Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Johnson and Johnson

Anyone who has spent any amount of time studying 20th century history and/or is a big biography buff would likely greet the arrival of a new biography of Winston Churchill with a disinterested shrug. Especially when that biography of one of the greatest figures in modern history chocks in at a very modest one-hundred-and-ninety-two pages. What more could you possibly learn about a man who--in addition to already being the subject of several comprehensive biographies--was a prolific writer in his own right and left behind detailed chronicles of nearly every significant (and some insignificant) event in his life? Why should I even bother cracking this latest volume in the vast literary library on Churchill?

The simple answer is because the author is Paul Johnson. Johnson has written a number of excellent books in his long career, including "Modern Times" which is probably my favorite book on history. His works are informative, engaging, and most of all enjoyable to read. His apt descriptions, elegant use of language, and perceptive insights are on again on full display in "Churchill." Pretty impressive for a man who celebrated his eighty-first birthday last November.

He makes no bones about the fact that he's a lifelong admirer of Churchill and his bias is no doubt reflected in his interpretation of Churchill's role in history. So what? At this point, there isn't much in Churchill's life and work that isn't known (although Johnson does include a few nuggets that I have not read elsewhere). I for one don't want or need to read a completely objective above it all historical recounting of Churchill, especially when I can have the option of having Paul Johnson's perspective instead. My only really complaint is with the length, but it shows that Johnson may share Churchill's ability to recognize what really matters.

I recently read another short book by another English author named Johnson called "The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia." The paperback version I bought was a mere one-hundred-and-twelve pages, but the novel condenses a lot into its short length:

The distinguished English writer's only novel provides a compelling glimpse of his moral views as he assails 18th-century optimism and man's unrealistic estimates of what life has to offer. Rasselas ponders such subjects as romantic love, flights of imagination, the great discoveries of science, and speculations about the meaning of happiness.

Even though the work was published more than two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, its exploration of the restless nature of man and our inability to ever truly find complete happiness in this world still resonates today. It's not exactly an easy or exciting read, but it will give you pause to think and realize that the quest to answer the existential questions of life is hardly unique to our age.

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