|| n the past week, countless commentators have stated what now seems
obvious: the tragic events of September 11th fundamentally changed the
world we live in. However, though we've accepted the fact of this change,
its nature remains elusive.
Perhaps this is because, in part, just how our world has changed has
yet to be decided. For our response to this tragedy, and therefore
to some degree its ultimate outcome, remains in our hands. We haven't
yet determined what these events mean, how we should feel about them,
what we should do in response, or why.
Clearly, this is a delicate and crucial period, a period in which
we must not only work to better understand what kind of world
we live in, but even more importantly, to think clearly about
what kind of world we want to live in. For only after defining
an ideal can you work toward creating it.
Naturally, as a bookseller, I believe that books can play a crucial
role in this process. A good book not only provides information,
it helps make sense of it, helps shape that information into a
coherent, useful whole. The tricky part is finding the right book.
Since September 11th,
interest in terrorism, Osama bin Laden, the Middle East,
Islamic fundamentalism, the World Trade Center, and anything else that might be
considered pertinent to this tragedy (yes, that
includes Nostradamus) has increased so dramatically that many of the most
prominent books on these topics have flown from bookstore shelves worldwide.
Consequently, the availability of many relevant titles changes daily. The five
books recommended here, though, remain in stock as of this writing.
by Edward Said
Surprisingly, one of the titles that has remained available
is also one of the most well known, Edward
Said's Orientalism. It would be hard to overstate the
influence this book has had since its publication in 1977, not
only on European perceptions of the East the book's ostensible
subject but on the whole of Western intellectual life.
Orientalism has been called "one of the sturdiest
intellectual monuments of our time." Let's hope so. In the
past few decades so many college students have been asked to read
the book it would be a shame to realize in the end its importance
was just a fad.
In fact, Said's masterpiece has never been more relevant than at this
particular moment in history. For as we begin to collect ourselves
after the recent attack on our country, we have already begun
to focus our attention intently on the Muslim peoples of the Middle
East and Central Asia. If we are to view this area of the world
with clarity and intelligence, we must first free ourselves of
This may be more difficult than we think. As Said so powerfully
argues, the West has a long-standing habit of willfully misunderstanding
these countries. Historically, our fantasies of the East have
borne little resemblance to the actual realities of the region.
Yet we have resisted correcting this fantasy because it has seemed
to serve us so well. Not only has our image of the exotic "Orient"
served as the other against which we define ourselves,
it has also been used to justify our political and economic power
over the countries in the region.
If we are to achieve a just and lasting resolution to the current
crisis, we must begin by taking a clear-eyed look not only at our adversary,
but at ourselves as well.
Art of War by Sun Tzu
This advice is actually as old as human conflict, but was stated
most eloquently, perhaps, by a scholar-warrior in ancient China.
Sun Tzu's tactical manual, The Art of War, has remained
one of the pillars of Chinese culture for about 2,500 years. Apparently
effective principles of strategy remain the same whether you are
a general in the fifth century BC or a CEO in the twentieth century;
for in the past few years, Sun Tzu's ideas have been embraced
by the American business community. Today, The Art of War
is one of the country's bestselling texts on corporate strategy.
However, though the book clearly operates on many levels, it was
ostensibly written as a guide to winning a war, which makes it
particularly relevant now.
It is significant that the greatest war manual ever written does not
advocate violence. Sun Tzu's desire was not to destroy his enemy. Rather,
he sought to defeat his enemy through wise tactics: "To fight and
conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence
consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."
Sounds pretty good right about now, no?
But again, if we are to achieve this type of civilized victory,
we must be willing to follow Sun Tzu's fundamental advice:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result
of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for
every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither
the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Jazz by Diana Abu-Jaber
It's difficult to know our enemy, though, if we can't even pinpoint
who our enemy is. Fair enough. However, we can determine without
reservation who our enemy is not.
Though it is currently accepted that the men who carried out
these hijackings were Muslim extremists, their actions must not
be taken to reflect the tenets of the Islamic religion or to
characterize all Muslim people. After all, do the actions of Jerry
Falwell, who last week blamed the hijackings on pagans, feminists,
gays, lesbians, abortionists, and the ACLU "all of them
who have tried to secularize America" reflect on those
of, say, Martin Luther King, just because they share the same
religion? Of course not.
And thank God. For not only do we sorely need the friendship
of our Islamic allies around the world, but many, many of our
fellow American citizens are Muslim or are from predominantly
Muslim countries. Given the hateful, and often violent, backlash
many of these citizens have experienced in the past week, now
more than ever we owe them our support and understanding.
I am recommending Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz not only
because it is an excellent novel, but also because it is one of
the most endearing portraits available of Arab-Americans.
Arabian Jazz tells the story of Matussem Ramoud, a Jordanian
widower living with his two daughters in upstate New York. The
Ramoud girls are not only struggling with the death of their Irish-American
mother years earlier, they are also trying to come to terms with
growing up Arab, or at least half-Arab, in a very white community.
Meanwhile, their father, a charming, if obsessive drummer, has
become fixated on American Jazz. Quirky, poignant, and very, very,
funny, Arabian Jazz is a deeply personal portrayal of one
American family caught up in the familiar confusions of American
life. It is also a book that will help put a human face on the
many Arab-Americans currently living in this country.
History of God by Karen Armstrong
Though most Americans take for granted that the crimes of September
11th were committed in the name of Allah, few have more than a cursory
understanding of the Islamic religion itself, not to mention its long
and complicated relationship with Western Christianity. And yet, if
we are to make intelligent decisions, such understanding is crucial.
This makes such excellent books as Karen
Armstrong's A History of God invaluable.
Armstrong is a world authority on the great monotheisms that originated
in the Levant: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Her splendid History
of God is the only book available that provides a thorough, readable
overview of the theological, cultural, and political histories of these
three religious traditions. She remains deeply respectful of her subject
and yet never shies away from taking a critical or controversial stance.
Her chapters on Islam are particularly fascinating, as Armstrong is
clearly enamored with the elegance of Islamic philosophy, the grandeur
of Islamic culture, and the beauty of Islamic art.
Given the breadth of Armstrong's knowledge of religious history, she
is particularly well-qualified to comment on the current rise, in all
corners of the world, of religious fundamentalism, which she characterizes
as a misguided reaction to the spiritual emptiness of modern life. (Her
recent book, The
Battle for God, is one of the best on the topic.) She ends A
History of God with the following warning and advice:
Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill
the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism
are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new
faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the
history of God for some lessons and warnings.
by Simon Wiesenthal
If the dogmatic fundamentalism that allowed the perpetrators
of this shocking crime to justify their violent acts presents
the shadow side of religion, the national socialism of Nazi Germany
embodied the darkest potential of a secular ideology. And though
there are many differences between the crimes of these two groups,
crimes of such staggering scope do raise similar questions. In
The Sunflower, Simon
Wiesenthal poses one of the most pressing of these questions:
Can and should such crimes be forgiven?
A Jew, Wiesenthal spent the majority of the war in a Nazi concentration
camp. His spare account of the overwhelming suffering he experienced
at the hands of his tormentors is one of the most powerful of
the many written on the subject. But for Wiesenthal, one incident
from these years was particularly disturbing.
One day Wiesenthal was secretly called to the bedside of a dying
German soldier, a member of the SS, who was tormented by the memory
of a particular crime against the Jews. A Catholic, the young
man hoped that by confessing his sins to a Jew he would be able
to clear his conscience before he died. Clearly repentant, he
tells Wiesenthal his story in excruciating detail. But when he
is finished, Wiesenthal chooses not to forgive him and walks away
Even after the war was over, this incident haunted Wiesenthal. Did
he do the right thing? Should he have forgiven the dying soldier?
He didn't know. So he wrote his story down and ended it with a
question: "You who have just read this sad and tragic episode
in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself
the crucial question, 'What would I have done?'" He then
sent the manuscript out to a number of people who might be qualified
to grapple with such a question theologians, political
leaders, writers, other Holocaust survivors, etc. and asked
them to respond.
Their answers, along with Wiesenthal's original document, were
collected in The Sunflower, which quickly became a classic
on the subject. Recently, a number of new thinkers people
such as the Dalai
S. Kushner, Cynthia
Ozick, and Primo
Levi were asked to respond to Wiesenthal's question,
and their answers were added to the collection.
What makes this book so unique, and so useful given the present circumstances,
is not only the strength of Wiesenthal's question, but the enormous
variety of the responses he received. This book is a profound and practical
meditation on the concepts of sin, forgiveness, and compassion. But
it is also a firm demonstration that our greatest strength may lie in
our willingness and ability to engage in healthy dialogue.
more titles relevant to the Septemeber 11th
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