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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reading List: Thoughts and Adventures

Churchill, Winston S. Thoughts and Adventures. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, [1932] 2009. ISBN 978-1-935191-46-9.
Among the many accomplishments of Churchill's long and eventful life, it is easy to forget that in the years between the wars he made his living primarily as a writer, with a prolific output of books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. It was in this period of his life that he achieved the singular mastery of the English language which would serve him and Britain so well during World War II and which would be recognised by the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

This collection of Churchill's short nonfiction was originally published in 1932 and is now available in a new edition, edited and with extensive annotations by James W. Muller. Muller provides abundant footnotes describing people, events, and locations which would have been familiar to Churchill's contemporary audience but which readers today might find obscure. Extensive end notes detail the publication history of each of the essays collected here, and document textual differences among the editions. Did you know that one of Churchill's principal markets across the Atlantic in the 1920s was Cosmopolitan?

This is simply a delicious collection of writing. Here we have Churchill recounting his adventures and misadventures in the air, a gun battle with anarchists on the streets of London, life in the trenches after he left the government and served on the front in World War I, his view of the partition of Ireland, and much more. Some of the essays are light, such as his take on political cartoons or his discovery of painting as a passion and pastime, but even these contain beautiful prose and profound insights. Then there is Churchill the prophet of human conflict to come. In “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”, he writes (p. 264):

Then there are Explosives. Have we reached the end? Has Science turned its last page on them? May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives of even the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp, or dockyard?

Bear in mind that this was published in 1924. In 1931, looking “Fifty Years Hence”, he envisions (p. 290):

Wireless telephones and television, following naturally upon their present path of development, would enable their owner to connect up with any room similarly installed, and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he put his head through the window. The congregation of men in cities would become superfluous. It would rarely be necessary to call in person on any but the most intimate friends, but if so, excessively rapid means of communication would be at hand. There would be no more object in living in the same city with one's neighbour than there is to-day in living with him in the same house. The cities and the countryside would become indistinguishable. Every home would have its garden and its glade.

It's best while enjoying this magnificent collection not to dwell on whether there is a single living politician of comparable stature who thinks so profoundly on so broad a spectrum of topics, or who can expound upon them to a popular audience in such pellucid prose.

Posted at June 2, 2011 20:44