book review: seven pillars of wisdom

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
Anchor, 784 pp.
Published 1922

"There are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history."

More than seventy years ago, T.E. Lawrence—universally known as Lawrence of Arabia—wrote these self-effacing words in the introductory chapter to his monumental epic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Not even a man as hopeful for immorality as he could have predicted how enduring a place in twentieth-century English literature his extraordinary memoir would claim.

Lawrence tells the story of his role in the Arab revolt against the Turks, a minor, diversionary theater of war for the British immersed in World War I, but a profoundly meaningful struggle for the Arabs. He draws amazingly evocative portraits of the principal players, and it is doubtful if anyone else writing in English has ever described the vast and beautiful Arabian terrain with such power of detail and subtle shading. Not only a consummate military history, but also a colorful saga and a lyrical exploration of the mind of a great man, Seven Pillars of Wisdom has become an indisputable classic.

What has lent the book its lasting fascination is Lawrence's passionate account of the Arab people and of the Arab nation struggling to be born. The parallels to be drawn with the ongoing conflict in the Middle East are undeniable. Whether this masterpiece is read as a thrilling military history, a timeless adventure story, or prescient narrative, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is destine to enthrall generations to come.

Finishing T.E. Lawrence's account of the Arab revolt is the culmination of a two and a half year effort for me, which started with finally watching Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in 2015. It's a major cinematic touchstone that I could never bring myself to see on the minuscule screen of a television set. Afterwards, since I was just starting to introduce more non-fiction into my reading schedule, someone suggested that I read the memoir upon which Lawrence of Arabia was based. Dutifully, I found a copy at the used bookstore and tucked it away on my shelf. For two years. It's a brick of a book, detail packed onto every page in tiny print, referencing people and places and events I had absolutely no prior knowledge of. In short, it was dreadfully intimidating.

In a way, I'm more intimidated by Seven Pillars now after having read it. Classifying it outside a general non-fiction label proves difficult; over the course of 122 chapters (plus a brief epilogue) Lawrence delves into politics, military strategy, psychology, history, geology, sociology, and religion. His observations betray a cunning mind poorly masked by false modesty. For all his protestations to the contrary, Lawrence relishes his central role in this minor theater of WWI, even as the conflict between duty and moral imperatives eats away at his conscience.

The level of detail he captures in every aspect of the two year campaign against the Turks means that there will be something of interest for every reader. However, like a short story collection, his breadth of scope all but guarantees that the reader's engagement will ebb and flow with the topic at hand. Personally, I most enjoyed the philosophical introspection, feverish at times, when Lawrence reflects on the revolt and its principles. His descriptions of the actors, major and minor alike, also fascinate; he was a man capable of great insight, seemingly on first glance. The minute descriptions of military engagements might fascinate a historian or amateur strategist, but I found myself yearning to skip ahead. Lawrence also does great justice to the topography of the Arabian peninsula, illustrating a beautiful landscape of which the desert is only a part.

For all of its detail, though, Seven Pillars reads best as the portrait of a man caught between two disparate cultures. He claims (and I believe him) that the unity and independence of a fledgling Arab nation matter to him personally. Lawrence often speaks disdainfully of British soldiers who cannot acknowledge the strength and character of their local allies, yet his own assessments of his Arab counterparts are littered with derogatory stereotypes. He's a product of his upbringing (the illegitimate son of an Irish nobleman) and his era: the lack of self-awareness in a man whose gaze pierces through others so readily is notable, though not entirely unexpected.

Every reader will close Seven Pillars with a different perspective of both the author and the events he describes. To allow for such a fluid range of experiences is rare in a book, particularly one that deals in known history. While a struggle to complete at times I still feel more enriched for having tackled Lawrence's account of the Arab revolt. Given enough time for the first reading to sink in, I'd like to revisit it in the future with more of an eye for the unintentional autobiography it contains, rather than a mere account of war. It's tempted to recommend this to any history buff, but I think the truest audience lies in those fascinated by the human condition and how extraordinary circumstances both reveal and shape a man's ultimate character.


This book was one of my twelve selections (or two alternates) for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. You can read more about the challenge and follow my progress here.

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