"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Notes on Notes on a Century

I recently finished the very enjoyable memoirs of the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis: Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (Viking, 2012), 400pp. About this book the publisher tells us: 
The #1 New York Times bestselling author of What Went Wrong? tells the story of his extraordinary life. After September 11, Americans who had never given much thought to the Middle East turned to Bernard Lewis for an explanation, catapulting What Went Wrong? and later Crisis of Islam to become number one bestsellers. He was the first to warn of a coming "clash of civilizations," a term he coined in 1957, and has led an amazing life, as much a political actor as a scholar of the Middle East. In this witty memoir he reflects on the events that have transformed the region since World War II, up through the Arab Spring.
 A pathbreaking scholar with command of a dozen languages, Lewis has advised American presidents and dined with politicians from the shah of Iran to the pope. Over the years, he had tea at Buckingham Palace, befriended Golda Meir, and briefed politicians from Ted Kennedy to Dick Cheney. No stranger to controversy, he pulls no punches in his blunt criticism of those who see him as the intellectual progenitor of the Iraq war. Like America’s other great historian-statesmen Arthur Schlesinger and Henry Kissinger, he is a figure of towering intellect and a world-class raconteur, which makes Notes on a Century essential reading for anyone who cares about the fate of the Middle East.
Lewis is a prolific and elegant author and an incredible polyglot. He has done so much to advance our understanding of Islamic history, especially Ottoman history, not excluding relations between Christians, Jewis, and Muslims (though one does wish he had treated these relations more). One of the things I especially enjoyed about this book--which I do not think the author really intended--were his ad hoc reflections (especially in chapters 5 and 12) on historiography and historical methods. In reading Lewis, I was put in mind of another towering historian of his generation, the great Robert Taft, especially in his "methodological" article “Ecumenical Scholarship and the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis Dispute,” Ostkirchlische Studien 45 (1996): 201-226.

It is clear that both Lewis and Taft are historians of the "old school," which means that questions of "theory" and "identity" take a back-seat to what the evidence actually says. Both Lewis and Taft greatly embody what the latter calls "serene objectivity" in treating historical evidence, no matter how politically incorrect it may be today. How refreshing that is today when history--as Eastern Christians know only too well because we do it too often ourselves--is often used and abused for present felt purposes. In this regard, I am reminded of Margaret MacMillan's important cautionary tale, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library, 2010), 208pp. 

MacMillan is also the author of the wonderful book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (Random House, 2003).

This is a study of the Paris Peace Conference that led to the disastrous Versailles treaty ending World War I. I have had a longstanding interest in the so-called Great War and found this book un-put-downable. She writes with verve and elegance and tells stories--enlightening, often humorous and entertaining, sometimes shocking--about, inter alia, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau. The book won a number of awards, and rightly so.

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