One of the biggest nonfiction books of 2020 is Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. At the time of this writing, the book sits at #5 on the Amazon Charts Most Read Nonfiction list. It has spent 20 weeks on Charts.
Larson is no stranger to best seller lists. His books Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History and The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America put him on the map twenty years ago. But his latest, in which he paints an intimate, inspiring portrait of Winston Churchill leading his country to an unlikely victory against a powerful, frightening foe, has captured readers attention like few other books of nonfiction this year.
With that in mind, here are some offerings for readers who have finished The Splendid and the Vile and are wondering, What should I read next?
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
If you have finished The Spendid and the Vile but you aren't yet ready to give up reading Erik Larson, Dead Wake will transport you from World War II back to World War I when—you guessed it—the Germans and the British were facing off against one another. Much as he does in The Splendid and the Vile, Larson focuses on the leaders of the time, including Woodrow Wilson, as well as the British captain of the doomed Lusitania and the German captain of a U-boat.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume I: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 by William Manchester
If it's Churchill—and not Larson—that you crave more of, William Manchester's first installment to his massive work on Churchill might fit the bill. Volume 1 takes Churchill into his thirties, where he has a mixed record in public service. Still, he has become aware of the growing threat that Germany represents. Volume 2 shows Churchill as a fighter, rising above enemies, creditors, and naysayers to press onward as the threat of Germany becomes a reality. Volume 3 picks up just after he has become Prime Minister, when he must confront the Nazi threat.
Not ready to tackle William Manchester's magnum opus? Candice Millard's focus on a young Churchill might do the trick. It should come as no surprise that Winston Churchill was an ambitious, young go-getter long before he became Sir Winston Churchill—but you might be surprised by how interesting his young life was. The young Winston played a part in four wars on three different continents, the last of which was the Boer War. His experience as a prisoner in that war is the jumping off point of this book, and author Millard puts her narrative gifts to work early as she describes his harrowing escape and his subsequent efforts to make a name for himself.
Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts
Although Andrew Roberts' most recent book was a celebrated biography of Churchill, I'm going to highlight his book on Napoleon. (If it's more Churchill you crave, be sure to check out Churchill: Walking with Destiny.) But let's say you would like to read about another titan of history. Napoleon: A Life is one of the best single-volume biographies of a major historical figure that I have read. Roberts can coax out the multiple facets of a historical figure, but he never takes that figure out of his time or his historical place. This is a great read.
While Churchill was criss-crossing continents in the early part of the 20th century, T.E. Lawrence and a handful of other young, low-ranking actors were exerting oversized influence in Arabia. Scott Anderson focuses on four men: a minor German diplomat and spy, an American oilman descended from the Yale family, a Romanian-born agronomist, and T.E. Lawrence. As we witness the Western nations engaging in World War I and attempting to carve up a region they were never able to master, these adventurous and often duplicitous men come to full life—none more so than Lawrence. There is no filler here: this is the kind of detail that makes the narrative pop, makes it live and breathe, and will keep you reading long into the night.
Virginia Hall was an American spy who worked undercover in France during World War II for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). She was raised to be a debutante, but Hall was more comfortable studying languages—she eventually moved abroad where she worked for the State Department. Sonia Purnell brings Hall's exploits to entertaining, fast-paced, three dimensional life. Virginia Hall was recruited by the recently formed SOE to serve as a spy in occupied France. She posed as a newspaper reporter, enlisting civilians for the French Resistance and establishing an underground network of allies, becoming one of the most important spies during World War II. Churchill is synonymous with the Second World War; but the victory was achieved by unsung heroes like Virginia Hall.
It you are reading this post, you have presumably already read The Splendid and the Vile. If not, Larson's latest book cements his position as one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time. We are living in a moment in history that demands leadership, and that is what this book delivers: an intimate, inspiring portrait of Winston Churchill leading his country to an unlikely victory against a powerful, frightening foe.
Finished one of the biggest nonfiction books of 2020 and don't know what to read next? Here are some suggestions.