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Paul Johnson’s Churchill

The perfect short biography.

By 1.11.10

Churchill, by Paul Johnson
(Viking, 192 pages, $14.99) 

According to the British historian Walter Reid, some 1,663 books have been written on Winston Churchill. The latest addition to this extensive list, Paul Johnson's biography, Churchill, may be one of the shortest -- and one of the most enjoyable.

Of course, the definitive treatments of this topic are massive and minutia-filled. For example, the late William Manchester's Last Lion spanned 1,729 pages between two books (a third volume, finished by Paul Reid is in the works), and Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins is 1,002 pages long. Johnson, however, says his piece in a mere 192 pages.

Given Churchill's prolific and lengthy life, this is a remarkable feat. And it astounds that Johnson is able to condense 90 years into such a short space and do it so well.

Admittedly, none of this should be too surprising considering the source and the subject. Johnson has an established record of synthesizing epic stories into quick and compelling reads. He breezed through 400 years of American history in The History of the American People, fashioned a fascinating and often-contrarian narrative of the 20th century in Modern Times and chronicled the towering Western faiths in The History of Christianity and The History of the Jewish People.

His work reminds us that good history should be enjoyable, accessible, and rise to the level of literature -- unlike the ponderous, theory-riddled noodlings of most academics. And of course Churchill, whose life encompassed over half a century of public service in far-flung corners of the British Empire, hands-on involvement in two world wars, and countless falls from grace and miraculous comebacks, is hardly a dry or uninteresting subject.

But Johnson, with his uncommon ability to summarize colossal subjects and heroic lives (slim volumes on George Washington and Napoleon are also in his oeuvre), tells the story of a man whose life he deems the "most valuable to humanity" among the luminaries of the 20th century, with laser-like precision. And make no mistake -- this brisk little book is packed with fascinating insights.

From the abysmal lows (the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915-1916, his political exile in the 1930s) to the celebrated highs (the return from the wilderness to assume the Prime Ministership in 1940 and his eventual defense of Western civilization), Johnson extracts important corollaries from Churchill's life.

A reoccurring theme in Johnson's writing is the connection of specific subjects to broad themes. Churchill is no different. Here, the author links the prime minister to a set of characteristics that translated into triumphs: Lofty goals, unstinting effort, unwillingness to yield to despair and hopelessness (though throughout his life Churchill battled depression, a mood he called the "Black Dog"), rejection of poisonous vendettas, and an enthusiastic love of life and an ability to take great pleasure in accomplishments and successes.

Another source of Churchill's long and happy life, according to Johnson, was his ability to find refuge and pleasure outside of politics. Throughout his periodic ostracizations, Churchill occupied his time and buoyed his spirits with his many pastimes -- some of which he could have made an alternative career.

In fact, throughout his comings and goings from Parliament, Churchill supported himself as a writer -- initially as a war correspondent and later as a political commentator (in the 1930s he alone loudly decried the dangers of Nazism) and historian. His works on the World Wars (The World Crisis and The Second World War) and his four-volume chronicle of the British Empire (The History of the English Speaking Peoples) even helped net a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Johnson estimates that over his life, Churchill published somewhere between 8 and 10 million words.

Writing not only provided income but obviously brought much joy and balance to Churchill's life. Equally important was his passion for painting -- a hobby he took up during the dark days following expulsion from government during World War I. For the remainder of his life he would find inspiration in canvas and oil, producing some 500 paintings -- many of outstanding quality. His "Winter Sunshine, Chartwell," submitted anonymously, was even selected by the preeminent art historian, Kenneth Clark, and art dealer, Joseph Duveen, for a prestigious amateur prize.

Art bolstered Churchill's morale and restored his confidence during periods of self-doubt. As Johnson relates, "painting is not only the best of hobbies but a sure refuge in time of trouble." The author no doubt can identify with his subject. Like Churchill, Johnson began his career as a reporter, eventually turning to history, passed through roles in government and from liberalism to conservatism (Johnson is appreciative and understanding of Churchill's early progressive ideas) as an advisor to Margaret Thatcher and is an accomplished painter in his own right.

These similarities provide for fascinating insights, which taken with Johnson's economy of words and ability to trim historical fat, make Churchill a superb read -- and a lightning quick one to boot.

This is not to say that Johnson's book can best the more extended explorations of Churchill and his times for comprehensiveness and meticulous detail; anyone wanting the exhaustive version of this story should look elsewhere.

But those looking for a fresh retelling of this important life or for proof that accessible storytelling is often more illuminating than ponderous scholarly tracts will enjoy this book.

They would not be the only ones. During World War II, Churchill, himself a believer in concision, requested his briefs on the conflict's progress be kept simple and short. "Pray let me have by this evening, on one page, the status of our tank deployment," he requested of subordinates.

Given this appreciation of brevity, England's most esteemed modern prime minister would likely approve of Johnson's wonderfully succinct new biography.

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About the Author

Ryan L. Cole writes from Indiana.