Monday, 16 February 2009

What I'm reading

Academic research is very specialised, but I don't want to be too narrow in my interests. For leisure, I try to have at least one novel and one non-fiction book on the go at all times. At the moment, my novel is Olivia Manning's The Great Fortune, which is a reread -- but since I last read it over a decade ago, I am finding it pretty unfamiliar. For non-fiction, I have been reading Robert Irwin's For Lust of Knowing, which is in part a history of European scholarship on Islam and the Arab world, in part a polemic against Edward Said's Orientalism and its influence. The question of whether a discourse can be academically useful even if the historical 'facts' on which is it based are flawed is an interesting one, and I think deserves more than the rather peremptory treatment it receives from Irwin. For me, though, the more interesting part of For Lust of Knowing is its account of international scholarship on Arabic and Islam in the early modern period and eighteenth century. Most of the names mentioned here were unfamiliar to me, but the account of how Arabic scholarship inter-related with classical and biblical studies was persuasive and suggestive. I was rather sorry that, since Irwin does attend to matters Turkish, Persian and Egyptian where relevant to his subject, he didn't mention Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters, based on her brief residence in Constantinople at the start of the eighteenth century. Perhaps she'll feature in the promised sequel.

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