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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What I Learn By Reading

The Gem of The Moment

I am reading a real wonder of a book — it really ought to be required reading for everyong from 8th grade up — but when I tell you the title, you surely won’t believe me. The book is: Adam J. Silverstein, Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction (here’s a video interview with the author) The title is meant seriously — the "A Very Short" series is a clever idea of Oxford University Press’s — every book is in fact very short in length, in width, in height — something you can slip into a pockeet and hardly notice its there. But short alone doesn’t say much — you can be brief and boring, brief and foolish — Silverstein is brief and brilliant, Here is just a taste — and an indication why it is worth the hour or so you might spend reading this (and thus beginning to understand the world we live in).
     Why are so many streets in the Middle East narrow and winding? After all, when the Romans colonized the area — and built the cities in which the early Christians lived — they famously built straight, wide roads to provide easy transportation for armies, horses, carts drawn by oxen. And since the Romans built up many of the great cities, the answer is not that the pre-Roman cities had narrow streets. No, the narrow streets came later — with the rise of Islam. Why?
    Because the dominant beast of burden for the invading Arab-Muslim armies was the camel — the camel can go anywhere, it does not need a wide, straight street. So when the new rulers arrived they built new cities with thin winding streets, which were just fine for them, their armies, and their camels. Silverstein’s book is full of observations and insights like this — here’s another — why did Islam (and Arabic) spread so widely, so quickly? On answer is that just as the printing press would later revolutionize Europe and spur the spread of Protestantism, as Islam began to spread paper replaced papyrus throughout the region. The Middle East experienced a paper revolution — making it much easier to write, copy, and circulate ideas, poems, Qurans.
         This short book has wonderful cultural-historical insights like this on just about every page — and suddenly Islamic history becomes, well, really interesting, understandable, related to Western history — and the present that much more explicable. The book is clear, witty, wise, and wonderful — read it.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Excellent recommendation. I am about to pick up the book at B & N. Though I’ve read parts of the Koran (Sharia), and have eaten in the homes of Muslim/Arab close friends & neighbors in NY, I look forward to learning more about their history, for at our Seder table, when asked about our Jewish customs, I was aware of how similar so many Jewish and Arab, and even Christian rituals, beliefs, and forms of behavior are.

    And, most important, we expose our children and grandchildren, and students to such connections. I prefer emphasizing similarities/commonalities, for the word “different” often alludes to strangeness and negativity. And, the facts of history, as well as the oddities and particulars, pique interest, for “Nothing human is alien,” or we hope so.