Favorite Books: The Last Lion by William Manchester



By Herndon Hasty (Digital Performance Manager)

Winston Churchill is a truly larger than life figure. Convinced from a young age of his own destiny to be the savior of England, the British Empire, and the world, Churchill was a war hero before he was a war hero, a politician who flourished on both sides of the aisle, and to paraphrase the greatest biography of the man available, lived a baroque lifestyle long after such a thing was fashionable, let alone possible.

He gave us the security of the Western world and democracy at a time when it was assumed we would have to choose between Facist and Communist dictatorships. He left some of the greatest oration – and biting and/or profane comebacks – the modern world has ever seen. And he was a leader and leading figure throughout 90 years of the most profound change the world had seen up to that point.

Spanning 2,900 pages (minus references, which in books of these size can get enormous), William Manchester’s The Last Lion – a three-book biography of one of the titans of the 20th century – is the greatest expression available of who he was, what he accomplished, and what he faced. It does credit to it’s subject, if nothing else than for its prolific nature and command of the English language.

The volumes were published over the course of 30 years, beginning in 1984. By the time the third book was published, Manchester had been dead for nearly a decade, having entrusted his notes and a significant part of the manuscript to journalist Paul Reid. So, the next time you’re tempted to complain that, say, George RR Martin is taking too long in getting his next book out, bear in mind that he’s practically cranking them out in comparison.

Coming from a journalistic background, like Churchill, Manchester does not waste words. It is as dense a read as you will find outside of academia, and effectively paints a picture of Churchill, his people and companions, and his times.

And while getting through all three tomes is something that takes time and commitment – a 300-page but similar book by Manchester took a very smart friend of mine the better part of 6 months – it is worth it. Aside from the great rise-and-fall-and-rise-again story of a soldier, journalist, statesman, firebrand, polarizing figure and out-and-out megalomaniac, there’s an intense amount of contextual information to be learned.

If you aren’t familiar with the operations and extent of the British Empire at the peak of its reach, Visions of Glory (book 1) has much to teach.

The early chapters of his second book, Alone, which covers Churchill’s wilderness years between his fall from power in the late 20’s through his rise to Prime Minister, are as effective a history of Germany’s state between the World Wars as can be found anywhere.

And how close they came to needing those Keep Calm And Carry On signs – originally designed for use during a German invasion of the UK, today just a charming expression of the British stiff upper lift – is vividly apparent in Defender of the Empire, the third and final volume.

While it’s clearly a sequential book set, Manchester’s command of the facts makes it easy to step in at any point. I first read the 2nd volume, followed by the first, and then a long wait for the third. Depending on where your interests lie historywise, a similarly winding path may even work best for you.

For the man, reader, or Anglophile in your life, The Last Lion series is a great library checkout, gift, or carrying item for your Saddleback Book Bag.