Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book Review: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph by T. E. Lawrence

T. E. Lawrence was a British officer assigned to help the Arabs fight against the Turks during World War I (he's the titular Lawrence of Arabia, for those who have seen the film). This book is his chronicle of the two-year campaign known as the Arab Revolt. Under his advice, the Arabs, led by Emir Faisal, waged more of a guerrilla war against the Turks, cutting supply lines (typically rail lines) and outmaneuvering the enemy. The campaign was highly successful, ending in the conquest of Damascus in October 1918 and the establishment of an independent Arab state.

The book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the story of the military actions is told in excruciating detail, with every trip through desert described lovingly by Lawrence. With over 600 pages of text, the places start to blur together. The moments of action are exciting but all the traveling back and forth takes its toll on the reader. The book would definitely benefit from editing on this front.

On the other hand, Lawrence is a fascinating character and he's honest enough to show his good and bad aspects. He clearly loves the Arab people and wants them to form their own independent country. He dresses like them and is often mistaken for an Arab. He also has contempt and arrogance toward the Turks, almost to the point of racism. The political intrigue among the various Arab tribes and with the British command (which was more or less supportive) shows their personalities, always through Lawrence's lens. He also has doubts about his mission. He sees himself at times as a guiding light for the Arabs and at other times as a fake who can't possibly succeed. His adoption of Arab dress and customs occasionally makes him feel like a hypocrite, desiring the Arabs to have independence while he has to lead them to that independence.

While parts of the book are great, they are separated by a lot of descriptions of traveling in the desert/mountains/valleys. I'm usually against abridging books but this book would definitely benefit by being shorter.

Recommended for the character study of Lawrence and some insight into the period and the events of the Arab Revolt. I think the movie is just as good--even at an almost four hour running time, it's still quicker than this book.

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