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on 9 December 2008
I used to say that "Moby Dick" was the most challenging book I'd ever read, but Melville's prolific meditation on whale blubber has just been knocked off the top spot by Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". This epic tome took me more than 4 months to conquer. I'm a dedicated reader of fiction and my attention span struggles when confronted with history, especially from a military angle. Of course, some might argue that "Seven Pillars" isn't so much history as an embellished work of fiction...much of its content is considered inaccurate and egotistical. But I see no problem with this: I approached the work to learn about Lawrence himself and the Arab Revolt in equal measure. In fact, Lawrence openly admits that his account isn't perfect and that his actions were fuelled (at the time) by a thirst for greatness. He makes no secret of these flaws and opens himself up to criticism, making it all the more interesting to read about his own exploits in his own words.

But let me tell you, folks: it's seriously slow going. Here is a man so highly educated that his writing seems, at times, impenetrable. Be it the philosophy of guerrilla warfare, the wider scope of WW1 or the intricate tribal doings of the Bedouin people...whatever the subject, this man writes like a true Oxford scholar and his thoughts are hard to follow at times. I was tempted to give up on several occasions after rereading difficult passages (and there are many) up to three or four times...and still not quite grasping the meaning of it all. Making matters even trickier are the many names of Arabian families, factions and clans that float in and out of Lawrence's narrative. I found it hard just remembering who was who among the Allies, let alone the Egyptian/Arab/Turk/Syrian armies. It really does become impossible to keep up with so many names and you'll need to gloss over details like this (at least I did) if you want to make any headway into the text.

But overall, I'm glad I persevered. It's when his guard slips and Lawrence speaks of the landscape, of the ferocity of the sun - of poetry, dreams and his take on human nature that I found him the most fascinating. Obviously the drama of the Arab Revolt provides most of the action (once it gets going): blowing up railways, charging into battle on camels, driving Rolls Royce tenders at top speed across the sand has all the thrills of a Boy's Own colonial adventure and this has probably helped seal its enduring appeal. But I was more interested in the inner workings of Lawrence and how he, as a total outsider, managed to win the confidence of a foreign race largely through empathy and intellect rather than fear and brute force. I was even more interested to read how he justified such actions to himself, given that the British would ultimately turn around and betray the Arabs. What comes through, I think, in this account, is Lawrence's shame that his own personal ambitions ruined life for many Arabians after WW1. He seemed driven, most of the time, by fame-starved demons...and hated himself every step of the way. But he couldn't stop what he'd set in motion and kept pushing towards an Arab victory that was, in the end, a massive Arab defeat.

What also comes through is an almost superhuman sense of grace under pressure. When he's thrown from his camel under gunfire and lies stunned in the sand, Lawrence brings himself back to consciousness with the memory of a poem he once read as a child. When he finds himself totally exposed to a train full of Turkish soldiers, he sits down dreamily and waves to the fully-armed troops...and none of them think to shoot him. His actions seem to defy logic as he maintains a calm, aloof composure in the most extreme circumstances.

But this quality comes with a dark side. Above all else, it consistently amazed me how Lawrence - given his genteel nature - was able to totally sever his emotions when faced with the harsh realities of death and suffering. When an argument amongst the Bedouins forces him to execute a tribesman, although he admits his hand was shaking, he shoots the victim with no real thought whatsoever: "I gave him a few moments delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest." Consider also the following description, when Lawrence realises he has bombed a train full of sick people: "I ran down to the ruins to see what the mine had done. The bridge was gone; and into its gap was fallen the front wagon, which had been filled with sick. The smash had killed all but three or four and had rolled the dead and dying into a bleeding heap against the splintered end. One of those yet alive deliriously cried out the word `typhus'. So I wedged shut the door and left them there, alone."

Truly merciless stuff from such a meek man...but perhaps that's how he survived the Arab Revolt, by turning a blind eye to the horrible outcome of war and simply getting on with the job. I enjoyed this book and it feels like a milestone to have reached the end. Give it a try if you've got the stamina and then visit the deserts of Jordan where it all happened (I did a few months later!).
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on 5 January 2004
Having been a geat fan of the David Lean film ever since my father took me as a 7 year old boy to see it when it was first released, I had intended to read Lawrence's own account of the events covered by the film for a long time. The book itself is a mixture of autobiographical recounting of the events covered by the film and a travelogue interspersed with almost essay type observations by Lawrence on a wide variety of subjects including the plight of the Arabs, their culture, his own motivation and the wartime life of soldiers in general. Most of the book is descriptive with very little in the way of dialogue and it can at times become very difficult to persevere with, particularly during the author's sometimes extreme moments of navel-gazing. However, the persistent reader is taken on a unique journey with Lawrence through his adventures, middle eastern culture and the spectacular desert scenery of the area. When the time came to part I was rather sorry that the journey was over as Lawrence is, if nothing else, an extremely knowledgeable guide. Taken as an adjunct to the film (which takes a certain amount of artistic licence with the facts) the book deepens one's understanding of its political, geographical and personal context and provides a unique insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the man himself.
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on 9 September 2006
Brilliant. T E Lawrence poured his soul into this magnificently crafted autobiography. It takes you from his arrival in Cairo as an upstart academic, through his dramatic evolution into a desert soldier/strategist and leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, to his ultimate failure to win justice for the people he'd grown to be part of. Lawrence was a gifted writer as well as an extraordinary soldier and I was fascinated by the insights that run through it: into his political naivety, his ambivalent loyalties, and the hints of concern (almost certainly ill-founded) about his own mental state. The combination of high politics and personal danger, played out in the dramatic and mysterious Arab world as it meets the West is quite magnificent.

The writing style is nineteenth century and the language and prose may be unfamiliar to many but this is the most rewarding book I have read. It's the one I unhesitatingly offer as the best ever.
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on 18 August 2005
What surprised me most about this book is just how superb a writer Lawrence was. One can open the book anywhere and find sentences of extraordinary beauty and accomplishment, entirely evocative of the sometimes overwhelming landscapes and dilemmas Lawrence was living through. This isn't just a chronicle of a military campaign, it is a masterpiece of English Literature. The author bears comparison with Edward Gibbon, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy. Dare I say, all recent Booker Prize winners should read it as further instruction in just how to turn masterly prose!
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on 30 January 2008
This book has continued to haunt me for ten years, ever since I first read it. It took me a whole summer, and I'm a pretty good reader. One of the reviews here has described it as "dry as a desert", and in a way I agree, since its beauty is not superficial and it takes effort and endurance, and it's definitely not easy to navigate, but in my case it was worth every step of the way.

It's not a book to learn the history of the Arab revolt. It's about its author, one of the most mysterious men that ever wrote a book. Lawrence's mindset and complex psychology is highly uncommon, no less than his talent for writing. This book was almost like a journey, and it changed me in subtle and enduring ways - but then again I'm quite a passionate person. I'm sure this is not a book for everyone. But it could be something big for some, something important.
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on 18 February 2009
Over forty years ago, an English Literature teacher suggested I read this book; I had shown a naive interest in the Middle East. But in 1962 I saw the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, again and again, and again. I still think it's my favourite all time movie, but now I wish I had read the book first!
Reading all the introductory pages first was a mistake...I wish I had started where T.E.L begins. To analyse before reading (I found) distorts the flow of the well written tale. So read T.E.Lawrence first, then go back to see what his critics say. And, if you haven't already, then see the movie! There are critics a-plenty of Lawrence from beginning to end of that, and all in the best possible taste.
It's a long, not always easy read, but well worth a little effort!
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on 5 August 2004
Whilst travelling through Wadi Rum in Jordan a few years ago i was haunted in my mind by images of the enigmatic character that was Lawrence of Arabia; part legend, part myth, part wrong person in the wrong place at the right time.
To read this book is to know the man, the journeys, the politics, the battles. Although he himself admitted to his own ambiguity and uselessness as a British Pawn in the middle east, this book goes some way to dispel the Myth.
A must for anyone who is interested in the middle east, british / arab politics and a very colourful man
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VINE VOICEon 18 February 2010
This is a book that will transport you a hundred years back in time to the billowing sands of Arabia during the First World War. Early on it's a kind of mish-mash of geography, history and politics but soon moves into a narrative account of Lawrence's adventure as a leading figure in the Arab Revolt. The tale is peppered with philosophical musings and funny generalisations (he seems to think a surly temperament goes with curly hair) and recounts all the major events of the campaign.

The style of writing is sometimes a bit 'choppy' which can be confusing, so I'd suggest opening an atlas to the Arabia page to help make sense of the blizzard of place names and to get an idea of the campaign spatially. There are moments of real genius in the writing too - I loved the section about half way through about a feast under tents in the desert that was beautifully evoked. The sections about the raids on the trains were also excellent. Lawrence practiced the prototype of asymmetric warfare against the Turks, and the chapter where he devises this strategy whilst laid low with fever is striking.

A fitting monument to an paradoxical, eccentric, brilliant but in the end, sad and short life.
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on 8 July 2007
"The dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act out their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did."

SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM remains, like its enigmatic creator, brilliant and controversial. It describes, in the words of E.M.Forster, "the revolt in Arabia against the Turks, as it appeared to an Englishman who took part." Round this tent-pole of a military chronicle Forster has hung an unexampled fabric of portraits, descriptions, philosophies, emotions, adventures, dreams. He has brought to his task a fastidious scholarship, an impeccable memory, a style nicely woven of Oxfordisms and Doughty, an eye unparalleled, a profound distrust of himself, a still profounder faith.

JOHN BUCHAN: "As certain of immortality as anything written in English for half a century."

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD: "It may be said of him that he suffered, in his own person, the neurotic ills of an entire generation."
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on 24 May 2010
This book is not for those who want a quick and easy read. It tells the tale and the thought process of one of Britain's finest military figures, divulging interesting thoughts alongside his personal memoir. It's the gateway to the past that this man changed. It's a book for those who consider reading as a joy rather than a chore.
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