Book Review: “Churchill” by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is an acclaimed historian whose many bestselling books—including Napoleon, Modern Times, and A History of Christianity—have been translated into numerous languages. A frequent contributor to publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in London.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) is an intriguing figure in both political and European history. The former British Prime Minister during the Second World War was instrumental in bringing down the Axis Powers and was known as an orator and historian. Paul Johnson attempts to capture the life and events that consumed Churchill during his tenure in British Parliament and beyond. It was clear that Churchill was a polarizing figure, especially in Britain, yet he was decisive with his actions and brimming with confidence. Johnson, in essay-like language, carries the reader through Churchill’s life to the leader’s death in 1965.

Though I haven’t read any of Johnson’s other books (which I’m sure are of commendable quality), “Churchill” was a lackluster attempt to capture such a great figure in history. This book seemed like it was written in haste and included many tacky comments that were too vague to truly capture Churchill’s life (like recommending books for further reading in the middle of a paragraph). I lost interest in the book after 50 pages because the thoughts were not as organized and vivid as I imagine Churchill’s life to actually be. It seemed like Paul Johnson was merely scraping the fluffy foam off of the latte that is Churchill’s life. In all honesty, I didn’t finish the book; it was one of those books where after 50 pages I knew it wouldn’t really be worth my time (especially with other, more exciting books pressuring me to use my time wisely).

I find it fitting and characteristic of the book that Paul Johnson would give five points of what we can learn from Churchill’s life in the epilogue of the book. Here they are (summarized but not compromised):

1.  Always aim high.  “He did not always meet his elevated targets, but by aiming high he always achieved something worthwhile.”
2.  There is no substitute for hard work.  “Mistakes he made, constantly, but there was never anything shoddy or idle about his work.”
3.  He never allowed mistakes or criticism to get him down.  “He scrambled to his feet and worked his way back.”
4.  He wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his emotional energy on the meannesses of life.  “Nothing gave him more pleasure than to replace enmity with friendship.”
5.  The absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy in his life.  “Joy was a frequent visitor to Churchill’s psyche, banishing boredom, despair, discomfort and pain.”

It is with great disdain that I simply cannot bring myself to recommend this book. My regular readers know that negative book reviews on this blog are few and far between (this is only my second negative review), but my commitment to helping people read quality books outweighs my guilt in publishing a bad review. It could have been because I was too eager to learn about Winston Churchill that I had too high expectations for the book, or because there are numerous biographies about Churchill and I happened to buy the one that was a flop—either way, this book did not live up to my expectations and therefore shouldn’t be put on your Amazon wishlists. If I’m kicking myself for buying this book, then you might too. Then again, what did I expect from a 166-page biography about one of the most notable men in human history?

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