16 July 2012

Summer Reading: Looking at Winston Churchill in all the wrong places

FORTY WAYS OF LOOKING AT WINSTON CHURCHILL is a meta-biography making the point that there is no such thing as objectivity in the genre. If you've got that point, you can probably skip this book.

I was very much looking forward to Gretchen Rubin's Churchill project; a self-described fan, she compares popular ideas about Churchill (that he was depressed, for example) as they have been depicted in different accounts of his life, sometimes making the case for both of them in the same chapter. (For example, one chapter argues that Churchill was a great politician, adept at working with people to achieve his ends; the other argues that he was not very well liked and points out all the times he was ousted and/or lost elections.)

This book made me want to rush to the defense of the biographies Rubin suggests are faulty (none of which I have read, to be fair), but also to point the finger back toward Rubin. If all biographers are fallible, then Rubin's account also lacks perspective in some critical moments, even as she admits that she personally tends toward lionizing Churchill. One of FORTY WAYS' forty chapters (get it?) is just a list of some of Churchill's bon mots, proving that he did know how to turn a phrase, but not much about the quality of his work overall. One is just a factual timeline, another a list of important people Churchill knew, which is great if you want to view him as self-aggrandizing, I guess, but it's not exactly a primary source. More troubling is the chapter titled "Churchill's Imperialism," making the case that he was very invested in Britain as Empire and that that philosophy helped shape his politics. This chapter would be better titled, "Not That He Was Alone At The Time, But Churchill Was Pretty Racist."
It's not a worthless project by a long shot, but if you want to read a biography about biographies I recommend Rick Moody's THE BLACK VEIL. (Note: Rubin is best known for the book she wrote after FORTY WAYS and one I liked more, a little cult hit called THE HAPPINESS PROJECT.) I did get a good laugh out of the chapter on Churchill and sex (summary: he didn't seem that interested, which everyone found or finds weird and tries to find the root cause) and on the tidbit that to keep his estate paid between government positions, one of England's finest historical figures was reduced to writing freelance articles with titles like "Iced Water" and "Is There Life on the Moon?" Profligate hack Churchill -- now there's a biography I want to read.

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