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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
independent
bookseller

No. 13  

For more titles relevant to the September 11th hijackings, please click here.

Orientalism
Orientalism
by Edward Said

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The Art of War
The Art of War
by Sun Tzu

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Arabian Jazz
Arabian Jazz
by Diana Abu-Jaber
A History of God
A History of God
by Karen Armstrong

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The Sunflower: On the 
Possibilities and 
Limits of Forgiveness
The Sunflower
by Simon Wiesenthal

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I 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.

Orientalism 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 past prejudice.

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.

The 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.

Arabian 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.

A 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.

The Sunflower 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 in silence.

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 Lama, Robert Coles, Harold 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.

-Carlisle
 

For more titles relevant to the Septemeber 11th hijackings, please click here.

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