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Book 16

  1. Stone, Irving — The Agony and the Ecstasy (439 of 763 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — The Mozart Question (68 pages)
  3. Unsworth, Barry — Stone Virgin (312 pages)
  4. Phillips, Caryl — The Nature of Blood (212 pages)
  5. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (549 pages)
  6. Lockwood, Richard & Steve Potz-Rayner — A Little Book of Lies (170 pages)
  7. Vickers, Hugh — Great Operatic Disasters (65 pages)
  8. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (574 pages)
  9. Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Classic Novels (164 pages)
  10. Augustine of Hippo (John K. Ryan, translator) — The Confessions of Saint Augustine (422 pages)
  11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
  12. Harrison, Fraser — Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota (188 pages)
  13. Banks, Iain M. — Consider Phlebas (466 pages)
  14. Banks, Iain M. — The Player of Games (307 pages)
  15. Carter, W. Hodding — Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization (239 pages)
  16. Mandela, Nelson — Long Walk to Freedom (750 pages)
Page count
5071
book cover: Long Walk to Freedom.

I'm sure most of us are aware today is Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday. I did not intend my review of his autobiography to coincide with his birthday. No, my motivation for reading Long Walk to Freedom was far darker. The day the news broke that Mandela's condition was deteriorating and he was in critical condition in hospital was the day I began reading. I was convinced that when I sat down to write this review, I would be eulogizing Mandela, not celebrating a joyous occasion.

I didn't know much about Mandela. To me, he was just "a very important person" in the fight against apartheid — or so I was told. I remember as a kid suddenly hearing people talk about freeing Mandela. I didn't know who he was or what he had done, just that a lot of people wanted him freed. And then as I became older, I began to learn that South Africa had this system called apartheid that was kind of like the American South in the '60s. This was my entire understanding of what was going on. Then Mandela was freed, and a few years later he became the first black president of South Africa, and I thought, cool, the Soviet Union has disintegrated, the Berlin Wall has come down, and blacks and whites in South Africa now get along.

Okay, maybe I wasn't quite that naïve, but not far from it. As far as American schools are concerned, Africa might as well not exist for all we are taught about it. The whole sum of my formal education on Africa was: (1) there were Egyptians who built pyramids, and (2) then this fellow named Chinua Achebe and this other fellow named Joseph Conrad wrote really important books about white civilization coming in contact with native Africans. Everything else I learned about Africa and Africans came from current events related in the evening news and Hollywood depictions in the movies. (And yes, Die Hard was one of my sources.)

So all I really knew about Nelson Mandela was that he was this really important person (who was married to Winnie Mandela, who as a kid I assumed was the actual really important person, and everyone felt bad because her husband just happened to be in jail, and everyone wanted him freed because Winnie was such a hero she should be happy) who had something to do with fighting apartheid, and then when he gained his freedom he won a Nobel Peace Prize and helped effect change in South Africa and became president and preached reconciliation and became a fan of Matt Damon's rugby team.

I don't like being this ignorant.

But 750-page books are very daunting. So Long Walk to Freedom languished on my shelves. Regularly, I would see Mandela's face smiling at me from the book's spine, inviting me to let him tell me his story. And I would be tempted. But then I would notice how wide that spine looked, and I would move on.

Mandela's illness was the catalyst. I realized this hero, this icon, this great man is likely to die any moment, and I don't know, not really, why he is a hero, an icon, a great man. And I realized I wanted to have this conversation with him now, before it was too late, as if somehow he wouldn't be able to tell me the story he'd written down if he weren't still with us.

I began reading that evening. The book's length still scared me, so I planned to read in chunks: finish a section, read something else for a bit, come back and read another section, and so on.

But I couldn't put the book down. Long Walk to Freedom is engrossing, compelling, a page-turner. I read at every opportunity, devouring Mandela's words. I couldn't get enough.

Madiba begins by recounting his early childhood, growing up in the Xhosa tradition in Qunu and then Mquekezweni. He talks about his schooling, his gradual awakening to political ideas and realities, his difficulties and successes as a young lawyer in Johannesburg. He speaks candidly about his relationships with Evelyn and Winnie and how his involvement with the ANC and later Umkhonto we Sizwe (which he founded) put such a strain on family life. He tells us about all the important people who shaped him and influenced him and sacrificed with him, people such as Chief Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Ahmed Kathrada, Bram Fischer, and many others. And of course, he goes into great detail regarding the treason trial and the Rivonia trials and his experiences in prison, from Pretoria to Robben Island to Victor Verster. Finally, he sprints to the finish line as he describes the progress towards, and resistance to (not just from ultra-conservative whites but also from the KwaZulu (in the form of Inkatha) and other groups clinging to traditional tribal distinctions), a single state, non-racial government. Mandela concludes his biography with his inauguration and the reminder that although his walk to freedom has been long, he dare not linger, for he can see that there are still even taller hills to climb.

One of the most remarkable things about this remarkable story is Mandela's ability to see the humour and humanity in even the bleakest of situations. I was surprised by the number of times I laughed out loud. I expected more bitterness, resentment — did I not learn, watching news and movies about Mandela the reconciliator post-apartheid? — but instead I was smiling and laughing with Madiba as he recalled that incompetent prosecutor or that certain warden. But this was not a light book, either: It packs an emotional wallop, and at times I felt that lump in my throat creeping up and struggled to keep that swelling in my chest from bursting.

Long Walk to Freedom is a celebration, a celebration of the triumph of justice over one of the greatest injustices in recent history, of the vindication of a people's struggle against evil. So it is appropriate, and I am pleased, that I am able to write about it on this great man's 95th birthday, and that today we can celebrate his life and not yet mourn his passing. And I am pleased that I understand a little bit better why he is a great man, and why he means so much to people not just in Africa but around the world.

I often end my book reviews with comparisons to any movies based on the books. No movies have been released based on Long Walk to Freedom, and as I read this book I kept wondering what the movie industry is waiting for. Then on Saturday, the evening before I finished reading, I was thrilled to find out that a movie has been made and will be released in January. I know I will be in the cinema to watch it, and I just know I'll be crying like a baby, but I will set aside my embarrassment because, based on what I've heard so far about this movie and what I now know about Mandela's story, there is no way I'm going to miss this one!

For those of you who haven't seen it yet, here is the trailer that was released this past Friday for the Long Walk to Freedom movie:

Those words are right out of the closing pages of Mandela's autobiography.

So, to Madiba, thank you, and happy birthday! And to the rest of you, go out and read this book!

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