More than most politicians, Winston Churchill was an insatiable reader. He loved to schmooze with authors, and what he read profoundly shaped his political worldview. He never actually published a “Top Ten” list of his favorite books—but if he had, it might have been something like this:
- The Time Machine, H. G. Wells: Churchill called it “a wonderful book, in the same class as Gulliver’s Travels. It is one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.” Fascinated by cutting-edge weapons technology, Churchill played a key role in the development of the tank—an invention that Wells had anticipated in a short story. Like Wells, Churchill made a business of offering scientific predictions, and some of them were spot on: he foresaw the atomic bomb and poultry shot through with hormones, among other modern horrors.
- King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard: As a young man he read this African adventure tale about a dozen times, and once he closely questioned Haggard about what it all meant. Today it is often misread as an imperialist novel, when in fact it is a story of resistance to a genocidal tyrant—a story that left a deep and obvious impression on Churchill.
- Exodus: Not the Leon Uris novel, the original Old Testament book. Though he was not very religious, Churchill was convinced that every word of it was true. There’s no denying that it’s a real page-turner (scroll-turner?). And it helped to inspire Churchill’s passionate commitment to Zionism.
- The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde: This may come as a surprise, but Wilde had been a friend of his mother Jennie, and he provided a model for Winston’s distinctive style of wit. Though the subject was too scandalous to discuss openly, there is evidence that Churchill considered Wilde’s imprisonment a terrible injustice. As Prime Minister in 1954 he discussed in the Cabinet (behind closed doors) reforming the laws against homosexuality. Ultimately he concluded that Parliament wasn’t ready for that (true at the time), but he thought that in the near future public opinion might shift (true again).
- Counter-Attack and Other Poems, Siegfried Sassoon: Another surprise, given that Churchill loved fighting the First World War, but he memorized and movingly recited Sassoon’s antiwar verses. Generals worried that those subversive poems might undermine troop morale, but Churchill replied “I am not a bit afraid of Siegfried Sassoon. That man can think. I am afraid only of people who cannot think.”
- Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw: In the midst of the Great War, Churchill offered Siegfried Sassoon a job in the Ministry of Munitions. If you’re baffled by that (and Sassoon certainly was), it begins to make sense once you know that in this drama, written by Churchill’s favorite playwright, an arms manufacturer persuades a Salvation Army officer and her peace-loving fiancé that weapons can be a force for good. A passionate theatergoer, Churchill often played out in life and politics what he had seen on the stage, and this is a striking example.
- The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck: Churchill was sincerely moved by this saga of China in revolutionary turmoil, though he didn’t entirely get it. On finishing the book, he concluded that the toiling Chinese masses would have been much happier if, like the Indians, they had enjoyed the blessings of British rule—not exactly the message that the author intended to send.
- It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis: This dystopian nightmare envisioned America under the Fascist jackboot, ruled by a corn pone despot clearly based on Huey Long. When Long was shot and killed, Churchill gloated over the demise of “the most clownish of the Dictator tribe.”
- Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell: It was a blockbuster in Britain as well as the United States, and Churchill probably knew more about the American Civil War than any Englishman of his generation. He found the novel all too relevant when, in March 1938, Hitler invaded Austria. Once again, a genteel aristocratic civilization had been crushed by its powerful Northern neighbor.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell: During the Second World War, Churchill observed with apprehension the growth of the national security state. In a 1945 election broadcast he warned that postwar Britain might be dominated by “some kind of Gestapo”. So when George Orwell imagined that in his 1949 novel, Churchill read it twice. In his final years he was spellbound by the literature of totalitarianism, including Brave New World, Doctor Zhivago, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Jonathan Rose is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History, Drew University. He lives in Morristown, NJ.