I’m sure there’s some point to this book but I can’t find it. Margaret MacMillan has produced a collage of history-making personalities that doesn’t make an argument for itself. Its potted bios are categorised by qualities of character such as ‘hubris’, ‘curiosity’ or ‘daring’. The labels are arbitrary: all three apply to Winston Churchill but he only appears under the heading ‘daring’. The message is unclear. Are we supposed to beware leaders with too much daring or aspire to it ourselves? At times, MacMillan comes dangerously close to business book prose: ‘How to succeed on the stock market – the Joseph Stalin way!’ One can easily imagine finding this book in an airport lounge, endorsed by Donald Trump.
The style is excellent and the sweep of the text is ambitious. MacMillan is a venerable historian who produced a superb and precisely researched account of Nixon’s trip to China. This makes the book’s vagueness all the more puzzling. At times it feels like a retread of things MacMillan is