Gretchen Rubin

Notes from Recording the Audio-book of “Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill.”

Notes from Recording the Audio-book of “Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill.”

My short, unconventional biography of Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life, hit the shelves back in 2003. That's so long ago—it doesn't seem that long ago.

It was a joy to write that book. What a figure, what an age!

Here's a description:

Warrior and writer, genius and crank, rider in the British cavalry’s last charge and inventor of the tank, Winston Churchill is a towering figure of the last century. With penetrating insight, Rubin reveals the complexity of Churchill’s story with forty contrasting views of the man. In this short volume, Rubin captures Churchill’s virtues and flaws, his humor and his pomposity, his inspired words and his oddball notions.

Like no other portrait, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill is a dazzling display of details more improbable than fiction—and an investigation of the contradictions and complexities that haunt biography.

At that time of publication, audio-books weren't as popular as they are now, and my publisher wasn't interested in recording the audio version. So I've recently recorded it, at long last. You can purchase it on Audible and Apple Books.

It was interesting to return to a book that I wrote so long ago. There were parts I remembered vividly and parts I'd forgotten.

As always, when I record an audio-book, I learned that I've been mispronouncing many words my whole life: financier, privateer, Fusiliers, Hussars, subaltern, prophesied, treacly, camaraderie, homogeneous, Exchequer.

Also, there were many people's names and place names that I didn't know how to say properly, such as Cannadine, Omdurman, Clough, Malakand, Oran, Madeira, Ismay, Stettin.

I had to read words and phrases in French and German, and I apologize in advance to anyone who speaks those languages: my pronunciation is going to hurt your ears.

Worst was discovering that I was mispronouncing the name "Lytton Strachey." I love the work of Lytton Strachey and have been mentioning his name for years. Whoops.

At several points during the recording, I was so overcome with emotion that we had to pause recording until I could collect myself.

For instance, I choked up as I read Churchill's observation, "They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration." (If you want to hear me tell that story in an episode of A Little Happier, it's here.)

When I read Churchill's eulogy to Neville Chamberlain, I could hardly get through it. (You can read the text here.) "The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions...."

And it took me such a long time to read the final few paragraphs of my conclusion; I had to stop so many times. I get tears in my eyes, just thinking about those words.

This is very appropriate to my subject; Churchill himself cried openly and often.

Before we even started recording, I warned my director May that I was probably going to cry, and she told me that it's very common for people to weep when they're reading. Churchill would approve: in an unpublished essay "The Scaffolding of Rhetoric," he wrote: "Before [a speaker] can inspire [an audience] with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself….Before he can move their tears his own must flow."

Here are a few pictures from the recording:

The pillow is to muffle "stomach sounds"—it's nice to know that I'm not the only person who has this issue while recording.

I put the white tissue on the corner of the page holder to remind myself to slow down. This is a constant issue when I record. I speed up, I speed up, I slow down.

There's a pitcher of water (top photo) because I need to drink constantly to keep my mouth and throat from drying out. One day, I drank two entire pitchers.

The book of aphorisms is what I read on the subway to and from the recording studio at Penguin Random House. I love aphorisms. Also very appropriate for the subject; Churchill was very aphoristic.

I feel lucky that I got a chance, so many years later, to revisit this biography. Even if I'd re-read it, I don't think I would have re-experienced it as intimately as I did as I was reading it out loud. I had to read each and every word aloud, and so many memories flooded back.

Winston Churchill! One of my spiritual masters.

  • If you'd like to read an interview I gave about the book, it's here.
  • If you'd like a list of further reading about Churchill, it's here.
  • You can buy the audio-book here and here.
  • You can buy the print edition here.
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