Fire is dim overall but burns brightly in spots Dec 12, 2009
All things considered, "A World Lit Only by Fire" is not William Manchester's best book. Not by a long shot.
Those who claim there's nothing new here are right. On the other hand, much of what Manchester tells here is still not well-known to the religious laity nor even to the proverbial "man on the street". My own guess is that at least 95 percent of the world's Lutherans are totally ignorant of the fact that Martin Luther was as crazy as a crap-house mouse. And if Catholics are more worldly (They seem so to me.), that's not because the Roman church makes a practice of airing its spotted shorts in Vatican Square on Easter Sunday.
Those who claim Manchester shows prejudice in this book are right. But that in itself is nothing new. I cannot speak of his earlier work -- "The Arms of Krupp," the Churchill trilogy, etc. -- because I have not read it. But those like me who've read Manchester's war memoir, "Goodbye, Darkness," have seen that side of him before.
My experience is that Manchester's prejudices are shared among the rest of those whom Tom Brokaw was pleased to call "The Greatest Generation." But Brokaw's career in journalism displays both a narrow perception and an almost total lack of insight. So it should come as no surprise that a hard look at the World War II generation reveals that they were just ordinary people. Like all other twentieth-century Americans, they were a generation systematically lied to as children and young adults. Hence they went to war with set of beliefs that the reality of war utterly destroyed.
Summing up, I think of the World War II generation more realistically than foolish Mr. Brokaw: They were not the greatest. Instead they were the generation that dismantled Fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan -- and then brought it home for the rest of us to enjoy. . . .
But that's another story, isn't it?
So "A World Lit Only by Fire" is not great history by anybody's standards. Even so, I came away from the experience knowing much more about Martin Luther than I'd ever known before. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter on Magellan, and I'm grateful to Manchester for those two gifts -- which only cost me $22.95 (or thereabouts).
My reading also taught me that Manchester was a fine writer. If I ever exhaust my list of things to read before I die, I'll pick up "The Arms of Krupp" and the Churchill trilogy and some of that other stuff and read every word before I throw it on the fire. I expect the smoke from such a blaze will flavor my tea nicely.