Paul Johnson, 1928 – 2023

The journalist and 'amateur' historian was a 'true giant', writes Tom Woods

Only a couple of weeks ago I finished reading Paul Johnson‘s monumental book “Modern Times“, on the history of post-WW1 20th century. A true eye-opener. Tom Woods recommended it to his readers about two years ago. Gary North does the same at the end of his last book, “Biblical Historiography”. Johnson died yesterday.

Writes Tom Woods:

What an odd and most unfortunate coincidence.

Just yesterday I wrote to you about the academic snobs who look down on amateur historians who dare to write works of history without being “trained.”

And trust me, as someone who would know: the difference in “training” between a university-educated historian and you is precisely zero. You are capable of reading, and being discriminating with sources, just as much as any of them are, and there are no secret “techniques” they teach us that separate us from you.

But on to the coincidence: today we lost a great historian, Paul Johnson, whose books taught me so much, and who, while not always right, understood the central drama of the age.

Johnson, who was 94, would be considered an “amateur” historian.

But unlike so many of our official historians, Johnson challenged sacred cows, was enormously prolific, and wrote in a way that kept you engaged rather than putting you to sleep.

In the 1970s Johnson had an ideological conversion away from the left, and he stayed converted for the rest of his life.

My favorite of his many published works is Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties (since expanded into a larger edition that includes the nineties, but in that section you have to endure Johnson’s disappointing and misplaced foreign-policy views).

I’ve told the story before, but I found out about this book as a college freshman, when a fellow student, sensing a kindred spirit, urged me to read it. I would discover, he said, that the historians’ heroes were generally creeps. I was not disappointed.

Another great one, and a book hated by all the right people, is Intellectuals. There Johnson examined some of the key thinkers of our time, who had a habit of devising, from their armchairs, grandiose plans for the human race that could be implemented only by violence. (Not to mention, most of these people turn out to have been scumbags in their personal lives, as Johnson amply documents.)

Johnson was also an artist and art aficionado, and his Art: A New History is a massive volume filled with the kind of surprising and controversial judgments we find in the rest of his works.

Any of these three books will fascinate you. They’re brimming with anecdotes and quotations you’ve never heard, idiosyncratic tangents you’ll consistently enjoy, and fearless dissent from the standard narrative.

Paul Johnson, requiescat in pace.