480 pages, Mariner Books, ISBN-13: 978-0618154616
The Age of Napoleon by J. Christopher Herold is part biography, part history, as it tells the story of Napoleon in the context of the times he was in: political, cultural, military, economic and social, while attempting to bring a balanced view of the man by putting him in his natural surroundings of Europe and, though on a lesser scale, the world as it was on the verge of modern era. This is perhaps the best thing about this book, as it covers not only the main events that are already known to the general public but also the affairs outside Europe or on the periphery of the main theatre. Despite all of the criticism aimed at Napoleon’s actions, then and now, Herold shows how Napoleon’s fellow heads of state no better than him, only less known (and less successful). However, if you know little or nothing about the Age of Napoleon you are in trouble, as Herold assumes you know the basic facts of the era, or that you had read the cliff notes on his life, or that you had a basic historical background in all of Napoleon’s battles and activities during this period. Following these chapters can be almost almost impossible, and at times one can become lost and be forced to re-read pages to see what one could’ve missed. Herold also shows his general ignorance of military matters and tries to cover it by neglecting the battles as much as possible. Imagine that: to write a critical biography of one of the greatest generals in the history of mankind and then neglect the field where the subject of the biography was the most successful! It’s like writing a biography of Albert Einstein while glossing over physics, or of Henry Ford and mentioning in passing the assembly line. Incredible.
The author’s sneer of superiority comes across loud and clear as you read this book, with too much space and time spent trying to prove that Napoleon, in Herold’s humble opinion, was no genius, and too little space in actually discussing Napoleon’s accomplishments. The author also has decided that philosophy is his forte, and dispenses his judgments freely, much to the detriment of the book and my opinion of the author. Herold also consistently talked down to the reader – which I thought was rich considering this was obviously not a book for beginners or meant to be an introduction to the period as the blurb on the back might lead you to think – but a book written for fellow history buffs like this guy was. He also was pretty denigrating to any theories that didn’t conform with what he thought about what happened during the period. The almost constant negativity was a turn off and took away from any possible enjoyment one may have had with other, superior aspects of the book. To his credit Herold does have very droll sense of humor, and I couldn’t help but laugh at times as he relayed some anecdote about Napoleon…and, once he started going back and explaining in a little more detail stuff he said before, it got to be pretty interesting. And, I admit, I did walk away with a basic understanding of what had occurred during that time frame. That being said, such knowledge was hard won, indeed, and I would recommend you keep looking for a book that gives a more user friendly approach to the Age of Napoleon.