©2007 Paul Johnson; (P)2007 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
The book is an entertaining and informative menagerie of historical characters, many of whom arguably demonstrate heroic traits. The author clearly makes an attempt to represent heroism in all its forms, even explicitly voicing a distaste for overvaluing martial heroism (even so, heroic soldiers compose the gross majority of the list). Little effort is made to define or generalize heroism, leaving it as a subjective attribute. I find this ambiguity acceptable, but be forewarned that this book does not address the question of what it means to be a hero.
The book contains a number of serious flaws detracting both from my enjoyment and the informative value of the book.
With mild regularity the author lapses into French and Italian: whole, non-trivial sentences, without accompanying translation. This seemed either careless or pretentious.
The heroes from the modern era seem to have been chosen, not for any heroic attributes (two of whom, arguably demonstrate no heroism whatsoever), but instead because they embodied ideology that the author favored. Those chapters could just as well be renamed, "People I Agree With." His overly long section on Wittgenstein is speaks more of ideological worship by the author than heroism by Wittgenstein. On the same lines, the author's occasional personal anecdotes smack of pretentious name dropping.
Large swaths of geography and history are entirely overlooked. The list of heroes may be an adequate catalog of players in the history of Western European civilization, but is hardly a list of world heroes. With the exceptions of the classical heroes, biblical heroes, and Pope John Paul II, every person on the list is of British, French, or Germanic descent. South America, Asia, Africa, South and Eastern Europe are entirely unrepresented.
All told, this book is an entertaining, but forgettable read. The quality of the reading is excellent and the subject is interesting. However, there is little of lasting value.
I seem to be out of sync with the other reviewers. I really enjoyed this book although it was not what I expected based on the title. And I am puzzled as to why some of those listed as heroes were included and why some others were not.
Nevertheless the short histories and vignettes given for each taught me much that I did not know of the people involved, it is, as all of Paul Johnson's works, well written and very well narrated.
But do not expect a deep examination of the concept of "hero" or consistent explanations as to why some people are included. If you can just relax and listen to the book you may enjoy it as much as I did.
I have loved Paul Johnson's work for at least 15 years, but this book simply doesn't measure up. I finally put it aside, perhaps to finish at some later date.
In his introduction, Johnson writes "I have put into this collection one or two heroes and heroines of my own, believing that an element of idiosyncrasy is a legitimate part of hero worship." I don't object to this, but he then owes his readers an explanation of why an obscure British figure is included as a hero. Lady Jane Grey is one such character. After a short summary of her brief life (she was executed at age 16), he makes no explanation of why she should be considered a heroine. A tragic figure, yes, but a heroine? He simply doesn't make his case or even explain why she is included.
He assumes that his reader is familiar with both British history and events, which is problematic for his American readers (including me). For example, he mentions Nancy Mitford, a writer whom I had never heard of. (I Googled to find out that she was "an English novelist and biographer" who died in 1973. His mention of Ms. Mitford is completely extraneous - she told him that she masturbated while "thinking about Lady Jane Grey."
The book is also poorly edited. He has long, complex sentences that sometimes make it almost impossible to understand who he is talking about - especially when he is discussing Mary Queen of Scots and Mary Stuart at the same time.
Johnson will be 80 this fall. Maybe he is just getting too old to maintain the excellence he has had in the past.
I rated the book 3 stars because his stories and anecdotes about the heroes he has chosen are often interesting.
Sure, there are a handful of heros from Brittian - but what about the REST of the known world? Don't get this book unless you want to learn about a number of Brittish admirals and generals that are heros to only one small culture.
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