Monday, February 21, 2011

Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and better understanding the Middle East and North Africa today

Political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa dominates the news again today with Libya seemingly in free fall towards civil war and continuing and increasingly violent clashes in Yemen and Bahrain.  If you are not familiar with T.E. Lawrence and the Arab revolt of 1916, it is high time to acquire and read T.E.  Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom or at least, study the history of the Middle East during and right after World War I. To truly understand the Middle East and North Africa today, a basic understanding of the 20th century founding of the nations of North Africa and the Middle East is necessary.  This is not only a chance to learn but a great opportunity to add to a private library and acquire a very collectible book, universally considered a masterpiece.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, 1888-1935, better known as T.E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia, was a British Liaison Officer during the Arab revolt of 1916.  This revolt,  inspired and encouraged by Lawrence, played a key role in World War I and saw the Ottoman Empire destroyed and their almost 900 year rule over the lands of North Africa and the Middle East ended.  Lawrence was a central actor and military leader during the Arab revolt and his influence, especially his introduction of guerrilla warfare techniques, remain visible in today's Middle East (see IED).  The aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the defeat of Germany in World War I led to French and British dominance of these lands between 1918 and 1947 and the establishment the Middle East and North Africa as we know it today.  Lawrence advocated for Arab freedom and self-rule and did not support the French and British control that his victories eventually enabled.  At the end of World War I Lawrence chose a life of obscurity and tried to deny, without much success, his status as an epic hero.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Lawrence's autobiographical memoir of the Arab revolt and chronicles his experiences and unique perspective of the events and people that created the modern Middle East and North Africa. I believe this book belongs in every private library and especially those with an interest in modern history, the Middle East, North Africa, World War I and contemporary world politics.  Not only is this a must acquire for most private libraries, the early printings are highly collectible, the publication itself has a fascinating history and the most complete edition was just published in a trade edition in 2004.

I don't have a copy of the Lawrence masterpiece in my private library and that is something I need to correct.  It has been at least 15 years since I recall last doing some casual research into acquiring a copy.  Now, I will offer a detailed overview of the challenge and make a final suggestion that I will follow and perhaps you will as well.

Lawrence began writing his memoir of the Arab revolt shortly after the end of World War I.  In 1919 he completed a draft of the manuscript which he then lost.  In 1920 he rewrote the manuscript which now totaled over 400,000 words.  In 1922 Lawrence completed a re-write of the 400,000 word draft, trimming it to 335,000 words and gifted the manuscript to The Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

Lawrence did, at his own expense, have the 1922 manuscript typeset and 6 proof copies were printed, now referred to as "The Oxford Text".  The printing was done without correction but Lawrence did proof the 6 copies, making corrections and addressing reader comments in his own copy.  In 2001, his copy was sold at auction for $1,000,000 to a collector.  In 1926, at the urging of friends, Lawrence agreed to edit the manuscript to 225,000 words to support a single volume abridged edition to be offered by subscription and totalling 200 copies.  This illustrated and individually bound edition now demands a premium price in the rare book marketplace and sells for over $75,000.

Finally, in 1935 after Lawrence's death, a general audience trade edition was published based on the 1926 abridged edition.  This edition, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Jonathan Cape, London, 750 copies and Doubleday, Doran and Company, Garden City, NY, 750 copies)became a best selling title, has been reprinted numerous times, is a classic of world literature and is most likely, the most affordable collectible copy available in the used book marketplace.  This edition has gone through numerous reprints and is available in various paperback editions.  I would like a copy of this edition especially for the illustrations.
In 1997, copyright to the abridged edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom expired and it was finally possible to release new editions.  Shortly thereafter, Castle Hill Press,  founded by Jeremy Wilson the authorised biographer of Lawrence, published a new and complete edition, in two volumes (750 copies printed) based on the 1922 Oxford Text.  In 2004 Castle Hill released a trade edition of 1800 copies preceded by a subscriber's library bound edition (2003. 1000 copies).   Castle Hill Press has created a complete bibliographic history of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and maintains a fabulous website concerning T.E. Lawrence and his writings.   

Since I read the 1935 edition years ago I am no real hurry to acquire just any copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For simple reading, I imagine that a print on demand edition will do, although I'd be carefull in researching what edition you are actually buying, or perhaps you can find the complete edition via your favorite library.  Which edition will I acquire?  I will most likely purchase the available Castle Hill trade edition of 2004.  I imagine that over time, the 1935 edition will lose all value and that the 1997 two volume Castle Hill edition will become very sought after and expensive.

There is a new biography of T. E. Lawrence by Michael Korda. I'm not in the market for yet another biography and this seems to compete with Jeremy Wilson's 1989 authorized biography.  Wilson's biography is available in the used book marketplace and I imagine would be the gold standard in terms of biographies.

If you need more time to figure out which edition is best for you,  at least, rent the Academy Award winning film, Lawrence of Arabia, staring Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Quinn (1963 Oscar list here) for a great introduction to this era and topic.

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