An American Editor

December 12, 2011

On Books: Saladin

History and biography captivate me. Although they seem intertwined, and they usually are, I find that I can read with great pleasure a biography of someone whose importance in history is perhaps marginal or of importance only in a narrow set of circumstances. Biographies of Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, and Paul Cézanne come to mind as examples. Although interesting, I suspect if their biographies were never read or written it would not matter much to history.

In contrast, there are people whose biographies are so intertwined with history that one does not get a full picture of the historical events with which they are associated in the absence of reading their biography and the biographies of those both close to them and in opposition to them. Some examples that come to mind are Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Adolph Hitler, and John Brown.

I would add to this list of indispensable biography that of Saladin. I have long searched for a good, comprehensive biography of Saladin and finally found one. Published in the United States just last month (a translation from the original 2008 French edition) Anne-Marie Eddé’s Saladin, translated by Jane Marie Todd, is an exceptional look at one of the great figures of history.

Over the years, I have read, or attempted to read, several “comprehensive” biographies of Saladin. Not only were none comprehensive, but most were very cursory. Eddé’s Saladin, on the other hand, is rich with detail and clearly the fruit of original research. (Kudos also have to be extended to Jane Marie Todd. Her translation is outstanding. Much too often I find translations to be accurate but lacking in flow and tone, especially the tone of the original. I admit that I do not read French and so have not read Saladin in the original, but I feel confident in stating Todd captured the nuances and tone of the original. This translation was easy to read; I would have thought that English was Eddé’s native tongue.)

Even today, the Muslim world celebrates the achievements of Saladin. Interestingly, although the Arabs claim him as one of their own, Saladin was a Kurd, not an Arab. More important, however, to both ancient and modern history is that Saladin was a Muslim who fought for the Muslim cause against the Christian crusaders.

Saladin was a living hero and remains a hero today. He united Egypt and Syria under a single ruler, he fought Richard the Lion-heart in the Third Crusade to a draw, cementing a relationship in history between two giants. (For an excellent dual biography of Saladin and Richard that is focused on their complex and intertwined relationship during the Third Crusade, I recommend James Reston’s Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade [2001]. Unlike Eddé’s Saladin, the focus of Reston’s book is narrow.) And he recaptured Jerusalem, perhaps the most fought-over city in history. (Sitting on my to-be-read shelf is the newly published Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This is at the top of my TBR list, although I also have several other books that are vying for the next-to-be-read position.)

During his lifetime and over the course of subsequent generations, the myth of Saladin grew, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. In this sense, Eddé has a difficult road to walk but she does so admirably. A reader comes away with a better sense of the real Saladin, which is not a denigration of his greatness — Saladin was great for his time.

Eddé’s biography does one other thing, and I think does it well: it provides the Western reader with a view of the Muslim world and of the Crusades from a Muslim perspective, rather than solely from a Western perspective. In addition, we get to see Saladin as more than just a warrior; after all, he was responsible for governing as well as military affairs.

During his lifetime, Saladin gained a reputation for chivalry, trustworthiness, and magnanimity. This reputation was extant among both his followers and his enemies. Saladin’s magnanimity, however, did not preclude his enslaving thousands of prisoners or beheading those who refused his offer of a reprieve if they converted to Islam. He was a semi-enlightened ruler for his era, not a revolutionary ruler who changed the dynamics of the time. Eddé’s biography of Saladin gives us the opportunity to learn more about Saladin as a man of his time, rather than as a mythical warrior-hero.

If you are interested in the history of the Crusades, Medieval history, or great biography, I highly recommend Saladin by Anne-Marie Eddé. It will change your perspective about an important moment in human history. If the book has a failing, it is, perhaps, that it is too richly detailed. Regardless, this is a 5-star book that deserves space in one’s permanent book collection.

January 4, 2010

Louis Brandeis: A Life

I am currently reading the biography of one of our greatest U.S. Supreme Court justices and lawyers, Louis Brandeis. Melvin Urofsky’s Louis Brandeis: A Life is available in both print and ebook form. This is the biography to read if you want to discover what a lawyer should be.

Brandeis didn’t grow up poor, so this isn’t a rags-to-riches story like the story of current justice Clarence Thomas. But it is the story of a man of principle, a lawyer who was often the lawyer of the situation rather than of the person. It is also the story of a man whose introduction to law occurred as how to learn law was on the cusp of changing, and of a man who introduced a different form of advocacy — a form that lawyers today do not practice, that is, being lawyer to the situation — which if they did, would enhance our society greatly.

Brandeis was a man of great intellect with a burning desire to understand both sides fully, something that we cannot always claim for our current justices. It was not that Brandeis didn’t have blind spots, but that he had a sense of society and a person’s role in it. For example, he was opposed to monopolies not because they were monopolies but because they were big, which he believed lead to inefficiency and thus societal harm. Brandeis combined great intellect, a devotion to detail, and a sense of social good in his law practice and when sitting as a justice. Brandeis wanted and needed to understand relationships in depth, not just the surface understanding that is so common today.

If you read but two biographies in your lifetime, this should be one of them (the other should be Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame). Brandeis lived in a time of dynamic change, the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, and was a great contributor to the life subsequent generations enjoyed. His efforts and his approach to law practice made him unique among Americans, especially at a time of economic upheavel. Urofsky’s well-written biography makes Brandeis approachable by readers; no knowledge of law required.

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