard." After touring Africa, he wrote My African Journey (completed on his honeymoon): "...full of schemes for industrializing Africa and harnessing the Nile." His politics: "Churchill was carried forward by intellectual conviction, but his reverence for tradition acted as a brake."
He ribbed others, including the Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee. "Yes, he is a modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about." And this: "An empty taxi drew up outside the House of Commons, and Mr. Attlee got out."
He popularized (if not invented) the terms "cold war" and "iron curtain." Dependent on U.S. help to win World War II, he became a student of FDR and wrote more than 1,000 letters to him. With pen and cigar (up to 12 a day) he was a brute force writing factory. He documented all verbal orders in writing, and his results-driven memos began with the famous headline, "Action This Day."
"So did the endless series of brief, urgent queries: `Pray inform me on one half-sheet of paper, why...' Answers had to be given, fast." (This from Johnson's insightful list of 10 ways that Churchill saved Britain. Number 4: "a personal example of furious and productive activity.")
All of this, and more, in just 166 action-packed pages. This is a fantastic book!
Top international reviews
Johnson does find a little space, to pepper in some comparisons to various American Presidents. An example from page 148, "He had from an early age always hoarded papers ( as did George Washington),". I guess this would have a large appeal to American readers.
I would most definitely recommend this book to anyone. Churchill is one of those great characters, that you just can not read enough about. I read most of this book while waiting for my re-called Toyota to be fixed.
After reading the book, I predict most people will want to read more about this great man named, Winston Churchill.
An interesting contrast with the Boris Johnson biography.