March, 2008: World’s Smallest Book Group reads The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss. What a fascinating book about a rather weird guy! The blurb on the back cover describes it as “the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany.” No wonder we were drawn to read it!!
We found we were a bit misled by the subtitle, however. We thought it would be about solving the mystery of who really was the author of Ali and Nino, apparently a definitive novel of the Caucasus region and culture on the eve of the Russian Revolution. That mystery was settled in the preface, however. The mystery that remained was getting to the bottom of the life of Lev Nussbaum aka Kurbain Said aka Essad Bey.
Tom Reiss decidedly got to the bottom of an amazing array of events in the man’s life, tracking down his original notebooks and papers. But we didn’t really feel he got to the bottom of the man’s motivation or inner story. So we came away somewhat disappointed on that score. We all felt it was one of the densest-in-detail books we had ever read, which made it a bit slow going at times for some of us.
But what we found most remarkable about reading the book is how ignorant we realize we are about 20th century history. The circuit in time and place this man’s life took brought together a remarkable combination of stories about Azerbaijan (so rich in oil the ground would burst into flames), the Russian Revolution and its connection to the rise of fascism, not to mention all the cultural and religious clashes in Central Asia and the Middle East.
We wish we had been taught history this way in school. And we’re afraid we are too old to remember what we just learned for long now. The best part of reading this book for us was thinking about how exciting teaching and learning history could be…