Recently, the National Endowment of the Arts released a study that said around half of all Americans never read "literature", defined as "novels, poems, and plays". According to the NEA, someone who read William Manchester's 850 page biography of General Douglas MacArthur would not qualify as having read real literature.
Novels should be as exciting as this book. General MacArthur is an important, intricate history in American, and world, history. He served in the army for more than fifty years, fighting in at least four wars. He served as the superintendent of West Point, Army Chief of Staff and as the military governor of occupied Japan. He was a strong figure in conservative politics, and eventually provoked America's largest confrontation between civil and military authority, when Harry Truman relieved him from command.
All of this is a matter of historical record, but William Manchester writes a book that does justice to such a complicated, historical man. The book contains military history, but does not confine itself to wars and battles. Manchester covers different eras and geography of MacArthur and his family, from the Civil War, to the Old West, to the Phillipines, to the carnage of World War I, the roaring 20s, and on to the World War II and Korean battlefields where MacArthur would gain his most fame. Throughout the book, the level of factual knowledge, insight and prose that Manchester uses to describe both MacArthur and his environment remains rivetting.
While not totally blind to MacArthur's flaws (and MacArthur was vain and sometimes spiteful) Manchester is usually very insightful in his treatment of MacArthur, explaining the Victorian code of conduct and the first rate mind that made MacArthur both brilliant and infuriating. One of my favorite stories that Manchester tells about MacArthur is the general reading Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment during his Southwest Pacific campaign, trying to get inside his enemy's head. Rather than being a simple minded, war obsessed braggart, Manchester talks about the MacArthur that tried to liberalize both the teaching system at West Point and the political and social systems of Japan. In the end, Manchester portrays General MacArthur's feelings towards war and conquest as still ambivalent.
As a book on history, this book is valuable. But as a biography, and for the style of its prose, it is engrossing. I read the first paragraph and decided to read the entire thing, and did so in ten days.