Jeff's Reviews > Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age

Gandhi and Churchill by Arthur Herman
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's review
Oct 29, 2008

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bookshelves: biography, history, non-fiction
Read in October, 2008

This was a skillfully written biography about two very interesting people who substantially shaped the politics of the 20th century.

The biggest message that I learned from this book is that their contributions were not necessarily positive, either one of them. People are fallible; great people are greatly fallible. Gandhi's campaigns, with the exception of perhaps the Salt Satyagraha, were almost exclusively failures (or at least, minor, ho-hum successes). This portion of the book could be considered the story of why non-violent protest (even the one that actually worked!) doesn't actually work. Couple that with Gandhi's ridiculous faddishness (subsisting on goat's milk and oranges??) and his political maneuvering (in the heart of every idealist there's a calculating politician) and one begins to appreciate him more as a human being, and less as a by-word for saintly morality.

Churchill, similarly, was an admirable leader in World War II. He is remembered for this. But this was his third or fourth political reincarnation, after some woeful defeats (that were not, to be fair, entirely his fault). At the same time, reading about his whole career, one gets a much more nuanced picture of the stubborn English bulldog of the Blitz. His pedestal is shorter, so he has less distance to fall; yet reading this, one begins to understand why voters took him out of office shortly after V-E day.

Regarding Herman, the author, he turns a phrase reasonably well. However, his position as a narrator keeps shifting -- it's hard to nail down his prejudices exactly to get a sense of the book's bias. Nevertheless, over the course of the book I began to find him progressively more irritating. Ahh well.

Given the enormous cast of characters, it would have been helpful had this book had a better index, or even an appendix listing the major players in the various political movements discussed in the text. There is a glossary of Indian words used in the text, but it is woefully incomplete; phrases that appear often are often not defined, leaving one to hunt futilely for their first appearance in order to understand the meaning of the text. It's this kind of editorial decision, coupled with inadequate bread-crumbs in the text to remind the reader who the people are, that makes it less approachable--particularly as this is a text that basically has to be read over a long period of time.

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10/29/2008 page 500

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