Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure by Andreas Kluth, Riverhead Books, 336 Pages, $26.95, Hardcover, January 2012, ISBN 9781594488122
The key thing to know about this book is apparent in the title: Hannibal and Me (emphasis mine). Andreas Kluth, a writer for The Economist, presents the biography of the great Roman military leader, Hannibal, then weaves in a parallel line of stories about other types of heroes, artists, writers, inventors and revolutionists, all the while developing insight about human behavior.
But the main vein in the book remains the remarkable story of Hannibal, and as we follow his life, the author discusses modern questions such as:
Do you need to have a goal in life as clear as Hannibal’s in order to achieve success? Hannibal, though young, knew (or thought he knew) exactly what success was: he defined it as the conquest of Rome. Everything else followed from that. … He had complete focus.
As he does throughout the book, he pulls it back to you:
Later in life, you may have to reappraise your dream and adjust it in a more mature and complex life context, perhaps even drop it all together if it no longer works. But at the beginning of the journey, it helps to start with something.
A well-written book about an interesting historical figure or event can give us hours of enjoyment. We marvel at the courage displayed or how a seemingly small event could have changed our world. Kluth explains that his book “is about those moments of impact, when triumph or disaster strikes, and about the aftermath, when the shock fades and lives change forever and character reveals itself.” And he does a fine job turning this adventure book into a personal development guide of sorts.
Take Kluth’s Chapter Two: on “The Influence of Parents.” He begins by recounting Hannibal’s childhood and his relationship with his father, Hamilcar, and the war for Carthage’s future. Added into this story, Kluth includes research on the psychology of adolescence.
To understand your life, you have to begin with your parents—just as you need to know about Hamilcar to understand why Hannibal made the decisions that led to his successes and failures.
Then, Barack Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amy Tan all arrive into the chapter, and Kluth tells a bit of his own story, as well. This is the general structure of each of the chapters, with the goal of showing readers a way toward improving oneself by learning from others.
As Dan Pink said of the book, it is “full of lessons both profound and practical.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. But, what makes or breaks a book like this, with its uncommon structure and sometimes lofty subject matter, is the storytelling, and this book is one of the best in that regard that I have read in a long time.