Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
Books To Help Us Understand The World?
Well, a few, anyway. And a bit.
Because some of the topics I write about can be controversial, there is always the risk of bad-tempered arguments developing on peripheral aspects, as happened with the last essay. I’m keen to try to keep this a polemic-free zone (there’s a surplus of polemic around already) so please try to express yourselves with moderation.
Thanks to those who continue to provide translations. Versions in Spanish are available here, and some Italian versions of my essays are available here. Marco Zeloni is now also posting some Italian translations.
These essays will always be free, and you can also support my work by liking and commenting, and most of all by passing essays on to others and to other sites that you frequent. I have also set up a Buy Me A Coffee page, which you can find here.☕️ Thank you to all those who have already contributed.And now ….
When you write regularly, without a fixed list of topics or any precise idea of what you want to say at any given moment, serendipity inevitably intervenes. I hear something or read something, and think, Ah, that’s my topic. Looking at the site analytics, I had been interested for some time to see how many readers clicked on links to books and names of authors that I mentioned in various essays, and I had wondered about doing something on that. Then reader Alex asked about reading recommendations: a topic that’s also come up before. Since my next planned essay, on the symbolism of Gaza and Ukraine, was still only a draft in my head, I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m reluctant to produce reading lists, because although I’ve had a lot to do with Universities, and with teaching and training generally, I’m not an academic specialist in any one area, whereas I know that many members of this distinguished commentariat are. So I’m going to try something more modest: begin a discussion on some of the books and writings I have found useful in developing my own view of the world, and see who would like to add to them, or for that matter dispute them. My essays, of course don’t depend primarily on book learning: I write pretty much exclusively about issues where I have some personal knowledge and experience. Nonetheless, just as I frequently run into people who have a detailed theoretical knowledge of some subject but no idea about its reality, so I also encounter people with masses of practical experience, but who cannot communicate or make use of that experience in any organised and structured way, through combining it with the insights of others. So I try, as in things I have written under different names, and in lecturing and training, to combine these two things myself. That naturally has implications for the kind of books I read, and my objectives may not be the same as yours. But here goes.
This is not a list of books, which would be boring, nor a bibliographical essay, which would take far too much space. Rather, it touches on some preliminary points, and then raises three basic questions which we need to answer if we are to “understand the world.” I would suggest they are:
Where did we come from?
How did we get to where we are now?
How do we understand where we are now?
Pretty much all of the specific books mentioned fall into one of those categories. Let me begin, though, by suggesting the different types of books I have found useful (or not) for understanding, with a few examples.
The first, obviously, is books that aim at explanation rather than polemic. A condemnatory, polemical work may produce a pleasant rush of endorphins and comfort you in your own opinions, but you won’t learn anything. I therefore distrust books written to an agenda or which are specifically advertised as challenging the “conventional narrative.” In reality, a book which relies on new material, convincing interpretations and coherent argument will eventually overturn the “conventional narrative” anyway, and indeed this happens quite a lot. Much of this school of writing (sometimes described as “counter-history” or “counter-knowledge”) just consists of taking the same events, and even the same facts, and just reversing all the labels, so the good guys become the bad guys and so forth.
I first saw it in the activist climate of the late 1960s, where anything written by anyone over thirty was immediately suspect, and specifically in the context of the Vietnam War. In opposition to a lot of right-wing Cold War and anti-communist drivel of the time by popular writers such as Robert Moss, which blamed the Soviet Union for all the ills of the world, there grew up a school of writing which simply changed all the labels (to annoy their parents, perhaps?) and blamed all of the problems of the world on the US instead. The prototype was probably David Horowitz’s 1967 book From Yalta to Vietnam, which argued that every crisis since 1945 was the fault of the US, and which was to be seen everywhere in universities at the time in a cheap paperback edition. This and similar works were frankly intended as polemic rather than serious history, but were immensely influential with groups that wanted to be told that such assertions were true.
There were of course similar books on all parts of the political spectrum, but many of them (arguing for the niceness and kindness of apartheid, for example, or the humanity of the Shah of Iran) are totally forgotten now. Yet the works of Horowitz and others have continued to be influential, and have helped to create a counter-orthodoxy on a number of issues (Hiroshima, for example) which is not supported by evidence, but which caters to a desire to be told and to believe certain things. But then we live in a post-truth world where the past is whatever you want it to have been, and we also live in a market economy, where if there is a demand for books with certain conclusions, somebody will write them. Personally, polemical history of any type doesn’t interest me, so you won’t find any polemical books in what follows. (And yes, history writing is full of violent arguments about facts and interpretation, but that’s not the same thing.)
On the other hand, I’ve always been impressed by accounts of people who’ve Been There and Done That. We have to be careful of course, because there’s a distinction between personal narrative (interesting but often unreliable and occasionally even downright mendacious ) and narratives by people who know in general what they are talking about. So we continue to read Machiavelli (not just The Prince, but the Discourses as well), not for his shock-value, but for his clear-sighted understanding of the realities of politics in an environment where power rules. (I was in a historically unstable Arab country a few years ago with a military colleague who had been reading The Prince on my recommendation, and said he couldn’t get over how frighteningly appropriate it was to the country we were in.) This is why people still read Machiavelli, whereas approximate contemporaries like Jean Bodin, whose theory of absolutist rule was massively influential at the time, are forgotten except by specialists. The same is true, obviously of Carl von Clausewitz, who is still read not only for his timeless intellectual insights into strategy, but for his practical insights into the confusion, fear and uncertainty of war in any era. And if you find more good common sense about politics in Max Weber’s essay Politics as a Vocation or Robert Michels’s book The Iron Law of Oligarchy than in whole shelves of modern political science textbooks, it’s because they both knew what they were talking about.
In reading such authors you feel—as you do with Conrad or Melville writing about the sea—that you are in safe hands and you can trust their judgements. Sometimes, the effects are more subtle. Most of us have had the feeing over the last few years that George Orwell understood and foresaw everything. To the extent that this is true, it comes not just from an acute intellect, but an enormously varied life experience. He had been, after all, a paramilitary policeman in Burma and a soldier in Spain. He had been a political activist, a journalist, a down-and-out in Paris and London, and a wartime propagandist for the BBC. He knew great writers of the period, and retained old Etonian connections among the British elite. In Spain he saw organised lying and political murder by both sides, and just escaped before nearly being murdered himself. He also saw the spontaneous development of socialism among ordinary people. He knew what dead bodies looked and smelt like, and he had seen imprisonment and torture at first hand. That’s one reason 1984 is so powerful and, frightening; it’s largely based on reasonable extrapolation from his own experiences, even if exaggerated for satirical purposes. (If you’re at all interested in the book’s history you should read Dorian Lynsey’s The Ministry of Truth) But finally, Orwell was intellectually honest, and when he had no first-hand experience of what he was writing about (Stalin’s purges for example) he would say so. (A model for today’s pundits, you might say? Yes, but in that case most of them would write nothing at all.)
It follows that understanding the world properly today means relying disproportionately on those who have been there and done that. And no, I don’t mean airport-taxi-hotel-meetings with English speakers and back to the airport. The critic and humorist Clive James once said that anyone who had spent even five minutes in Japan knew infinitely more than someone who’d never been there. He wasn’t wrong, in my experience, but there’s a qualification to that: you have to keep your eyes and your mind open. I’ve met people who had been living in Japan for five years, and still imagined it was “pretty similar” to London or New York. So always take a look at look at the biography of the author. These days, many seem deliberately obscure: X is the author of Y and Z, lectures here, worked there, been on these TV programmes. Look at the acknowledgements: any sign that people from the region have actually contributed something? How many references are from non-western sources? You get the idea.
Of course, personal experience by itself does not magically give you insights either, and there’s nothing worse than the person who tries to generalise from their own experience as though that explained everything, everywhere. A “retired general” or “retired diplomat” isn’t necessarily an expert on all wars and all diplomatic crises. I remember being disappointed with Indian diplomat Hardeep Puri’s Perilous Interventions, which appeared a few years ago and promised much, but in the end turned out to be fairly pedestrian account of the workings of the Security Council, followed by a critical account of international interventions, culled mostly from the western media.
It’s also important to try to keep relatively up-to-date, and to understand the reasons why. History may be written by the victors, but more importantly it is written by those who have the best story to tell. For example, the broad outlines of the popular conception of the First World War were fixed in the 1920s, just as those of the Second World War were fixed in the 1950s, and little has changed since. The myth of the First World War as mindless butchery conducted by stupid, upper-class Generals is so seductive that it has survived decades of proper scholarship by people like Gary Sheffield (Forgotten Victory) or William Philpott (Attrition.) And of course serious histories of the War in all its complexities have been available for some time, from authors like Hew Strachan.
Likewise, the myth of the Second World War, of weak and unprepared democracies afraid of Hitler, was propagated by politicians like Churchill and De Gaulle, who had positioned themselves as the saviours of their nations at the time, and continued to do so in their memoirs. Yet, whilst recent historiography has if anything reinforced the importance of these two individuals, it’s also shown that their self-glorifying, arguments were massively exaggerated. I had grown up with the popular image of the Munich accords, and it was only much later that I discovered the hugely complex arguments surrounding the objectives and the freedom of manoeuvre, especially of the British government (nicely summarised by Richard Evans) not to mention the popular and elite fears of a war which would entail a level of destruction we now associate with nuclear weapons, and the end of civilisation itself. And here’s David Edgerton’s revisionist Britain’s War Machine, which shows how well Britain was prepared, both militarily and economically in 1939. The literature on France is, understandably enough, very largely in French, but it essentially tells the same story of a country better-prepared than was once thought, intelligently using the Maginot line to oblige the Germans to advance through Belgium, and whose forces fought bravely and determinedly when they got the chance. Above all, it disposes of the sneering Anglo-Saxon portrayal (found in Alastair Horne for example) of a morally weak nation desperate to surrender.
More generally, little of the literature of the Second World War that I grew up on is readable today. I read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the the Third Reich soon after it came out, and it was, and is, a rattling good story by a journalist who was there at the time, but it’s hopelessly out of date today. This is especially true of the Eastern Front, where anything written before the opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s can safely be disregarded, since to the extent that Front was covered at all then, it was from the self-serving memoirs of German Generals. These days, books like Chris Bellamy’s Absolute War have revolutionised our understanding of the conflict. And huge amounts of work have been done on the Nazi state as well: I’d mention Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire, for some idea of the frightening insanity of Nazi plans for the conquered East, and Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction which shows very clearly that it was the Germans, not the British and French who were economically weak.
And so on. But the point here is that half-understood historical examples continue to have an afterlife which gives them a measurable effect on politics today. When you hear some idiot talking about “appeasing Putin” or some General who’s never seen a shot fired talking about Russian human-wave attacks in Ukraine, you know that they’re calling not even on their own reading necessarily, but on a vague memory of what they once learned, or were told by somebody, they’ve forgotten who. A genuine understanding of history, and even more of its misuses, is a good protection against misunderstanding the present. Of course “history” itself is inevitably a constructed category, and, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot pointed out in Silencing the Past, what is omitted can be as important as what is included. Sometimes, this silencing can have tangible effects: the effective omertà against mention of the intra-African and Ottoman/Arab slave trades, for example, means that most people aren’t aware of the origins of one of the major sources conflict and insecurity in parts of Africa today.
I could go on, but a final specific example I recall is the outburst of anti-colonial writing of the 1960s, typified by the Penguin African Library, whose Manichean world-view has tended to endure, even as the books themselves (that you might leave lying around to annoy your parents) faded away. These days, it’s recognised that the history of colonialism, and even the meaning of terms like “empire” applied to European powers, are highly complex and contested. As early as 1991, Thomas Pakenham’s popular history The Scramble for Africa, which described what the colonisers thought they were doing and why, illustrated the confusion, contingency and controversy surrounding the whole colonial enterprise. More recently, scholarly books like Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World, and more popular books like Lawrence James’s Empires in the Sun have filled in the beginning and end of the story in all its improvised incoherence.
The final general point I want to make is that, to the extent that you consider books as tools to help you think, then it’s quite possible to find value in certain insights in books that you might not have otherwise much time for. So I confess to not having read every word even of the greatest hits of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and much of what he wrote, to be honest, was highly specific to a time and place. But his idea of cultural hegemony certainly makes you think. Nor have I read every word of Nietzsche (who has?) but his clear-eyed insistence that if you abandon religion you have to give up its attendant moral frameworks as well, and that in that case the belief system that wins out is the one with the most power, is almost as much of a bucket of cold water today as it was then. Likewise, I’m not a fan in general of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (yes, the guy who strangled his wife and ended his days in a lunatic asylum.) But building on Gramsci, Althusser came up with the idea of the Ideological State Apparatus, which he contrasted with the Repressive State Apparatus of the police, the courts and so forth. His idea was that capitalism reproduces itself in part through ideological domination in school, churches, families and the like. Again, it’s an idea from a certain time and place, when Marxism was much more central to western intellectual life than it now is, but it still has its value today. (By the way, if you want to see Althusser’s cumbersome thought and expression taken apart by an elegant and thoughtful critic, read EP Thompson’s 1978 counter-blast, The Poverty of Theory. Thompson, himself who never entirely left the Communist Party, was fiercely attacked by right-wing critics in the 1980s because of his stance on nuclear weapons. He would recall acidly that, unlike them he had fought in the Second World War as an officer in the Royal Armoured Corps: score another one for been there, done that.) And in general I wouldn’t refuse to read a book by someone whose political opinions I disliked, because you never know what useful thoughts might be prompted by reading it.
Let’s move on then, to other books which are recommendable pretty much without reservation. As we’ll see in a moment, the most useful books, especially on regional issues, are by those with field experience of some kind, but also the intellectual capacity to use that experience wisely. This is the essentially pragmatic tradition of looking to see what the world is like, and for that matter how it used to be, and then trying to draw conclusions, rather than trying to impose an external frame of reference on recalcitrant reality. The latter is horribly easy to do, especially if you have a degree in International Relations from an American University, but it seldom produces anything valuable.
Perhaps the most obvious point to start from is that It Was Different Then. All modern societies have great difficulty in accepting this, because they live in an eternal present, where the past, if it nonetheless differed slightly from our more blessed present state, was clearly advancing towards it. This may be compared with the traditional, pre-Enlightenment, view that the world was better in the old days, and that we have been in a state of continuous decline ever since. At least until a couple of hundred years ago, older was better, and the wisest and more knowledgeable people had lived, by definition, the longest time ago. And of course there are many societies that view human history itself as patterned or cyclic. (Western attempts at that—Toynbee, Spengler—seem inherently unconvincing to me, because they try to construct ambitious theories on a very fragile evidential base, where we have no certainty that the future will be like the past.)
Yet common sense tells us that it was different then, and often the changes are quite rapid. When you have racked up a certain number of years on the odometer of life, you quickly realise that changes have taken place even within your own lifetime. So it seems clear, for example, that the much-vaunted relative openness and tolerance of western societies was in fact a historical exception that lasted in its mature form from the 1970s to the 2000s, before slowly reverting to the generally intolerant nature of the past.
But of course the further back you go in time, the more different things are, which should be too obvious to need saying, but unfortunately isn’t. I usually start with the Greeks, and with that neglected work of Plato, the Timaeus. Now this dialogue (monologue effectively) is generally classified as a charming creation myth. But it’s not really a myth at all, it’s the equivalent of a textbook on cosmology and physics, and it tells us, for example, that planets and stars are living beings, that there are four elements, all made up of triangles, and that water is compressed into stone. Or try reading Homer, and especially the Iliad, without filtering it through modern perspectives to try to make it “relevant.” (I still remember the shock of reading MI Finley’s World of Odysseus many decades ago.) But perhaps the Greeks were even more different than that. If we are to believe Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind consciousness as we understand it is not found in Homer, and the voices from the gods that our ancestors heard actually came from within their own minds, whose hemispheres functioned completely independent of each other. For all the attempts to make it appear that the ancients were “just like us”, and so un-threatening to squeamish undergraduates, it’s obvious that the Greeks (and the Romans for that matter) were not like us at all.
And even our more recent European ancestors were not that much like us either. Now that medieval literature is rarely taught in universities (“too difficult”), we have lost touch with a way of thinking that is both recent in civilisational terms, and terrifyingly different from what we know. But the cosmologies that we find in Chaucer and Dante, and even as late as Shakespeare for that matter, are not symbolic myths, but actual pragmatic descriptions of the world as it was believed to be. If you could fly high enough, you could touch the spheres: the music they made was real, but our senses are too crude to hear them. To the modern question, did they really believe that? the answer, as described in books like CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image and EMW Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (both now out of favour) is, yes, they very much did.
And this should give us pause, not least when we consider that in many parts of today’s world, cultures still exist which are as far from our modern liberal-rational-materialist one as Dante’s. The tendency to what I call Chronicism, the feeling of superiority about the past, and the belief that, where it cannot be tortured into seeming to prefigure the present it should be censored or discarded, is extremely powerful, and becoming more so. It’s not hard to see why. If people even a few hundred years ago did not share our liberal-rationalist-material mindset, then is it possible that that same mindset is itself contingent, rather than being the end of history, and that in the future people might look back on our vision of the world with incredulity? How terrifying that would be. In many ways, the best way to understand the present is to understand that the past was different, and that the present, as William Gibson might say, isn’t evenly distributed anyway. And it’s not even if the progression from the past to the present followed an inevitable progression: it’s hard to read history without realising how horribly contingent it all is, and not just in Kings and Queens either: the Bible historian Bart Ehrman, for example, has shown in Lost Christianities how versions of the faith which are unrecognisable today might have come to dominate western civilisation, except for a series of extraordinary historical, accidents, just as Tom Holland’s Shadow of the Sword shows how improbable was the rise of Islam.
What can we say about this progression? Well the first thing is that it was indeed neither inevitable nor unidirectional. We forget, for example, that the ideas of the Enlightenment didn’t triumph just like that: read Darrin MacMahon’s Enemies of the Enlightenment. Yet even so, at the macro level there do seem to have been some underlying slow, deep patterns of change. Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin and Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary plot, in their different ways, massive changes in mentality, and suggest among other things that the “individual” as we understand that concept is a surprisingly recent development. Gebser sees humanity passing from an archaic mode of thought, to a magical, then a mythical mode, and finally to today’s mental-rational mode, which he believed could potentially result in a “catastrophe” for humanity. McGilchrist discusses what he sees as the struggle between the left and right hemispheres of the brain for dominance, with the rational, unimaginative, detail-obsessed left brain (the “Emissary”) now being dangerously in control. These are both, of course, ways of describing the progressive rise of the rational, liberal materialist and managerial society in which we now live.
And in turn, this rise was possible because of the end of religion as a genuine transcendent structuring force for living and thinking, and its subsequent development (or regression) into a kind of gutless humanism. As Charles Taylor shows in A Secular Age, this was not because science “disproved” religion (a logical impossibility anyway ) but because religion effectively surrendered in advance, trying to appeal to whatever were the fashionable ideas of the moment, by shedding more and more of its fundamental essence. As Alasdair McIntyre has shown in After Virtue, the effective abandonment of Christianity as a common point of reference and departure for moral argument produced a plethora of human-derived substitute ethical schemas, which were “incommensurable” in his terms, and so simply resulted in people shouting past each other without even understanding what the other was shouting about.
Which brings us to the logical question: how do we know if there are any absolute moral standards or definitive truth at all? Well, Nietzsche posed the problem, as we’ve seen, but is there an answer? Not really, although any number of writers have tried to develop ethical systems: that’s the problem. Nothing, of course, prevents us from developing or adopting our own ethical ideas, seeking out others with the same ideas, and acting accordingly. It’s doubtful if a non-“ethical” life is even possible, since people generally behave according to some rules, even bad ones. But surely, hasn’t postmodernism done away with all that? Aren’t all opinions equally good? We come back to the problem that showing that ideas have changed over time is a disruptive act, because it implies that ideas may also change in the future. But if considered coolly, there’s no need to panic.
Let’s get Foucault out of the way first: never perhaps has a philosopher, even Kant or Hegel, produced so much inadvertent damage, ignorantly used by people who have no idea what he’s trying to say. Foucault said that the point of philosophy was to interpret the world. This means looking at the mechanics of life, who does what, who decides, who controls, why people accept rules and ways of thinking, and indeed how we think about issues in the first place. And this, he said, changes over time. The way in which people talked about mental illness in the sixteenth century is simply incompatible with how they talked about it in the nineteenth century, and it’s interesting and important to follow the changes. The early books—The Archeology of Knowledge, Words and Things and the lost and only recently published Discourse of Philosophy are very much about this, and well worth reading. Foucault was in many ways a quite traditional writer, he wrote a generally clear, elegant and slightly old-fashioned French, but he has been badly served by translators, who have made him seem more obscure than he really was.
Other post-modernists (and whether Foucault actually was one is debated) are a different issue, and here we need to bear in mind the French intellectual tradition of superficial brilliance, love of paradox, deliberate exaggeration and wordplay. In much of, say, Derrida or Barthes there is this tradition of brilliant, paradoxical insight (more Nietzsche than Descartes, we might say) and their writings need to be treated with discretion. When Barthes talked about the “death of the author” for example, he was being deliberately provocative, and in many ways was just saying what literary critics had been saying for decades under the label of the “intentional fallacy:” a book is necessarily more than the author has consciously put in it, it is not a crossword puzzle to be solved. In general, works by such authors are often fun and stimulating, but the question remains of whether they actually have any ultimate value. (Of course for any of their theories to be true there has to be the possibility of objective truth, a point made by Julian Baggini in his excellent little book A Short History of Truth.)
Which brings us finally to where we are now, wherever that is. And here we run into the problem of who gets to describe the world, and how? Thirty years ago, the idea that western liberal norms and western liberal money massively structured our understanding of the world was considered scandalous and extreme. Anthropologists like Edward T Hall (Beyond Culture) and Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures) began to educate us upon the infinite variety and relativity of cultures (been-there-done-that strikes again). These days, the idea that western power dictates every act of every country in the world has become a cliché, and those of us who thirty years ago were hopeless radicals are now hopeless reactionaries for saying the same thing we have always said.
Nonetheless, it remains true that the vast majority of writing intended to help us understand the world is produced by westerners or funded by them, and even by that subset of westerners aligned with the international PMC and its ideology of Liberalism. An Angolan or Argentinian researcher trying to understand what’s going on in Gabon or Gaza will rapidly be confronted with free online books and articles in English, written by interns who have never visited either. Of course the fact that Liberalism is an ideology is not always admitted, and so it’s useful to read books like Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-history and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed as a counterweight, even if both are open to reservations. Likewise, any faith you may have retained in the export version of Liberalism to solve the world’s problems won’t survive a reading of Jenkins and Plowden’s Governance and Nation-Building, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans, Susan Woodward’s Ideology of Failed States, or devastating case studies like Theodore Trefon’s Congo Masquerade.
Other countries, and for that matter their rulers as well, have to be seen as they are, and not as helpless victims or grateful recipients of western attention, depending on your political views, and then you will understand the world better. Nobody reading Douglas Johnson’s Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars would have been surprised at the recent fighting in that country. If you read French and have followed the work of experts like Stephen Smith and Antoine Glaser, you wouldn’t have been taken aback by the recent coups in Francophone Africa, or looked for complex explanations when simple ones are available. Even if you don’t, there is William Reno’s work on patrimonial states, Patrick Chabal on Suffering and Smiling, Jeffrey Herbst on the problems of States and Power in Africa, the work of Jean-François Bayart and others on the African state as a criminal enterprise, and David Keene’s account in Useful Enemies of why war is good for political careers and getting rich. To understand why and how African states and leaders manoeuvre to survive in a world of great powers, read Christopher Clapham’s Africa and the International System and Basil Davidson’s Black Man’s Burden among others. To understand the reality of conflict in Africa, have a look at books such as Paul Richards’s Fighting for the Rain Forest about Sierra Leone, or Stephen Ellis’s The Mask of Anarchy about Liberia. (Hint: it’s nothing like we assume it to be.)
These are all authors who have Been There and Done That, and, rather than treating the locals as objects and extras, they give them the dignity of actors. The same is true of experts on the Middle East: you don’t have to settle for what the Wall Street Journal thinks about Hezbollah, for example, there are now a shelf-load of good studies by people who know the organisation well, some in English, such as Nicholas Blandford’s Warriors of God. To get an idea of the still-unfolding catastrophe which was the fall of the Ottoman Empire, read James Barr’s A Line in the Sand, and David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. The next time somebody tries to convince you that the CIA set up ISIS, smile indulgently and tell them there are lots of excellent studies of the origins of that organisation, its analogues and its history, of which Jason Burke’s The New Threat is a very readable example. And so on and on and on, for other parts of the world as well
I’ve been told I have to stop now, which is a shame because there’s a lot more on my list, and I wanted to write something for those of us living in the degenerate, Kafkaesque, tragic farce of western civilisation today, and give some examples of books which might make it easier to avoid sinking even further into the Slough of Despond. But I’ve gone on too long already, and that will have to wait for another time.
In the meantime, any comments?