Thursday, May 10, 2012

NOTES ON A CENTURY by Bernard Lewis ✰✰✰✰

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.  


  1. I wonder if Bernard Lewis in his Notes on a Century mentions his famous warning about the inapplicability of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction to Iran. Or is it that the review did not consider it worth mentioning. Here is what Bernard Lewis has being saying : " During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear weapons but both knew that the other was very unlikely to use them. Because of what was known at the time as MAD—mutually assured destruction. MAD meant that each side knew that if it used a nuclear weapon the other would retaliate and both sides would be devastated. And that's why the whole time during the Cold War, even at the worst times, there was not much danger of anyone using a nuclear weapon," says Mr. Lewis.

    But the mullahs "are religious fanatics with an apocalyptic mindset. In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, there is an end-of-times scenario—and they think it's beginning or has already begun." So "mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent—it's an inducement."

    It is unfortunate that there is no Kindle edition of this book and that I will have to wait until the hardcover edition arrives.

    1. Mladen,

      Bernard Lewis does indeed discuss his ideas with regards to MAD and its non-corollary with regard to the situation in Iran in this book, although not in near the depth that he does in his more scholarly works.

      As you have not previously commented on my blog, I am unsure as to whether or not you have read any of my reviews previously. My goal is not to give in-depth analysis of specific issues raised within the books that I review, although I always love to discuss them if other readers comment on them, either here, or in other reader forums where I participate (which is where most of my discussions with other readers usually take place). In fact, my aim is to give just enough information to let a reader know if a given book suits their taste, but not so much that I spoil the best parts of the book for them by having already revealed, in the course of my write-up, all those points of controversy which make the book so worth reading. As this book is primarily his autobiography, I did expound on the two major biographical issues, the long-running battle between Lewis and Edward Said and the legal issues resulting from the Armenian situation.

      I can tell that this is an issue about which you care deeply and that you are looking forward to reading the book. I would love to discuss Professor Lewis' ideas with you, whether you agree with him or not, once you have had a chance to read his book. As you probably guessed, I received an advanced copy through a reader galley service, and so was able to read it before yesterday's release date.

  2. Hi Care, I received the Jeff King book the other day :-)
    I forgot all about it! so it was a nice surprise. My birthday's coming up so it was like getting a birthday gift! Thanks!

    1. So glad it got there! I was ever so late getting them out (again-Grrr!)!

      Enjoy! Happy Birthday!

  3. I must say that I was taken aback when I saw that what I posted last night had vanished. While you are perfectly entitled to do what you like on your blog, would you not say that reality is now a bit distorted since only half on my answers are there? Perhaps it would be better to delete my initial entry as well, at least it would be more honest.

    I wonder what part of my post proved to be so annoying? The horrifying reality of the world we live is perhaps so far removed from your Last Frontier in Alaska and the world of Jane Austen and Alexandre Dumas that the easiest way to deal with it is to erase it. We here have to deal with it, or we will be incinerated.

    1. Mladen,

      I did not delete your reply, you have my word-in fact, I regret that I did not get to read it, as I have been busy and have not logged on to my blog in a number of days. I do not know why it disappeared; sometimes comments and even whole posts will do that; it can be frustrating. It has even happened with my own comments on my own blog. Likewise, I know that what you posted on my review at Amazon was more comprehensive than what you posted here-you are welcome to copy and paste it into a comment if you would like to share all of those thoughts here.

      Please resend me your thoughts, Mladen. I assure you I do care. It is a small world we live in. We both live in nuclear targets-yours for religious reasons, mine for economic reasons. There really is no Last Frontier for humanity to run to. I certainly did not delete your dialog.

  4. Care,

    I guess glitches are possible and I apologize. I do not have the exact text I posted, but I remember that one point had to do with what you had writen, now I see it also in the Amazon review comment: "This is indeed an issue which Professor Lewis addresses in Notes on a Century, although not in near the same amount of detail as he does in his more academic works. " I would be grateful if you could point, if you happen to remember, to the academic works where he does discuss MAD in more detail. I have read seven of his books and none of them had any mention of MAD. I would very much want to read more of his writing on this topic.

    I agree that the book is an autobiography, written in a very readable stile, full of witty remarks. Having spent six years in the USSR as a foreign student I found this observation of his very appropriate "The speeches formed a well-orchestrated symphony in three movements. In the first , they insulted their Western guests; in the second, they flattered their Eastern guests; and in the third (the synthesis?), they praised themselves with obvious sincerity and relish."

    Although most of the book may be a very relaxed read , the importance of his views on MAD are such that not mentioning them is just not right. At the time when the Western negotiators in Baghdad are being duped by Iran and President Obama is continuing to appease Iran, it imperative that the public at least understand the magnitude of the threat. I updated my blog with the entry Why are Bernard Lewis's views on MAD ignored?