The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Lawrence Wright's THE LOOMING TOWER made most of the "Best Books of 2006" lists, although much of his book consists of material that's available elsewhere. What I suppose made so many book critics swoon over it was that it gave audiences a history of al-Qaeda that undercut the oversimplified understanding of the group that intellectuals assume MOST AMERICANS have (viz. that they are a bunch of evildoers, motivated by nothing more complex than maleficience, who seek, bogeyman-like, to hunt and haunt us time without end). Instead, THE LOOMING TOWER contextualizes the anger of al-Qaeda, arguing that most of it came from Egypt and not the American presence in Saudi Arabia as many assume. The book's great strength is its narrative, which I'm not the first one to say; it doesn't read like academic history, and actually doesn't have any pretensions to be academic history, but I did come to distrust Wright a little way into it. Although certainly the influence of Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was strong in the initial formulation of al-Qaeda, I've read other accounts of the group's philosophy that stresses other strains of radical Islamism. Wright, writing as a narrative historian, tends not to even deal with those. I'd like to hear more about how he came to the judgment that the Egyptian radicals were THE philosophical fathers (through Zawahiri) of al-Qaeda.

Because I managed to get a lot of reading in last summer and even in the fall term, I realized that I read more of critics' "top 10" than in almost any recent year. My evaluations:

THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN: ummm, fair. The plot a little contrived, the characters well-constructed but a little unaware (as is the author?) of the level of privilege they take for granted, the style really really irritating.

THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: great. Read it. Clever conceit, clear writing, vivid.

THE PLACES IN BETWEEN (Rory Smith): Fascinating, but I've actually read a better book on the same topic (travelling on foot through Taliban and post-Taliban Afghanistan).

THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy): next to the bed, waiting.

AGAINST THE DAY (Pynchon): ditto.



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