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Napoleon: A Concise Biography

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This book provides a concise, accurate, and lively portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte's character and career, situating him firmly in historical context. David Bell emphasizes the astonishing sense of human possibility--for both good and ill--that Napoleon represented. By his late twenties, Napoleon was already one of the greatest generals in European history. At thirty, he had This book provides a concise, accurate, and lively portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte's character and career, situating him firmly in historical context. David Bell emphasizes the astonishing sense of human possibility--for both good and ill--that Napoleon represented. By his late twenties, Napoleon was already one of the greatest generals in European history. At thirty, he had become absolute master of Europe's most powerful country. In his early forties, he ruled a European empire more powerful than any since Rome, fighting wars that changed the shape of the continent and brought death to millions. Then everything collapsed, leading him to spend his last years in miserable exile in the South Atlantic. Bell emphasizes the importance of the French Revolution in understanding Napoleon's career. The revolution made possible the unprecedented concentration of political authority that Napoleon accrued, and his success in mobilizing human and material resources. Without the political changes brought about by the revolution, Napoleon could not have fought his wars. Without the wars, he could not have seized and held onto power. Though his virtual dictatorship betrayed the ideals of liberty and equality, his life and career were revolutionary.


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This book provides a concise, accurate, and lively portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte's character and career, situating him firmly in historical context. David Bell emphasizes the astonishing sense of human possibility--for both good and ill--that Napoleon represented. By his late twenties, Napoleon was already one of the greatest generals in European history. At thirty, he had This book provides a concise, accurate, and lively portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte's character and career, situating him firmly in historical context. David Bell emphasizes the astonishing sense of human possibility--for both good and ill--that Napoleon represented. By his late twenties, Napoleon was already one of the greatest generals in European history. At thirty, he had become absolute master of Europe's most powerful country. In his early forties, he ruled a European empire more powerful than any since Rome, fighting wars that changed the shape of the continent and brought death to millions. Then everything collapsed, leading him to spend his last years in miserable exile in the South Atlantic. Bell emphasizes the importance of the French Revolution in understanding Napoleon's career. The revolution made possible the unprecedented concentration of political authority that Napoleon accrued, and his success in mobilizing human and material resources. Without the political changes brought about by the revolution, Napoleon could not have fought his wars. Without the wars, he could not have seized and held onto power. Though his virtual dictatorship betrayed the ideals of liberty and equality, his life and career were revolutionary.

30 review for Napoleon: A Concise Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Doug

    A great, short biography of Napoleon. If you've ever been interested in reading a biography of Napoleon, but you don't want to wade through the large, sometimes multi-volume, 1000-page biographies, this is the best option. (Yes, there is actually a biography of Napoleon that is in two volumes, with each volume over 1000-pages long, the first half of which doesn't even take you to 1806.) There isn't much more to say about this book beyond that. The book is extremely well-researched, as you'd expect A great, short biography of Napoleon. If you've ever been interested in reading a biography of Napoleon, but you don't want to wade through the large, sometimes multi-volume, 1000-page biographies, this is the best option. (Yes, there is actually a biography of Napoleon that is in two volumes, with each volume over 1000-pages long, the first half of which doesn't even take you to 1806.) There isn't much more to say about this book beyond that. The book is extremely well-researched, as you'd expect from a Princeton professor. It is also very dramatic: there are a lot of well-placed quotations, and the biographer never takes a step back from the story to survey disputes among historians. Presumably, he felt that this would have taken away from the 'concise' part of the title -- and it would have made the book much worse. The author really leans into making this biography one giant story of Napoleon's life. The introduction gives the reader a sufficient amount of background on the French Revolution that I never felt like I didn't know what was going on.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lois

    This was a fast easy listen. The biographer was too in awe of Napoleon for my tastes. Also this primarily focused on military actions. That's inevitable with Napoleon but there was nothing of the personal at all This was a fast easy listen. The biographer was too in awe of Napoleon for my tastes. Also this primarily focused on military actions. That's inevitable with Napoleon but there was nothing of the personal at all

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mel Bossa

    Five things I hate about you Napoleon: - You restored slavery in the Caribbean - In your famous Napoleon Code, you declared that married women should seek out their husband's approval before they wrote a novel. - You preached democracy and revolution but as soon as you could do so, you put your brothers, sisters and stepson on various thrones across Europe and formed your own little monarchy - You probably had an incestuous crush on your brother Joseph and asked your mesmerizing and older wife to c Five things I hate about you Napoleon: - You restored slavery in the Caribbean - In your famous Napoleon Code, you declared that married women should seek out their husband's approval before they wrote a novel. - You preached democracy and revolution but as soon as you could do so, you put your brothers, sisters and stepson on various thrones across Europe and formed your own little monarchy - You probably had an incestuous crush on your brother Joseph and asked your mesmerizing and older wife to change her name from Rose to Josephine and then wrote her countless whining and pathetic letters in which you threatened to go all Othello on her - You said you weren't all that into religion but you made sure you got your inaugural religious ceremony , reacting a scene right out of Charlemagme's life Three things I sort of admire about Napoleon: - You sure knew how to make a come back after Elba. - You never abandoned your men, even when you were on your way back from burning Moscow and death was on your heels - You were no Stalin or Hitler That being said... We have you to thank for Total War and every time a new narcissist is born, they either want to be you or Alexander the Great. You were a product of your times. A perfect storm. Another emperor, conqueror, let's make Europe great again man. Side note: You and the young tortured Tsar Alexander of Russia would make a sexy friends to enemies gay romance...

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bandit

    For historical era I'm particularly interested in I don't mind reading at length on. For others, concision is optimal and so this book was a perfect way of learning a good amount about incredibly significant time in history without plodding through a seemingly boundless tome. Bell has an admirable knack for making a history exciting and he remains notably impartial, if not favorable to a degree, to his controversial subject. The sheer competence of Bell's comprendium of the time, his grasp of it For historical era I'm particularly interested in I don't mind reading at length on. For others, concision is optimal and so this book was a perfect way of learning a good amount about incredibly significant time in history without plodding through a seemingly boundless tome. Bell has an admirable knack for making a history exciting and he remains notably impartial, if not favorable to a degree, to his controversial subject. The sheer competence of Bell's comprendium of the time, his grasp of its capricious politics and ever changing loyalties makes for a fascinating and enlightening read, perfect for armchair historians and autodidacts such as myself. Excellently written, intelligent, interesting book. Recommended. Thanks Netgalley.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Phillip Taylor

    I don’t know that I’m qualified to say whether or not this is a good introduction to the life of Napoleon as I’m not familiar with most of the considerable work written on him. It certainly was concise and informative. It was a little dry, probably at the expense of keeping it short and full of content. I may have preferred something a little longer with more personality. Nevertheless, I think the author achieved his goal in writing a concise, informative, and accessible introduction to the life I don’t know that I’m qualified to say whether or not this is a good introduction to the life of Napoleon as I’m not familiar with most of the considerable work written on him. It certainly was concise and informative. It was a little dry, probably at the expense of keeping it short and full of content. I may have preferred something a little longer with more personality. Nevertheless, I think the author achieved his goal in writing a concise, informative, and accessible introduction to the life of Napoleon.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    I listened to an audio version of this, and it was well presented by Paul Heitsch. I had been looking for a concise, easy to follow history of Napoleon and the Napoleonic era. I knew of course that he was a major figure, a great general, and of course I had come across the tales of his captivity and the long shadow he cast across 19th century Europe, but I had never read a serious history of his life or understood his relationship to the French Revolution. This book fit the bill perfectly - it p I listened to an audio version of this, and it was well presented by Paul Heitsch. I had been looking for a concise, easy to follow history of Napoleon and the Napoleonic era. I knew of course that he was a major figure, a great general, and of course I had come across the tales of his captivity and the long shadow he cast across 19th century Europe, but I had never read a serious history of his life or understood his relationship to the French Revolution. This book fit the bill perfectly - it provided a concise but reasonably well-detailed account of Bonaparte's life, while staying close to the central pathways of historical thinking. Napoleon was a ******. The basis of his great power was his successes on the battlefield, and his greatness as a general cannot be questioned. He used this, cleverly mixed with some leftist ideas that provided benefits to common people, to gain political power. Unfortunately for all concerned, his lust for power was insatiable and he quickly ran afoul of the aristocracy and other political leaders of Europe. Originally a man of the people, he had himself declared emperor and began putting his relatives on thrones all around the continent. Under his leadership, France was almost constantly at war (with Austria, Prussia, Germany, and Britain) for 15 years, until his arrogant, catastrophic invasion of Russia set up his final defeat. Bell describes with detail the horrible suffering of the soldiers whose lot it was to fight for and against Napoleon. Despite all this, he was a complex figure who did do some good. Some of the innovations that occurred under his leadership - certain rights and bureaucratic arrangements - are still in use today. He originally supported many of the idealistic aims of the French Revolution and tried to export them to other nations. Ultimately I did not develop a great admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte - he was a gifted megalomaniac who belongs on the scrap heap of history, and he is not much admired in France today, as Bell points out.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth

    Bored at work in an empty library well-barricaded from the deadly Covid-carrying masses one day, I scoured the shelves for something different to read. Nothing quite took my fancy, and every book I’d brought with me in preparation of the hours of paid tumbleweed just didn’t grab my attention. I was at a low ebb and considering raiding the dormant children’s activity room to challenge my colleagues to a game of Junior Monopoly, followed by Twister and Kerplunk, when I came across this very book. Bored at work in an empty library well-barricaded from the deadly Covid-carrying masses one day, I scoured the shelves for something different to read. Nothing quite took my fancy, and every book I’d brought with me in preparation of the hours of paid tumbleweed just didn’t grab my attention. I was at a low ebb and considering raiding the dormant children’s activity room to challenge my colleagues to a game of Junior Monopoly, followed by Twister and Kerplunk, when I came across this very book. “No”, thought I, “I am not a top hat, nor a right-hand-green, left-foot-blue-type soul. No, not today! Today, I am a librarian in a perfectly peaceful library full of books. Clearly, if there’s ever a time, ever an opportunity, it should be now that I should be reading.” So I sat myself down with this book, and I think it saved the day. I’ve never read anything specifically about Napoleon before, but I’ve often wanted to know more than the meagre story I’ve stitched together in my mind from various histories, stories and pop culture references. This is the perfect book for such an introduction. Slim, compulsively readable and peppered with pictures and maps, it contains just enough to give you the basic story and vital events of his dramatic life, without getting bogged down in a cold Russian winter of detail. Recommended for all Napoleon virgins, Risk players, and psychopathic Austrian dictators interested in invading Russia near wintertime, everywhere.

  8. 4 out of 5

    James Rye

    Concise and Insightful This book really delivered for me for three reasons. First, as the title suggests, it was concise. I wanted something that covered the ground with sufficient detail to be interesting, but without getting crushed by thousands of words. This book did that very successfully. Second, the book did far more than tell a story. It set major events in historical context and helped explain the story. For example, the author explains why both Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power and his po Concise and Insightful This book really delivered for me for three reasons. First, as the title suggests, it was concise. I wanted something that covered the ground with sufficient detail to be interesting, but without getting crushed by thousands of words. This book did that very successfully. Second, the book did far more than tell a story. It set major events in historical context and helped explain the story. For example, the author explains why both Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power and his popularity after the escape from Elba were possible, despite opposing reasons and circumstances. Third, it is well-written. The author is a scholar who can communicate his learning to a general audience. I can thoroughly recommend the book. I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot from it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Eoin Conroy

    I’ve been on a Napoleon buzz lately and I have a shelf full of books about him to get through, and I thought I should start reviewing them just as a way to really think about them. I’m still a novice in this area of history, but David Bell has managed to make a short and concise overview which doesn’t feel like an endless list of names and dates and lays the ground well for where the reader can go from here. My only criticism is that he’s a bit keen on pushing the idea of the Napoleonic Wars as I’ve been on a Napoleon buzz lately and I have a shelf full of books about him to get through, and I thought I should start reviewing them just as a way to really think about them. I’m still a novice in this area of history, but David Bell has managed to make a short and concise overview which doesn’t feel like an endless list of names and dates and lays the ground well for where the reader can go from here. My only criticism is that he’s a bit keen on pushing the idea of the Napoleonic Wars as the first ‘total war’(as opposed to WW1 as conventional wisdom has it). Bell wrote a book on the topic so it’s understandable that he sees this as a key insight to Napoleonic warfare but it does just feel like his pushing his pet theory onto what is otherwise an effective introduction to the topic.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ultan

    Fantastic book, it really captures the pomp and grandeur of a general who arose from a relatively small island off the cost of Italy to become emperor of France. Regardless of your opinion on Napoleon nobody can ever say his life was dull, it is in fact an amazing read which kept me captivated for hours. The book tells of Napoleon's early days on Corsica, his admission to a military school in France, and his rise to become a top military official and then emperor of France. I highly recommend th Fantastic book, it really captures the pomp and grandeur of a general who arose from a relatively small island off the cost of Italy to become emperor of France. Regardless of your opinion on Napoleon nobody can ever say his life was dull, it is in fact an amazing read which kept me captivated for hours. The book tells of Napoleon's early days on Corsica, his admission to a military school in France, and his rise to become a top military official and then emperor of France. I highly recommend this book for anyone eager to know about Napoleon's life and background. I also enjoyed the epilogue in this book as it explores Napoleon's influence on the present day, in short this book is a must read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ian Casey

    Every man and his dog has written a Napoleon biography, but most of them are the size of phone directories, or indeed a set thereof (see Roberts, Zamoyski, Schom, Gueniffey, Englund, Broers, Dwyer etc). David A. Bell ably fills the need for an up to date yet shorter work which can serve as either introduction or refresher, without talking down to its audience or pitching it to children. As such, all but the most devoted Napoleon buffs will find it of value. And even they might benefit from such Every man and his dog has written a Napoleon biography, but most of them are the size of phone directories, or indeed a set thereof (see Roberts, Zamoyski, Schom, Gueniffey, Englund, Broers, Dwyer etc). David A. Bell ably fills the need for an up to date yet shorter work which can serve as either introduction or refresher, without talking down to its audience or pitching it to children. As such, all but the most devoted Napoleon buffs will find it of value. And even they might benefit from such a high-level view of the forest after examining the bark on every tree.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Helfren Filex

    Napoleon Bonaparte is an amazing revolutionary fighter. He is a crazy dude that just force himself to gunpoint of soldiers asking them to call him their emperor and the shocking thing is, they did and join his army. Napoleon is a very interesting individual from France that lead the French revolution against the government. There is partisan opinion on Napoleon but his rise to power sure is the start of the nation named France.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Phillip

    Yay I really liked this biography for one important reason. David is able to lay out the facts of what Napoleon did and is willing to let you decide if what he did was right or wrong. He doesn't paint him as a hero in shining armor, but he doesn't make him out to be the devil incarnate. Just the facts which is exactly what I wanted. Yay I really liked this biography for one important reason. David is able to lay out the facts of what Napoleon did and is willing to let you decide if what he did was right or wrong. He doesn't paint him as a hero in shining armor, but he doesn't make him out to be the devil incarnate. Just the facts which is exactly what I wanted.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Seamus

    Wonderful in that it's concise but gives you lots of interesting details on Napoleons life. He points out that there are many judgements that can be made, but that history is not a judicial process, but one of observing, and in this respect he gives an interesting peephole into history Wonderful in that it's concise but gives you lots of interesting details on Napoleons life. He points out that there are many judgements that can be made, but that history is not a judicial process, but one of observing, and in this respect he gives an interesting peephole into history

  15. 5 out of 5

    Heiss

    Interesting introduction. I largely knew most of the facts. But for a 1st book, it was relatively high academic. And I learned some new things in the cultural sphere like Victor Hugo's series of poems on N's downfall. Interesting introduction. I largely knew most of the facts. But for a 1st book, it was relatively high academic. And I learned some new things in the cultural sphere like Victor Hugo's series of poems on N's downfall.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Drew Brown

    I don't recall having a strong emphasis on Napoleon in my studies - and I was even a history education major. The author here towards the end explains a little why that might have been. A nice little overview of the man. I don't recall having a strong emphasis on Napoleon in my studies - and I was even a history education major. The author here towards the end explains a little why that might have been. A nice little overview of the man.

  17. 4 out of 5

    James Shaskan

    Pretty much what the title says. Might be good if you know absolutely nothing about Napoleon, but I learned little new from this book. What we need is a book in between this one and those 2000-page biographies.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Edith

    Excellent short biography of the emperor. Well written and lively, just over one hundred pages. Well worth reading.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Maureen

    Short and sweet

  20. 5 out of 5

    Greg Dill

    A bit longer than I had envisioned. Nevertheless, a pretty concise biography of Napoleon's life and his military exploits. A bit longer than I had envisioned. Nevertheless, a pretty concise biography of Napoleon's life and his military exploits.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alvaro Sánchez

    This book is very good as for beginners as for connoisseurs of the French history. Is a small biography, but it is very complete.

  22. 5 out of 5

    vittore paleni

    Great for what it tries to accomplish: brevity.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sierra

    A truly high-quality biographical work.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Nick Ziegler

    This book is excellent at being what it claims to be, which is all we can ask that things be. A survey, let alone an avowedly brief one, is not the sort of work designed to make earthquakes. Yet this deserves five stars for being an excellent model of how history can be presented briefly and comprehensible to a non-specialist public, without sacrificing discussion of historiographical issues or concealing the author's argument in dry textbook-style "objectivity" (read: plodding narrative recount This book is excellent at being what it claims to be, which is all we can ask that things be. A survey, let alone an avowedly brief one, is not the sort of work designed to make earthquakes. Yet this deserves five stars for being an excellent model of how history can be presented briefly and comprehensible to a non-specialist public, without sacrificing discussion of historiographical issues or concealing the author's argument in dry textbook-style "objectivity" (read: plodding narrative recounting of one damn thing after another). This book should be a staple on undergraduate syllabi for a long time.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bernard

    I always want to learn more about Napoleon but was daunted by the thick volume of biographies. This is the book I am looking for which provide a clear outline of Napoleon's life. The book brings out a key message, that Napoleon is not only a self made man, but also a man aided by the tide of history. The revolution, the changing style of warfare and the conquest of corsica by French which led to his eventual admission to French cycle were all coincidence in history that made him the great man of I always want to learn more about Napoleon but was daunted by the thick volume of biographies. This is the book I am looking for which provide a clear outline of Napoleon's life. The book brings out a key message, that Napoleon is not only a self made man, but also a man aided by the tide of history. The revolution, the changing style of warfare and the conquest of corsica by French which led to his eventual admission to French cycle were all coincidence in history that made him the great man of France. This is what makes history interesting, where many seemingly unrelated events tide together and give a coherent narrative.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Critterbee❇

    The title says it all - this is the ultimate concise biography of Napoleon. It is also well-worth reading. When countless in-depth biographies have already been written about a quite extraordinary, larger than life historical figure, the choice of where to start reading is daunting. I would recommend this for people interested in Napoleon, and who wish to learn about all aspects of his life rather than concentrating on one area. This is a excellent overview of Napoleon, and would be interesting f The title says it all - this is the ultimate concise biography of Napoleon. It is also well-worth reading. When countless in-depth biographies have already been written about a quite extraordinary, larger than life historical figure, the choice of where to start reading is daunting. I would recommend this for people interested in Napoleon, and who wish to learn about all aspects of his life rather than concentrating on one area. This is a excellent overview of Napoleon, and would be interesting for everyone high school aged and above. **eARC netgalley**

  27. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    The book is what it says it is: a concise book about a sweeping figure. It nicely balances the tensions between Napoleon's rise to power in the revolutionary era with his increasingly dictatorial ways, his cultural legacy with his movement of warfare towards total war. At times the book seems too concise, but the alternative would be a book that gets bogged down in the truly epic nature of Napoleon's life. Definitely a good starting point for someone like me, relatively new to the history of thi The book is what it says it is: a concise book about a sweeping figure. It nicely balances the tensions between Napoleon's rise to power in the revolutionary era with his increasingly dictatorial ways, his cultural legacy with his movement of warfare towards total war. At times the book seems too concise, but the alternative would be a book that gets bogged down in the truly epic nature of Napoleon's life. Definitely a good starting point for someone like me, relatively new to the history of this man and his times...

  28. 5 out of 5

    Daisey

    I found this book to be just what I expected from the description. It provides an overview of Napoleon's life without spending a great amount of time on any particular portion. Compared to other options for reading about Napoleon, it is incredibly concise while still providing clear explanation of the major events throughout his life. *I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley for an honest review. I found this book to be just what I expected from the description. It provides an overview of Napoleon's life without spending a great amount of time on any particular portion. Compared to other options for reading about Napoleon, it is incredibly concise while still providing clear explanation of the major events throughout his life. *I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley for an honest review.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    A valuable biography that won't overwhelm the reader. Gives a clear picture of the context in which Napoleon rose to power and eventually fell. A valuable biography that won't overwhelm the reader. Gives a clear picture of the context in which Napoleon rose to power and eventually fell.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Joshua DiBattista

    This book was ok because there really wasn't that much i didn't know because i'm like a genius. This book was ok because there really wasn't that much i didn't know because i'm like a genius.

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