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‘Brief Lives’, by Paul Johnson – review

Brief LivesBrief Lives by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Biography is an ancient branch of literature that attests to the unchangeability of human nature against the flow of time. In its literary context, the Bible, composed of 66 books, is about the prophets, kings, sinners, let alone Christ and his disciples. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad recite the ancient Greek heroes’ honors and foibles during the Trojan War and the aftermath. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives reveal the naked truth about the ancient Greek and Roman powers-that-be who seem to be no less different than their modern descendants in power. There are no other types of writing that are intuitively intriguing than an honest biography. A good biography gives the reader a sensation of reading a private diary that lays bare the subject person’s real persona. Out of this ancient tradition of biography comes Paul Johnson’s Brief Lives of the famous people he has met from all over the world told in episodic vignettes.

The book tells Johnson’s reminiscences of historically notable personalities he has met directly and indirectly throughout his long journalistic career. Ernest Hemingway was not a Pooterish famed writer but a down-to-earth bon vivant with a love of wine. John Paul II was a true vicar of Christ gifted to our mad secular world. Princess Diana had incredible intuition, which was of prime kind channeled into high and low people’s feelings. However, Pablo Picasso was the artist as rich as Croesus with the matching haughtiness. C.S. Lewis was an excellent lecturer whose populous lecture rooms were also an intellectual version of dating hippodrome. And Richard Nixon, regardless of his Watergate infamy, proved himself to be a diligent scholar of history with the admirable zeal of continuous learning. Johnson is a keen observer of people with a prism through which people’s true colors are reflected. It is refreshingly educating to learn about the other, overlooked sides of the infamous and the famous without a gloss of the uniformed panegyrics or accusations, and doing justice to the publicly ill-informed.

It is also interesting to compare the book with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in terms of its episodic vignette form of writing, making both books more comfortable to read and stimulating to delve into. Johnson’s episodes are vivaciously sprightful and wittily feisty, grasping the reader’s attention from page to page with irresistible curiosity. Johnson and Plutarch use the ordinary language about the extraordinary to serve the purpose of writing biographies for the public with the knowledge about humankind that even the powerful and the beautiful are subject to anfractuous ridges that all humans have to climb in life.

I have read several books by Paul Johnson. All of them are packed full of his trademark wits, conservative but not chauvinistic perspectives on morality, and admirable erudition, thrown into a brilliant bonfire of words enjoyable by general readers. Brief Lives is no exception to the rule, showing that Johnson has ways with the words that make them vernacular in his choice of vocabulary he conjures and scholarly of the sentences he alloys. Samuel Johnson defined an excellent biography that should disclose the person’s human side to show that no one is utterly powerful and beautiful. The book Brief Lives echoes the same.




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‘Heroes’, by Paul Johnson – review

Heroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de GaulleHeroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de Gaulle by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We live in a paradoxical culture of hero-worshipping and anti-hero admiring. Hence, the idea of heroism seems to belong to an antediluvian ethos of the misty past when heroic mortals became divine immortals enshrined in pantheons of gods and goddesses. In fact, the ancient Greeks regarded a hero as a paragon of Arete, a prized quality in the Homeric hero, a blend of soldiery valor and moral integrity, a perfect union of moral and physical virtues. However, human heroism is constant of every age, universal of every culture and boundless of race and gender, which the public will always find it appealing and compelling because it shows how one can transform the impossible into the possible with a shot of gusto for courageousness in a cloak of confidence. That said, Heroes by Paul Johnson bears the witness to historical heroes and heroines whose dauntless spirits flew over the mountains of obstacles and brings them close to us with their human sides of fallibilities and follies.

From Samson and King David of Israel to Alexander the Great of Macedonia, to Julius Cesar of the Republic of Rome, and to Joan of Arc to Margaret Thatcher of the U.K., what these people have in common is not supernatural feats of magical physical power or omnipotent knowledge, but natural courage winged by the independence of mind arising from the ability to think things by themselves against dominant waves of compromises of their times. In this regard, heroes, as we generally define per se, are anti-establishment, anti-totalitarianism, and anti-supremacy in the sense that they challenge the subjectivity of popular beliefs or received norms to unpick the validity of truths, even if doing so will require their sacrifice and cruelty at the same time. It’s a sacrifice that they should endure the pains of persecution, and cruelty that they should vanquish the signs of human frailties to act upon their resolution without fail. Alas and alack, it sometimes results in pyrrhic victory, not only of the hero but also of those the hero intends to bring the triumph of the collective glory. Being a hero is akin to being  a Hamlet whose mental pendulum vacillates between “To be” or “Not to be.”

This is my fourth reading of Johnson’s books on history elaborately ornamented with his trademark natural wits, deeply saturated with his dazzling erudition of subjects, and deliciously narrated in a common language that always invite all, learned or novices, all of which are the essential key components of being a great writer who can share his knowledge and put people before ideas. In this book of heroes, Johnson is a sage raconteur of the heterodoxic history of mankind whose goal is to educate the public to illuminate the parts of our human history in the context of regarding the universal principles of reason and taste. With his scintillating story-telling skills, Johnson pivots deftly from the unknown interesting truths about his heroes to the cosmic principles of heroes that hold true today. If you are a history buff who always hungers for those unknown truths about famous people in history that are known to a few backstages of history, this book will satiate the appetites of your senses and nourish the mind married with pleasure.

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‘Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward’ by Paul Johnson – review

Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel CowardHumorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s gobsmacking to see how people misidentify humor with mockery or sarcasm in their misconception about laughter (the loud the better) as a product of a merry heart. Whereas humor should be appealing not only to the senses but also to Reason with a natural assistance of wit to discern the light side of life and to elevate it to wisdom of life it bears, people tend to derive funniness from faux-pas and gaucheness of targeted individuals as if they were Olympian gods and goddesses laughing at the sorrow and travail of mortals on earth. That being said, this aptly witty book by Paul Johnson is an intelligent receipt against the philistine understanding of humor drawn on his erudition and sharp witticism.

Johnson sees humor as a handmaid to hope in life that gives a jolt to a meaning of life, a mental and physical therapeutic means to make the strains of existential malaises bearable, and presents us a society of famous artists who shares the same views on the pristine essence of humor. Life is indeed a comedy in a long shot and a tragedy in close-up. If our human existential life is a tragedy at the core, it also has a periphery of comedy, which helps us to understand and embrace the attitude of “Amore Fati” Love of Fate, regardless of a boundary of classes, races, and genders. Accordingly, finding humor in human suffering is one of the manifest functions of arts in sublimating human emotions and thoughts into the aesthetically pleasing and intellectually satisfying artifacts.

From Johnson’s humorists, the persons of Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton strike me as scintillating artists of classless humor whose abilities to draw humor upon people of all walks of life and to look upon the bright side of existential life and kindly side of human nature, for human nature is the same in all professions as it is in water, not stone. Even madness does not look grim and dismal in the eyes of amiable Chesterton: “The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

This is the fourth book by Paul Johnson I have read, and it never ceases to amaze me with his erudition and wit manifested across pages after pages at the expanse of his will to enlighten general readers in plain English accessible to all. If you think abrupt peals of boisterous laughter in disguise of hearty mirth in public places are none other than a sign of incivility and citizenship, then this is a fit read that you will enjoy to your quiet hear’s content.

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‘Socrates: A Man for Our Times’, by Paul Johnson -review

Socrates: A Man for Our TimesSocrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the constellation of philosophers in the intellectual firmament, there is none other than Socrates whose influence on humanity, ranging from academic disciplines to everyday cultural memes, strikes the chords with the contemporary minds at its simplest form. It is this essence of Socrates’s simple but profound moral philosophy that has been enshrined in the pantheon of Immortal Knowledge of our collective human civilization for thousands of years. In Socrates by Paul Johnson, this immortal philosopher is hard to resist and difficult to find fault with through the author’s cicerone guide to the streets of the ancient Athens, where Socrates is in his usual convivial mood to speak in public and welcomes the reader with his genuine warm smile to join his conversation.

The stratagem of moral education in the form of philosophy is to tame the appetites (the senses or the id) and to guide spirits (emotions or the ego) in man to reach the highest level of humanness, which is the reason (the judgment or the superego). The process of this moral education is civilization, a standard by which barbarism is judged and separated from the educated mind, and Socrates thought it essential to implement it in all aspects of Athenian life because it was the surest avenue to happiness, meaning of human life. In fact, Socrates was the first philosopher to democratize the concept of philosophy from lofty abstraction of an academic plane to practical realism of a living guide. Johnson describes Socrates as something of a Prometheus, who translated the heavenly into the terrestrial in the sense that Socrates wanted to unlock the goodness of life for the benefit of mankind. For Socrates was the one who brought philosophy down from the wondering skies, domesticated it the huts and villas of people, and familiarized it with the ordinary life in examination of good and evil.

Socrates seems even more likable thanks to Johnson’s historical accounts of Socrates’s personal traits and physiognomy: the corroboration comes from his young, handsome, controversial, but nonetheless valiant aristocratic friend Alciblades that (1) Socrates was a selfless comrade in battle, fearless in fighting, and artless in helping his battle buddies: (2) commendable hardiness enabled him to wear thin clothing despite the cold and the snow; (3) he disliked letting his emotions show on his face; (4) he regarded poverty as a shortcut to self-control; and that (5) he kept fit in the stadium and gymnasium and even danced because he believed that a healthy body was the greatest of blessings. It is also well known that Socrates was an ugly man with a flat, broad nose and beer belly, especially by the standards of Greece in the 5th century that highly valued regularity of features we would call Byronic today. And yet, Socrates, ever imperturbable and optimistic, was not depressed by his ugliness because to Socrates beauty was not inherent in itself but was by the virtue of its use. It was more of utilitarian nature for practical purpose. Socrates’s way of accepting himself as he is relates to logotheraphy, neuroplasticity, and habit of positive thinking, now bestriding the domain of self-help literature.

I have always been a fan of Paul Johnson’s writing style in harmony with his wealth of erudition and fountain of humor, a fascinating combination that makes his reads so likable and interesting. And here again, he did it again: with his customary witty narrative packed full of lots of unknown anecdotes and personal tidbits on subjects he writes about, Johnson tells the reader about Socrates as precisely and candidly as possible based upon historical evidence to resurrect him in the textual theater of literature. His interpretations draw on his exceptional knowledge of the philosopher and the history of his time, but he wears his learning lightly and always writes with a general reader in mind. Hence, the figure of Socrates in his book is no longer seen as the ancient adumbral thinker but a jovial, avuncular teacher who really cares about the lives of his students of all walks of life in this highly entertaining book. This book presents a pleasant banquet of the mind and spirit hosted by the consummate storytelling narrative of Johnson in the honor of Socrates, the people’s philosopher.

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‘Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney’, by Paul Johnson – review

CreatorsCreators by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kurt Vonnegut encouraged anyone dabbling in the act of creativity: “To practice art, no matter how well or badly, is to make your soul grow. So do it.” Accordingly, the art of creation is a noble act of finding a meaning of life in which man searches for his freedom of will and will to meaning by translating the principles of sentiments and reason that are universal in humankind to various forms of creativity, ranging from writing and painting to music and dance, and to even gardening and making people laugh. Such act of making something out of nothing requires Herculean feats of courage and spirit that serves as a sovereign remedy for the existential ills of everyday life, however ordinary or exceptional. Paul Johnson’s Creators, which looks into the bright side of clever, talented individuals contrary to his previously published Intellectuals in which he recounted the hypocrisy of historically famous intellectuals, presents his thesis: that we all have creative traits in us is our divine prerogative of humanity; and to produce works of the arts involves prodigies of courage as well as talent that is sublimated to the aesthetic expression of intellect and beauty, such as to be in the cases of luminous artists whose oeuvres marked their standing in literature, painting, and music.

Each chapter on each different artist draws up on the artist’s unyielding courage and creativity, which is a quintessential element of creative originality of outstanding quality. Johnson admits that an artist tends to be egotistical due to his extravagant faculty of creativity into which the artist pours out everything that is in him. An unusual degree of courage that is akin to physical courage of a soldier on the front is demanded of the artist unless he bows to the final enemy of creativity, such as age or increasing debility. Take Beethoven’s struggling against his deafness by using a toothbrush in his mouth to feel the tonality of each piano key while composing his immortal symphonies. Great impressionist painter Toulouse-Lautrec’s inherited disabilities and grotesque deformities as a result of hereditary inbreeding could not stop him from producing beautiful paintings with his triumphant willpower and courage until his death at the age of thirty-seven. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote incessantly despite his chronic illness due to his weak and unreliable lungs that eventually killed him in his early forties. Emily Dickinson wrote poetry without encouragement and public response, while David Hume failed to receive public recognition upon publishing Human Understanding. So did Anthony Trollope of The Macdermots of Bally Cloran that was neither reviewed nor sold of a single copy.

The life of an artist is full of peculiar aspects and strange satisfaction often spurred on by personal weaknesses, such as in the cases of Jane Austen and George Eliot whose real name was Mary Ann Evans. Both of the women led lonely and lugubrious lives without experiencing felicities of love and adulation by men despite their brilliant spirits and ingenious minds. Surely beauty was in their time and still is only skin-deep, but their plainness left them in spinsterhood and forced themselves to spur loneliness on writing that was the solace in which they could fall in love with the men they desired. In effect, the reader will learn that it was the courage to express their spirits and feminine aspiration to be loved that fed on their creativity. Also, self-awareness, careful nursing, and restricting of the talents and subject matters, rather than audacious rampant criticism of society in general in undisciplined tempest of words, were added to the wings of their creative spirits.

In light of the above, art is not genius but a work born of love and labor of its creator whose Herculean degree of courage and desire of expressing imaginations and intellect perform a painful but delightful feat of ingeniousness. Johnson avows that rational and professional methods of using skills, experiences, creative industriousness, and self-confidence are the ingredients to create the work of art. Also, he affirms the reader that there is no need to make a pact with the devil or perform a magical ceremony to invoke a creative spirit because inspiration comes from within. It is how to find it and reveal it like a hidden diamond in its most radiant luminescence. Written in common words devoid of academic locutions and once again his usual consummate narrative skills, this is Johnson’s another scintillating book to be acquainted with the human face of geniuses whose works have produced pleasure in our senses and minds.