Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

By John Wilson

Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf

"Wayfaring Stranger"

The sound track this week was supposed to be the Rev. Charlie Jackson, but I can't find the CD. Wendy must have loaned it to someone. (Yes, I still listen to CDs. When Alan Jacobs finishes his book, I will ask him for a one-day seminar in which he'll usher me into the 21st century.) So instead, we'll turn to Gloryland, the new release from Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi), continuing wonderfully in the vein of American Angels.

I should add that my grip on everyday reality, always a bit shaky, becomes much more so whenever my wife Wendy is gone, and she has been gone most of the time for the last several weeks, first to visit our daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter in Texas, then to be with her sister in California, whose cancer has taken a turn for the worse. For the first time in almost 40 years, Wendy and I were not together at Thanksgiving. If I sound odd, or conspicuously more foolish than usual, that may be the cause.

The current issue of the New York Review of Books (November 30, 2006) includes a substantial essay-review by Max Rodenbeck on the "war against terror." While he considers three books (and two papers from the National Security Council), Rodenbeck relies most heavily on Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat (Random House). If you have been reading the NYRB at all over the past five years, you will not be surprised to learn that Rodenbeck approvingly cites Richardson's assessment that the "declaration of a global war on terror has been a terrible mistake" on the part of the Bush Adminstration. Indeed (he continues to quote Richardson),

Americans opted to accept al-Qaeda's language of cosmic warfare at face value and respond accordingly, rather than respond to al-Qaeda based on an objective assessment of its resources and capabilities.

So who is to blame for the current threat? Rodenbeck tells us: "In essence, America's reactions radically upgraded Osama bin Laden's organization from a ragtag network of plotters to a great enemy worthy of a superpower's undivided attention… . America empowered al-Qaeda politically by its loud triumphalism, whose very excess encouraged others to try the same terror tactics."

I urge you to read Rodenbeck's article in full, and to at least skim Richardson's book—which, as its title suggests, emphasizes commonalities among a wide variety of terrorist movements. But then, please read another book that Rodenbeck doesn't consider, Mary Habeck's Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale Univ. Press).

The contrasts between Richardson and Habeck are marked. Richardson issues swaggering judgments. Habeck writes in a sober, unemphatic style; her book is rather like a briefing (if you are a reasonably fast reader, you can easily finish it in a single night), and it has none of the personal drama of Lawrence Wright's fascinating account in The Looming Tower (Knopf). Richardson talks in comparative terms about recurring lessons; Habeck focuses on the ideology of jihadism.

While in some respects the two books lead to different assessments of the current situation, in one important respect they do not. Richardson's critique of the very notion of a vaguely defined "global war on terror" is quite congruent with Habeck's attention to the particularities of the enemy we face. Clearly the Bush Administration erred in not identifying that enemy at the outset. As Habeck writes in her modest conclusion, "The significant difference between the ideas presented here and other proposals for fighting the war on terror is the conclusion drawn from the preceding discussion: that the center of the jihadist movement is its ideology, which must be directly confronted, challenged, and defeated." That should be one of the first priorities of the administration that takes over when the Bush presidency ends.

Footnote: I've just received from University of California Press a book called The Secret History of al Qaeda, by Abdel Bari Atwan. I'll report on this, along with some other recent books related to the conflict, within the next few weeks.

And to avoid seeing Islam in one context only, take a look at Ink and Gold: Islamic Calligraphy, by Marcus Fraser and Will Kwiatkowski (distributed in the U.S. by the Univ. of Washington Press). This slim, beautifully produced volume gives a sense of the long sweep (both in time and place) of Islam's history.

Of course, for lovers of art books (and gift-givers with an eye on the calendar), there is always a dizzying array of choices. Another superb volume from the University of Washington Press is Adam Elsheimer 1578-1610, an exhibition catalogue devoted to the work of a German artist whose life was tragically short. If you are not instantly drawn in by the haunting reproduction on the cover, this won't be your cup of tea.

Last week I mentioned books on prayer. From the National Gallery of Art, Harvard University Art Museums, and Yale University Press comes a magnificent exhibition catalogue, Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, by John Oliver Hand, Catherine A. Metzger, and Ron Spronk, done with Yale's characteristic excellence. (The exhibition will be at the National Gallery through February 4 before moving to Antwerp.) And for those who want to plunge into the subject more deeply, there's a companion volume from HUMA and Yale University Press, Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, edited by Hand and Stronk.

Departing from the realm of art books, if you have an insatiable Lincoln buff on your gift list—or are one yourself—and you are wondering which title among the many recent ones you might pick up, a good choice is Douglas Wilson's Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (Knopf). Wilson, who won the Lincoln Prize in 1999 for Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, will appeal to readers who have enjoyed recent studies of Lincoln's rhetoric by Garry Wills and Ronald White, among others. And back at the beginning of 2006, Knopf also published Richard Carwardine's excellent book Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, earlier available from Longman in more limited distribution; if you haven't added it your collection, you should. (My copy has vanished, alas.)

Aiiiee! We've barely gotten started—the unmentioned books reproach me—but it is time to stop for now. Next week: my favorite books of the year (favorite, not necessarily the best). We're doing that just a bit earlier than in previous years. And then later in the month: the year in books.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

Most ReadMost Shared