The Short Version
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.