Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian Hardcover – May 10 2012
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“Notes on a Century is an extraordinary work: erudite, witty, and profound. In summing up his long life in pursuit of knowledge of the region that has fascinated him since childhood, Bernard Lewis has produced a book that will engage, inform, and entertain the scholar and layman alike.”
“Whether writing about the early history of the Arabs or the development of the modern Turkish state, Mr. Lewis has always been unusually alert to nuance and ambiguity; he is wary of his sources and tests them against other evidence. . . . He has evinced not only an unswerving commitment to historical truth and a hatred of what he calls ‘the falsification of history’ but also a passionate, at times obsessive, curiosity about other peoples, other places. . . . No matter how recondite or exotic his subject matter, he writes incisively and with unobtrusive elegance.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Lewis has led a staggeringly productive life—publishing a jaw-dropping 32 books—and seems to have had more fun than any department worth of more somber professors. . . . We are fortunate to have this chatty memoir of reminiscences of scholarly discovery and stimulating encounters with everyone from Isaac Stern to Scoop Jackson to the shah of Iran.”—The Washington Post
“Few could produce a book as witty, erudite and humorous as this engaging autobiography, which, alongside these lighter characteristics, is also packed with learning and wisdom. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the distillation of a long, attentive and productive life as a scholar and engaged intellectual. . . . We did not need this book to tell us how impressive an intellect Mr. Lewis has or what a superbly informed historian he is, but it reminds us nonetheless of all this. As it does of what a charming and attractive personality he has been graced with, enabling him to draw attention so easily to what he has to impart.”
—The Washington Times
“Thoughtful, outspoken words from a sage who has lived his share of history . . . In episodic, wittily composed chapters, Lewis addresses salient events in his career as a historian of the Near and Middle East. . . . He writes frankly of his long tenure at Princeton, the dicey Israel-Palestinian crisis, and the eclipse of secularism in the Muslim world.”
“Lewis looks back at his achievements as a founder of the discipline of Islamic history, a prodigious scholar and writer, and a tireless traveler who forged relationships with scholars and government leaders all over the world. . . . Here, he conveys the intellectual curiosity and power that has enabled him to transmit to both academics and general readers an understanding of the development of Islam as a faith and a culture along with the rise and decline of Islamic political power. With scholarly rigor and graceful, witty prose, he also offers insights about the nature of history, cultural identity, and literary values. This memoir by an intellectual committed to a relentless search for historical understanding of a complex society is highly recommended.”
“A much-needed corrective . . . Lewis’ understanding reflects more than the usual journalism or scholarship. As a British intelligence officer, a multilingual translator of Middle Eastern poetry, and a tireless traveler through remote regions, Lewis has actually participated in developments shaping the Middle East.”
—Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University, the author of many books, and is internationally recognized as the greatest historian of the Middle East.
Buntzie Ellis Churchill served for twenty-three years as president of the World Affairs Council of Philadephia and for a decade hosted the daily radio show World Views.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
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Bernard Lewis is a renowned Middle Eastern historian approaching his century mark. In this his swan-song he gives a brief biographical sketch from his early years through the time he begins to achieve fame in his field, gives favorite anecdotes from a lifetime spent as confidant and advisor to rulers and statesmen and from his career in academia, and finally, answers some of his critics. While very different from his multitude of scholarly writings, this one is still packed with tidbits of analysis and history and well worth reading for both those familiar with Professor Lewis' earlier writings and those who are meeting this great mind for the first time.
The Long Version
This was perhaps one of my most anticipated pre-publication review manuscripts, and while it was very different from what I expected, it did not disappoint. A Middle Eastern scholar of great renown approaching his hundredth year, Professor Lewis is certainly no stranger to publication-he has thirty-two books, which have in their turn been translated into twenty-nine languages, to his credit. In the past decade and a half he has churned out a stunning dozen books which he himself gives explanation of in this book as a cleaning out of his files, the desire to finish, before he departs this earth, all the loose ends of research that he has left hanging about his cabinets. This book is very different. It truly is notes on a century.
The first section of the book reads almost like a biography, in which Professor Lewis gives an account of his youth, university years, initial jobs in academia, war service during the Second World War, and finally his return to teaching after the war. In this organized biographical sketch a clear grounding of the prominent man in his field that Professor Lewis would become is laid. We see the boy with a phenomenal facility for languages who would later become the man proficient in fifteen. We are introduced to the young British intelligence officer who would in time become confidant and counselor to monarchs and statesmen.
In its middle portion the book gains the feel of its title, being composed of a series of vignettes spanning the many decades of Professor Lewis' professional life. Here he shows himself to be a man of charm and first-rate storytelling ability, in addition to the political and historical insight for which he is renowned. The various tales range from academia and research, to world leaders he met either in a consulting or social capacity. At times he give very brief historical sketches, in order to give his readers background information that they might need to understand, and thus more thoroughly enjoy, his stories. Ever the teacher, despite being a very brilliant man, Professor Lewis is very readable by an average person, because he remembers that events which he might hold as common knowledge, his reader probably does not. Because of this, this book is a wonderful refresher, or introduction, to such things as the wars between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai and the various conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians.
The final section of the book is used to answer some of the controversies which have surrounded him, as is inevitable given his academic stature. Perhaps the largest of these, but the one which surprisingly he gives the least amount of ink, was the large scale battle of many decades launched by the Palestinian born, Columbia University English professor Edward Said, in his famous book, Orientalism. The main thrust of Said's attack against western born scholars of the Middle East is that their slant on the history and politics of the region encouraged imperialism to flourish. While the argument is of course deep, scholarly, and far too complex to get into here, or even in Professor Lewis' most recent book, he does use this book to reiterate once again his feelings that Professor Said has missed a couple of main points, among them the fact that there were chairs of Oriental studies in European universities centuries before there were any moves towards colonizing any of those countries. He also puts forth the point that while native born historians do provide invaluable cultural insights into their peoples, often truly objective history can only be written by outsiders.
In addition to a number of lesser issues, one other major issue is addressed: the controversy which arose from Professor Lewis' refusal to grant Armenian victim's the title of "holocaust". He came under extreme censure, including legal, for this decision, but stands by, and defends his research as an historian, believing that the facts simply do not support the definition of holocaust as defined by the experience of the Jews in World War II, which is the commonly accepted definition among scholars.
In summation, this book is vastly different from the scholarly works that students of Professor Lewis are accustomed to reading, but very much worth the time, especially for those who have never read any of his books, or for those who do not have a very strong working knowledge of his subject, as he does not assume that his reader is beginning with any. Professor Lewis' easy charm comes through with little pretension, and even when the subject matter does become a bit academic the writing style is so perfectly clear, and the author so absolutely in command of his subject, that the reader is easily carried along. Long-time readers of Professor Lewis will enjoy the amusing anecdotes of this his swan-song, even if there is probably very little new here for them from a scholastic standpoint.
(Note: Full Disclosure-I was provided a review copy by the publisher, but have no affiliation with either them or with Bernard Lewis. All opinions are the honest thoughts of this reviewer.)
For anyone interested in fuller comprehension of how the Middle East works, doesn't work, and why it is the way it is, read this book. Why is the concept of religion and state so intertwined in the Muslim world? He explains through the historical perspective, which is the only true way of examining states and cultures. He does not tell you what he thinks, he says this is what happened historically.
Early in the book, he relates the fascinating story of a fellow scholar who during the 1950s released a study on the various ancient texts of the Holy Koran that were extant at ancient libraries. Early manuscripts of the Hadith (traditional oral saying of the Prophet) varied greatly in spelling, content and interpretation. This sort of work is common in Western society, to examine the past to better understand the future. The scholar found to his great surprise that Egyptian students burned the released book in bonfires, with their imams declaring it heretical. Lewis explains why this is not simply mob mentality, but has deep historical and religious motives. If you were ever inclined to watch the news coming out of the Middle East and just shake your head at what you saw, read this book, and find your worldview forever changed.
Valuable for every armchair president, general, or historian who thinks they can do a better job dealing with the diverse cultures and attitudes in the Middle East. I found myself whipping out a notepad and taking notes at some of his observations. And you might be tempted to pick up more works by Bernard Lewis after reading this overview of his life's work and study.
Lewis takes to task a number of people in his book who has misinterpreted his work as somehow being an endorsement of the invasion of Iraq (he didn't) or insulting Armenians (he didn't) or other assumed sins in academia. If I am in this company of people who have misread his work, then I will apologize to him and give it another go. There are not many books that I will read a second time, but this is one of them. It's that good, and I daresay I would gain even more from another reading.
His many days have seen the turmoil of 1930s Europe; World War II work for British Intelligence; an academic career move to Princeton and the United States; and the Gulf Wars, followed by 9/11.
While not a comprehensive memoir and with a somewhat uneven text, its title accurately expresses what the pages of this book deliver: notes and reflections of a Middle East historian. In sum a remarkable effort by a 95-year-old cultural treasure.