Napoleon book cover

The Blurb on the Jacket:

Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.


Before encountering this book, I had not read any other biography of Napoleon. I had exposed myself to plenty of modern European history, and I felt like I know the “gist” of Napoleon’s life, but I hadn’t ever delved deeply into the man himself. When I approached this massive tome, I worried that my less-that-rigorous foreknowledge might render Napoleon, if not inaccessible, at least a chore.

This was not the case.

Rarely have I ever had the pleasure of reading a portrait of an important man or woman that was simultaneously as immersive and as insightful as Roberts’ Napoleon. Biographers who struggle to find a balance between giving their subjects personality and keeping their writing educationally valuable should take note. It often seems that this balance is a zero-sum game. Any account vastly endowed with one put pay for its endowment with the other. Roberts cheats this system by letting his primary sources stand front-and-center. Napoleon (the man, not the book) had enough moxie and humor of his own to buoy the tone of this book from dust jacket to dust jacket.

That sounds like I’m giving the credit to Monsieur Bonaparte rather than the author, doesn’t it? This is not my intention. All of the credit belongs to Mr. Roberts for pulling off this feat. Napoleon’s original words could not have filled this book. If they could, he wouldn’t have had time to govern. The majority of the mass of this massive pack of pulp owes its existence to Roberts’ careful work of contextualization. The author takes extraordinary care to include the reader in a conversation about the external factors weighing in on the scenarios he describes.

My most common frustration when reading a biography is it is not entirely clear why some important action X was taken rather than Y. Usually, a simple explanation would do. No such frustration could find a stable home in my consciousness while I read this book. Simple explanations regularly precede the description of the actions taken here, and these descriptions are regularly followed by exhaustive investigations into the minutia revolving the decisions made. It is not boring at all. It sucks you in. It makes you feel like you can appreciate the situations as acutely as the people involved. If you read biographies because you want to better understand people and the times you choose to read about, then this sense that you might as well have been there should be exactly what you’re searching for. If not, then stop searching for whatever you’re searching for, and pick up this book. If I didn’t make that clear enough, let me make this very clear.

If you think that it is within the realm of possibility that the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte could appeal to you as subject matter, then you need to get a copy of Andrew Robert’s book into your possession, and swallow it like a python swallows an alligator. Unhinge your brain’s jaw and shove this hunk of gold down its distended gullet before you consider taking care of less important matters… like hygiene… and nutrition.