This is a provocative and panoramic survey of 2,000 years of English history. Johnson tells the story of how a small nation, living in a geographical backwater, developed unique economic and political institutions, expanded its territory, and saddled upon it the frame of a modern industrial society.
Paul Johnson, British author and historian, is the author of many books, including Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, The Birth of the Modern, and The Quest for God, which have been translated into many languages. He has been a frequent contributor to the Daily Telegraph, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Spectator, and other newspapers and magazines. He has lectured to academic, business, and political audiences all over the world.
Paul Johnson is at his iconoclastic best in this history - which is often more concerned with ideas than people. I almost always disagree with his conclusions, but I always enjoy how he gets there.
If you want an engaging discussion of how Parliament came to be the institution it is, this is your book. If you want a parade of kings and queens and prime ministers, this is definitely NOT your book: there are a few of the greats here, like Henry II, Elizabeth I, and William Pitt, but Johnson returns again and again to issues like Magna Carta and the greatness of the unwritten English constitution. (As an American, that remains incomprehensible to me - if it's not written down, how can it be a constitution?) You'll search in vain for an account of the Wars of the Roses or the desperate struggle against Napoleon.
Johnson as always has some surprising takes on people and events. He expresses great anger at the way the Irish have been treated over the centuries by the English; but he describes Oliver Cromwell, a cold and steely theocrat and one of the chief culprits in that treatment, as an affable, reasonable, and generally OK guy.
The anger is real, though, and that's one of the reasons I come back to Johnson when I disagree with him about so much. He genuinely hates slavery, hates racism, hates apartheid, hates totalitarianism. Reading his stirring condemnations of dark episodes in English history can be bracing.
Wanda McCaddon, who seems to have made a particular practice of narrating Johnson, gives her usual sterling performance here.
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An interesting subject, but as the book progresses it becomes more commentary than history. The book could more aptly be titled 'Paul Johnson's Opinions about the History of the English People.' I still found it somewhat enjoyable, but it could have been much better.
1 of 2 people found this review helpful