Monday, December 14, 2020

Seven Pillars of Wisdom (a book review post)


This book is not what I would call an easy read. It's full of unfamiliar people, difficult to pronounce names, and events that are not really remembered by anyone other than historians. I would say, on the other hand, that those things don't matter to any great extent. You don't actually need to have a greater understanding of whom most of the people are other than how they relate to Lawrence, especially since most of them only make very brief appearances in the narrative. The ones who hang around, you will come to know. There's no need to speak any of the difficult pronunciations, so they can just be glossed over. And the individual battles and meetings and whatnot can be experienced through Lawrence, so there's really no need to know the history of the Arab Revolt in any great detail, rather like knowing about each and every battle of the American Civil War is mostly superfluous information. Not to mention the fact that the continuity may not be actual. Lawrence admitted that when he had a conflict between his notes and his memory that he always sided with his memory. No, that doesn't make sense to me, but, then, I didn't write the book.

I do think most people will not be able to or want to try to dive into this book. I chose to because of... well, reasons which are unimportant to the book itself.

Let's talk about the title. I like the title. Or I did. Before I started reading the book, I liked the title, and I fully expected it to have some meaning within the context of the book, and I kept waiting for the meaning to be revealed. I'm going to throw in here that I took a long time to read this book. It's something that I read bits of between other books. Not because it wasn't good, just because it's dense and does go on in places, and I would need a break. So, as I neared the end of the book, I began to worry that there had been some explanation about the title somewhere in the beginning and that I had just forgotten what it was. When I say it took me a long time, I mean that I spent more than two years with this book in the background of other things I was reading.

When I did get all the way to the end, no meaning to the title, at least as far as I could remember, had been forthcoming. I was slightly annoyed by that and decided I needed to do some research into the matter. As it turns out, there is no explanation for the title at all other than that Lawrence liked it. It's from a verse in Proverbs and was meant as the title for a different book that Lawrence was writing, one where it would have made sense, since it was going to be about seven great cities in the Middle East. But World War I started and Lawrence wrote this book instead and just kept the same title. In that sense it's a bit like if Richard Adams had never written The Plague Dogs but had decided to use that as the title to Watership Down just because he liked it.

All of which is to say that I'm not in favor of the title. My personal philosophy is that the title should be related to the book or reveal something about the book, but this title does neither, which I find... well, for me, it's a ding against the book, even though it has nothing to do with the text of the book. I love Watership Down (you can find it listed on my Of Significance... page) but if it had been named Plague Dogs, I would have issues with it.

So that's a lot just about the title. heh
If the book has a flaw, it's the title.
Which is not say that it's a perfect book, but it's the title that's a real thorn for me.

Lawrence has some beautiful passages describing the desert. More than a few. He's actually quite eloquent. He also occasionally spends chapters philosophizing about war (and maybe various other things? I don't quite remember), and those are interesting. For a bit. He always goes on too long about any given point and repeats himself several times before finishing whatever it is he's talking about. Not enough so as to make it not worth reading, though. And the book is full of amusing stories of things that happened during the various campaigns.

Like the time, during a cavalry charge against the enemy, he shot his own camel in the back of the head and was catapulted over the camel into the midst of the oncoming enemy. He didn't realize until later what had happened, but it actually saved his life. Amusing after the fact, you know.

There are also some horrific events recounted.

For me, though, the thing that really makes the book worth the read is the turning point for Lawrence when he goes from being a naïve, young soldier who believed the British, his people, were going to do right by the Arabs and his realization that they were... not. His exploration of his existential crisis and subsequent depression is... well, I don't know how to describe it. His determination after that that the Arabs should end the war in a state of independence and self-governance was admirable, even if he was not able to help them achieve it. Colonialism had not, yet, run its course, not that it has, now, either, but at least it's not the operating paradigm anymore.

In the end, this is a book that I'm very glad I read; however, it's not the kind of book I would suggest to anyone. It's the kind of thing a person really needs to take an interest in before they can get through it.


  1. Yeah, I find that title thing irksome too.

    The camel thing makes me sad. Not as sad as thinking about the Plague Dogs, but still sad.

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