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I contrived to break my bedtime reading glasses the other night and had to set aside a now hard-to-read fine-print edition of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and look for a larger-text stand-in to match my daytime specs. It was a rewarding misfortune, for I turned impulsively to the first volume – larger print – of Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, inscribed by my father when I would have been a squalling infant, circa mid-1959. The rust-spotted pages give its age away, though the slightly more than half century is fleeting against the reach of Churchill’s investigation of Britain’s beginnings. As always, history speaks to the present, not least in demonstrating that the march of progress can never be taken for granted, a lesson vividly captured in Churchill’s before-and-after assessment of Britain’s Roman imposition 2,000 years ago. In the "long, bleak intervening gap" from the year 400 (when Rome’s sway shrank) until 1900, he writes, "no on...

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