Crusader Castles – A Young Lawrence of Arabia

Having resolved to read everything written by T. E. Lawrence, I inevitably picked up his college thesis, published posthumously under the title Crusader Castles.

It’s a very rare book, but happily a New Year’s discount made the Folio Society edition a good option, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the customer service, shipping, and, of course, the edition itself.  The FS release is a reprint of the original two-volume edition, and it includes an excellent introduction by biographer Mark Bostridge, whose interest in WWI history makes it a worthy addition.

Through the introduction, you learn that T. E. Lawrence completed his thesis just four years before the outbreak of WWI.  For his research, he had already traveled extensively in Britain and France, and even to Syria and Palestine – his first exposure to the Middle East and its climate, both in a geographical and political sense.

His topic?  In his own words, he set out to prove “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture to the end of the Twelfth Century.”  In what became his trademark style, Lawrence was not afraid to take on an opposing viewpoint, even if it meant going against Sir Charles Oman, the Oxfordian expert on the subject at the time, whose own stance was that East had influenced West, not vice-versa.  Lawrence, not without basis, was confident he could out-research Oman and convince his examiners that the Crusaders took their own architecture to the Holy Land.

Violently controversial points are usually settled by a plain assertion, for simplicity and peace.  If they are of importance in my argument they may be discussed.

It takes a geek to know one, and certainly, readers without prior knowledge of “Ned” will find this book too niche to appreciate.  For fans, Crusader Castles is a gold mine of insights on his young adulthood, both in terms of personal development and in his relationships to his mentors, his family, and the world at large.

T. E.’s taste for physical exertion and adventure is well known; what is more interesting here is his capacity for organization and process.  The book is filled with sketches and photographs of the castles he visits; touristy postcards were, as he points out, not capable of doing justice to the edifices.  Beyond what mere observation would reveal, his drawings of castles plans show an incredible attention to scale and detail, labelled carefully and referred to in his writing with the same exactness that a mathematician might use with a graph.  T. E. clearly put the science into “social science,” and his commentary on crusader strategy not only points to his own extensive reading, but also to the systematic workings of his mind, which played not a small role in the Arab Revolt.

Lawrence (left) and his brothers,
around the time he finished Crusader Castles.

What I enjoyed most about Crusader Castles was the personal side.  Luckily for us, T. E. later added margin notes to his paper, a sort of “Older Ned Reacts to Younger Ned” commentary.  His notes are two-fold: they critique his youthful research and writing style, while adding insights he gained from further thought or experience.  More than that, they showcase his sense of humor, from schoolboyish remarks on “admirable latrines” to gleeful tut-tuts on his college-aged criticisms of other writers.  Even within the original paper, there are delightful references to his castle climbing and (irresistibly) an encounter with a nest of snakes.

That Ned heartily enjoyed himself is no secret.  The second half of the book contains a selection of letters he wrote to his family while he was abroad.  Each one is fairly technical for a personal letter, suggesting he relied on his mother’s care of them to supplement his notes later.  A handful of these letters come from his time in the Middle East, and here we see the very first glimpse of the legendary Lawrence.  It was still an innocent time in his life, when being shot at by a local was a great adventure, and that joy of exploration could not have been a small reason he soon returned to Syria as an archeologist.

Of all the book, maybe my favorite part was his letter from Aigues-Mortes, a medieval castle-city in the south of France. It is the oddity in the volume, because it is an emotional letter, in which Ned’s enthusiasm for his trip and his research cannot be subdued.  He quotes Blake and Shelley, letting his love of poetry show through, and in a glimpse, we see the same passion for landscape that colored his description of Wadi Rum in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

You are all wrong, Mother dear, a mountain may be a great thing, a grand thing, but it is better to be peaceful, and quiet, and pure, omnia pacata posse mente tueri, if that is the best state, then a plain is the best country: the purifying influence is the paramount one in a plain, there one can sit down quietly and think of anything, or nothing which Wordsworth says is best, one feels the littleness of things, of details, and the great and unbroken level of peacefulness of the whole: no, give me a level plain, extending as far as the eye can reach, and there I have enough of beauty to satisfy me, and tranquility as well!

New(ish) books

 
I seem to view summer as the season for buying books.  (Though, let’s get real here, when is buying books ever out of season??)

This gorgeous Vintage Classics Jane Eyre was on my wish list for a while, so when the price lowered on Amazon, I thought I’d better seize the opportunity.  (For anyone who’s interested, it’s still a pretty good deal right now!)  I read Jane Eyre two or three times as a tween/teen, but that was…well, some time ago.  It’s long overdue for a reread.

Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is a book I know little to nothing about, but it’s been on my radar as a French classic I should read.  Found it in the local thrift store for a deal, and in really good condition.  I just love Penguin Classics paperbacks.

Speaking of which, I was ready for more Jack London after The Sea-Wolf.  His sailing memoir, The Cruise of the Snark, looks to be right up my alley.  I found this practically new copy in a small local *bookstore, which I’ve only been to once before.  I also picked up The Man Who Was Thursday, my favorite book (so far) by G. K. Chesterton.

*You might remember my previous excursions to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where I would sell books and use the discount from that to buy new (often used) books.  Though I still love Powell’s, I’m super happy to have found a bookstore nearby where I can have the same experience, albeit on a smaller scale.  

What are your favorite places to buy books, either in person or online?  I’d love to hear about them!

Mini summer book haul

Yesterday my family and I had another chance to visit Powell’s City of Books, which, as I raved last year, is the coolest bookstore you’ll ever get lost in.  I naively assumed it would be fairly quiet in the middle of a Monday…that was a very, very wrong assumption.  The place was absurdly busy – summer has not ended at Powell’s!

I felt kind of overwhelmed and exhausted after twenty minutes, so I didn’t really spend as much time as could have been spent, easily, looking at all the classics and polar exploration books (sigh).  This was my list:

In the end, my timid heart decided not to spend a lot of money, so I got two Conrads and The Scarlet Letter, all three for under $10:

I don’t know how I possibly could have missed it, but The Scarlet Letter has some bad pen marks in the middle of the book.  It was only $3.50, and though I love Hawthorne, there is a chance I’ll be underwhelmed.  If I love it, I’ll get a clean copy; if not, I don’t have to keep it.

Under Western Eyes is one of my favorites, so I couldn’t resist it.  And I’ve been meaning for the longest time to get Nostromo, because I find Conrad is best read in hard copy (I get kind of lost reading him in e-book form).  They also had The Shadow-Line, which, if I had been feeling more energetic and spendy, I’m sure I would have bought as well…

And I almost bought Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, which I’d just got from the library and can hardly put down.  It was a brand-new copy but had a tear in the cover, so happily(?) that decided it for me.  😉

So…I managed to make it in and out of Oregon with just three books and a Peach Green Tea Lemonade (with plenty of peach!).  If I could get down to Powell’s more often, it’s be a different story, I’m sure. 

Nostalgia trip

How could reading morph from something intrinsically habitual to – a tedious chore?

While I stew on that sad thought, I will just mention these books (they come in threes) that arrived this week, and which I am, in a wistful way, excited to read.

A long time ago, I was on a magnificent Jules Verne streak, and one of the best stories was The Lighthouse at the End of the World.  I’ve been longing to get back into Verne, re-read my favorites and explore the umpteen other books he wrote…this one is a good place to start.

Kierkegaard’s discourse on the “modern” world comes highly rated.  From even the little I’ve read of and about him, I sense I’ll relate strongly to some of his ideas and disagree strongly with others.  A short book is a small commitment (!) and hopefully a tidy introduction.

Finally, somehow I wandered across a memoir by Jacques Cousteau, whose underwater films were a vague but memorable part of my childhood.  I had no idea this existed; I’m big on nautical literature, exploration, and primary sources, so The Silent World looks really great.

(And to answer my question – this is just a phase.)

Hello, Fall!

Summer is taking the calendar seriously this year – an overstay of dry weather for the greater Seattle area.  (The dictionary tells me “overstay” is not a noun.  I protest.)  Meanwhile, I am hoping for rain this week and looking for fall color anywhere it dares show its face.

Book Haul

Not long ago we made a trip down to Oregon and on the way back stopped in Portland.  You cannot visit Portland without going to Powell’s City of Books.  Like last year, I came well prepared, with wishlist and books to sell (sorry Jane Austen).

It was a weekday; there were plenty of people, but not so many as on a weekend.  We were in and out of there within an hour.

What I love about Powell’s:
1)  It’s a REAL bookstore.  Rooms and rooms of books up to the ceilings.  You could potentially get lost.  They still have those noisy little stools on wheels, and you actually need them (for tall bookshelves made out of wood).  Powell’s is the real deal.
2)   You will tend to find multiple editions and copies of books.  You can contrast/compare prices to your frugal heart’s content.  Prices for used books are very reasonable, even compared to thrift stores’.

This may all sound like marketing, but honestly, Powell’s is one of my favorite stores.  🙂

Polar exploration is a continuing phase of mine, hence In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov.  This was a little-known, Russian expedition to the Arctic, which took place before Shackleton’s second journey to Antarctica (1914).  The Heart of the Antarctic is about Shackleton’s first expedition south (as a leader), on the Nimrod.  I really enjoyed South and am interested in learning how the Nimrod fared and influenced the Endurance trip.  Together, these polar books cost $8.

I “splurged” on these two.  There was a cheaper version of Gatsby, but you can’t beat the original cover art (and even so, it was less than list price).  Still need to read it…  Then there’s Memories of the Future, with its own pretty awesome title and cover.   It has been described as, essentially, Soviet-era Kafka.  I may end up hating it, but it sounds very intriguing.  According to Wiki, the author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky shared Kafka’s trait of remaining largely unpublished in his own lifetime.  Wiki also claims “major influences on his style were Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and H. G. Wells.”  So far so excellent.

Other Things

By now I should have finished BK, except that I really, really can’t stand Dmitri.

While in Oregon, I read a bit of Melville.  If you haven’t read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” you really must.  I still don’t know what to think of it.  Wiki (again) makes references to Kafka, and I would agree, except that it is an inverted Kafkaesque tale, where the mystery is in the character and not his surroundings (or is it…?).

Currently I’m perusing a brief history of numbers and math, called Numbers and Infinity.  Stylistically, it’s as dry as it sounds, and some of the information is dated.  However, the topic itself is interesting, especially where there is overlap with history and philosophy.

Speaking of overlap, I’m thinking about posting film reviews on this blog.  I don’t want to go very far off topic, but usually I watch classic movies and movies related to literature/history.  Most recently:

  • Kafka (1991)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • Shackleton (2002)
  • The Woman in Black (1989)

The Kafka one is especially due for a review.  Shackleton is also worth talking about, and the other two, both thrillers, might make a good compare/contrast review.  Which one sounds interesting to you?

In “real life” news – I graduated from uni last month and anticipate starting work soon.  It should give me more time to read and blog (no more homework on evenings/weekends!).  My 2014 challenges remain sadly neglected; at this point I will be happy to finish BK by the end of the year.  That’s the plan, anyways.