Recently, I finished Roy Jenkins’ Churchill, a 2002 biography of the eponymous Prime Minister. The book is wonderful, rightly called “magisterial” – at just over 900 pages long, it gives a fantastic insight into one of the most interesting men of the 20th Century, narrated with wry humour and good anecdotes from the biographer’s own noteworthy life. Churchill saw and did so much, in so many fields, that his life could not help but be fascinating; the book is highly recommended for anyone willing to spend some serious leisure time reading it.
As good as Jenkins’ book is, this article (the first after an over-long hiatus, I admit) is not a review. Rather, it is on a much broader topic – that of biography. For Churchill is also perhaps the first full-length “serious” biography I have read; using my completion of it as a springboard, I have decided to write about my recent interest in the lives of “Great Men” (and Women, of course), and what I have learned so far.
For some reason, I have lived most of my life up to this point with an incredible disdain for biography. While as a child and teen I devoured both fiction and non-fiction alike voraciously, biography was a genre left almost entirely untouched. Indeed, I sneered (from my pedestal of unshakeable juvenile experience) at biography as a somewhat-low form of literary art. Perhaps from seeing too many titles along the line of [Insert A-List celebrity name here]: The Unauthorised Biography in the bookshop, I assumed that biographies would mostly be either fawning fan tributes, straw-man hatchet jobs or scurrilous ‘reveal-all’ stories of slander, dubious anecdotes and titillating misdeeds. The immortal phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” had obviously yet to make an impact on me.
Indeed, despite my addiction to reading history books, I never thought that learning about the actual lives of famous individuals would have any meaning. I was interested primarily in social and military history, but not the notable figures who helped shape those aspects of historical life. Naively, and perhaps due to my own fairly uneventful childhood, I couldn’t imagine that the lives of certain individuals could be as interesting as great battles, sweeping changes, or the fate of nations. In the now-classic (if somewhat outdated) historiographical battle between the “Great Men” and “Trends and Forces” theories of history, the young amateur historian in me seemed firmly decided on the latter.
Recently however, I have experienced something of a sea-change and a veritable ‘enlightenment’ when it comes to biography. My eyes have opened to the possibilities of the genre, and how it can have a positive impact on life. When and where this change started I am not sure. Perhaps it was when I started seriously thinking (and worrying) about my future after university, and looking for guidance on what path to take. Perhaps it was by going down a proverbial rabbit hole after reading one too many quotes by some illustrious figure, or hearing of some impossible-sounding deed; perhaps it was after studying complex literature and wondering if real people could be as multi-faceted and interesting as fictional characters can be. In any case, I now regularly read and listen to the biographical (and autobiographical) details of successful and famous individuals.
Before I start to go over the benefits of reading biography, I should give one of my ever-present caveats. Obviously, I realise that not all biographies will be that well-written, useful, or even interesting – my suspicions are that most of those ‘Unauthorised Biographies’ are probably just as sycophantic and lurid as I thought they were before. Even biographies of truly great figures can be somewhat unexceptional – a good example is Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, which while well-written and very entertaining, was so over-the-top in its praise and wilfully ignorant of the less salubrious aspects of Churchill’s career that it actually grated on me somewhat (and I consider myself to be very much a fan of Sir Winston). Nevertheless, I believe there are solid reasons for reading and learning about the lives of successful and great people, and indeed that I have benefited from doing so.
The first – and perhaps most important – reason for perusing through biography is simply that the lives of many of these people are so interesting that they make for incredibly entertaining reading. For instance, Churchill’s life was so action-packed that it could be said to be almost ‘objectively’ interesting – the man was at various times a soldier, journalist, painter, Nobel-prize-winning author and, of course, politician and wartime leader. He seemed to have a knack of being involved in so many of the great events of his life and – even better – writing about them, from the Battle of Omdurman (sometimes called the ‘last true cavalry charge of the British Army’) to the Wall Street Crash and, of course, the two world wars. The progress of his life and his sudden rises and falls are so dramatic, it would probably not be believable in any fictional tale.
Secondly, studying the lives of talented people can provide insights into how they achieved their success. For this, the Tim Ferriss Show has proved invaluable, but even by studying traditional biographies such information can be gleaned. It is noticeable, for instance, how almost all successful people read widely and voraciously in their spare time; Churchill was no exception, as was the man who I often consider to be his American counterpart, Theodore Roosevelt. Through my ‘biographical enlightenment’, I have tried to apply many of the lessons learnt to my own life, and have experienced some noticeable improvements.
Thirdly, studying biography has shown me how complex and multifaceted these great figures – and human beings in general – are. Churchill especially was an incredibly nuanced (and often contradictory) figure, and his views especially so; those who like to put the figure of Churchill in various boxes or on pedestals are almost always far wide of the mark. In another example, I recently listened to several extended biographical interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I will guiltily admit that I never really thought of Mr. Schwarzenegger as being anything much more than a successful ‘gym bro’ who got lucky in the acting business (and then politics through his popularity); I had no idea how switched-on the man was, or that he had actually made his fortune in real estate before becoming a famous actor.
Finally, I think that reading serious, sensible biographies has revealed the humanity of many of these great figures. Very few of them are saints, none of them are infallible. Churchill certainly was not; character flaws aside, he made many mistakes, some almost catastrophic, and at other times could be shockingly ruthless, despite his innate decency. Depression and anxiety seem to afflict even the most successful people, regardless of their outward confidence; and for every trend there is in the lives of successful people (whether it be reading a lot, or getting up early, or growing up in a particular environment) there is an merciful exception to the rule. Perhaps this is the best aspect of reading biography – the understanding that no matter the circumstances, the trials or their own demons, people can and will triumph. In many ways, good biography can be seen as a tribute to the human spirit, and its inspirational ability to pull through no matter the odds. As Churchill is supposed to have said:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
Wise words to live by, I would say.