“Terrorism’ has become a plague on our vocabulary.” R. Fisk
So this book. If you are going to charity book shops more or less frequently, you have come across it. You normally find a bookmark nestled somewhere half way in there, showing where exactly the previous owner gave up.
This book is a brick. The edition I read clocked in at about 1,300 pages. I like long books as much as the next guy, but even I needed six pool-side vacation days to read this book. Which tells you a lot about the audience of the book:
It is people who have time and the motivation to spend one week of their lives reading up on various conflicts in the Middle East.
(It is apparently a New York Times Bestseller, which makes me wonder who many people bought it for pure vanity reasons. Not judging them, but there cannot be that many people out there who actually bought and read it.)
Which brings me to one of my main problems with this book. It is very much preaching to the choir.
You see, Robert Fisk was a journalist for The Times and The Independent. He covered the Middle East for decades, and this book tells you the story behind all main political developments in the region in the past thirty years.
It includes the story about how Fisk got an interview with Bin Laden in a cave in Afghanistan. It includes some really great reporting on the Iraq-Iran war. It includes awesome stories about foreign correspondents doing foreign correspondency stuff.
But, most of all, it covers one conflict after the other. You go from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the Armenian Genocide to the Algerian War to the 2003 Iraq War.
There wasn’t a lot of peace that Fisk saw.
And all throughout the book, you can feel his unbridled joy to be unrestricted by page limits and word counts. For a man who spent all his life trying to get as much space in a newspaper as possible – and often being edited down or entirely out – the prospect of having as much space as he wants must be intoxicating.
I’m not saying Fisk needed a better editor, because most of what he says is relevant and interesting.
It’s just that after a while, all the conflicts bleed together. And perhaps it was the incongruity of reading about these conflicts at a pool in Dubai, surrounded by Middle East Oil Wealth and Western vacationers. But the book started to annoy me.
I think Fisk has an important message – he witnessed so many conflicts, and he saw how shameful Western governments behaved themselves. It is an important book. But the impact it could – and should – have is lost because nobody reads this book.
Nobody who doesn’t know about all of this, that is. If you dedicate yourself to this book, you already know about all of this. Or most of it.
Fisk is very much preaching to the choir here, and that’s why his genuine outrage annoyed me. It’s not me you have to talk to, I caught myself thinking. I’m with you on this. But I’m also not the one who can fix any of this. And the people who could -arguably – fix this won’t read it.
So yes. Read this book, don’t read it – but if you do, remember: this is a marathon, not a sprint.
And next week, we’re thinking about what’s the right thing to do.