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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Best Overview Out There, 30 Nov 2002
This review is from: The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2, 000 Years (Paperback)
Lewis is the Daniel Boorstin of Middle East historians. He brings the same sort of encyclopaedic knowledge to his subject. The vast scope of his erudition is evident on every page in this volume. In fact, if there is anything to quibble about, it may be that few readers will be able to keep pace with him as he traverses Middle-Eastern history and landscape.
Part of the difficulty in keeping up comes from the way in which Lewis presents his information. This is not your typical linear narrative, starting at a particular era and then ploughing forward through time. Though there is an overall progression (we start out in the Roman era and end up in current times), the author also often backtracks when discussing different aspects of the civilizations he covers. So while the book starts out in a relatively chronological manner in the first few chapters(Romans>Byzantines-Crusades>Mongol Invasions>Turkic Ascendency-Ottomans), we suddenly detour to Part IV of the book, entitled "Cross-Sections." Lewis then proceeds to break down different societal components such as "The State," "The Economy," "The Elites," etc. in which he backtracks to provide additional details about groups he has earlier portrayed. This is where I for one, who am looking for enlightenment on these subjects and have no real background scholastically speaking, had a hard time keeping track. I consider myself at least a moderately attentive reader, and a lover of history from Herodotus to Gibbon to Parkman to Tuchman, but felt swamped at times here from the sheer wealth and breadth of information. One also had better be up on their geography from about six different eras in that part of the world. Though there are a series of maps in the appendix, obscure towns, countries and dynasties are paraded forth at a rate that is taxing for the general reader. While we may be familiar with place-names such as Mecca, Medina or even Basra, how many western readers are going to have a mental image of the area that Yathrib sits in? or Nishapur? or Bukhara? The maps don't really help either, as the regions that have the most obscure towns are in areas that are the most darkly shaded, and the print is so fine, it's impossible to make the names out.
All that said, if you want to learn about a region that up until recently not many westerners were really all that interested in, Lewis is an excellent teacher. Just be warned that he is rather a dry lecturer. He's not a "school of color" historian. He's an academic and a pure scholar. There are vitually no anecdotal details. No human interest. No exciting passages or descriptions of great battles. He is a purveyor of information and you will come away from reading <The Middle East> with a lot more information than you came in with. If, like me, you think being at least reasonably well-informed at times such as these is important, you will want to investigate this book.
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