Monday, November 2, 2009

blog #353 >> Book of the Week: The Last Lion
by William Manchester

I know my "Book of the Week" hasn't exactly been weekly, but here it is.

"The Last Lion," by William Manchester, is arguably the most fascinating book I've ever read, and unarguably (after vol. 2-3) the longest. On first picking up this book from the library, I was shocked by its enormous size. Naturally, I was daunted by its extreme width, especially after I realized that it was only the first volume of a three volume set.* Across its cover, it bares the words "Bedazzling" and "Superb." Those are pretty strong words for a biography of Winston Churchill nearly a thousand pages long. Perhaps I am a bit biased, but I would expect most books of this nature to be very dull. It also seemed strange at the time, that those would be the two words chosen to sum up the entire book. What would posses me to read a book seemingly so long and boring? It was simply the fact that it was written by William Manchester. Had it been written by anyone else, I wouldn't have touched it.

The first book I read by him was "A World Lit Only By Fire," a portrait of an age about "The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance." It was unlike any history book I had ever read. The book was astounding. It was as if the writer were taking you by the hand and saying, "Let's take a trip around Medieval Europe." You got the impression after reading it that he had actually visited those places and seen those things. He decided to write the book after writing a introduction for a friend who had written a book on Magellan. Once he started researching the topic he found it so fascinating that his introduction was nearly a book on its own, at which point he decided to write a book on Medieval times himself. As an author, he has a love of research and history, which is contagious in his writing. He writes with a sincerity that is unencumbered by prejudice, or political agenda. When he writes about history, he writes the facts in exquisite detail and lets the story unfold and tell itself. It now baffles me how our history books in school could have possibly been that boring when they had such interesting topics.

Author William Manchester, pictured here in about 1979, worked from an office on the north side of Olin Library. The office disappeared with the library addition. (Photo by William Van Saun/Wesleyan University via Associated Press)

While reading "A World Lit Only By Fire" he would reference the research he did for his biography on Winston Churchill, which was where I first heard of it. One day, at last I placed my name on the library hold list. After picking it up, and gathering the courage to start it, I realized it was not a disappointment. It had all the qualities of "A World Lit Only By Fire" only it was much (MUCH) longer and surprisingly better. And after reading it I can't imagine it being any shorter. During "A World Lit Only By Fire" I always felt like he was rushing through his subjects, as if he were running late for a train. It was as if the pages couldn't contain all the words and topics he wanted to cover, so he crammed them together. But in "The Last Lion" he was really able to give the subject the depth it deserved and write everything out in complete detail. He writes as if he was Mr. Winston Churchill's best friend and he can't wait to tell you all about him. And now that I've finished the book, I too feel like I've known Mr. Winston Churchill my whole life. He seems to be the most interesting character I've ever heard of, witty, tenacious, and perhaps a bit of a trouble maker. After having read it, I can see that "Bedazzling" and "Superb" are two very suitable words to sum it up. And even if you don't think you want to read the whole thing, at least pick it up and read parts. As Winston Churchill would say, "If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them — peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances."

* I didn't actually realize there was a third volume until vol. 1 & 2 came in the mail. I had renewed my library version so many times I was feeling rather guilty about it. In reality the book probably hasn't left the biography room at the central library in years, but you never know. Plus they were dirt cheap on Amazon; it's a much better deal to buy them, than to pay for late fees. Well, after they came I was reading bits and pieces of volume two and realized it ended when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister at the onslaught of World War II, which obviously isn't the end of the story. This made me wonder... Is there there a third volume? After a great deal of poking about online I got the answer. Unfortunately, William Manchester had suffered a stroke while writing the third volume and announced that he would be unable to finish his work. However the third volume is expected to be printed posthumously, next year with the help of Paul Reid. I wonder if I can get on the waiting list now?


1 comment:

Leingang Family said...

Fascinating! I wish I had more time so I could read it. Too bad about the 3rd volume though. I am enjoying his other book very much, though I hardly have time to pick it up. History is by far my favorite subject to both study and teach! I am always amazed at how quickly an hour of lecturing at 12-17 year olds goes in my WWI class. I know just how Manchester feels! You do want everyone to know what you just "discovered"!