The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades
By Paul M. Cobb
Published in September 2016
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
After reading God’s Battalions, a mediocre book written by a modern day Catholic to defend the morality of actions taken by crusaders almost 1000 years ago, I had low expectations. I’ve also read The Ornament of the World, a book written by a modern leftist that justly praises the achievements of Islamic Spain while completely ignoring the rape, genocide, and oppression of that regime.
I kind of expected the Race for Paradise to be in the same tradition - I thought it would be a snuff job to cover up past atrocities and justify modern political ideas.
Instead, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a well written and in depth history of the crusades from an Islamic perspective without any modern political commentary.
Paul M. Cobb is a non-Muslim Islamic history specialist who took previously untrasnalted Islamic sources, and built a narrative history of the crusades using those.
I learned so many fascinating details which really helped me understand the crusades. For example, the Muslims didn’t perceive the crusades as a large scale apocalyptic event. Some local Muslim rulers even supported the crusaders with supplies and free passage hoping that they would fight their internal political enemies within the Islamic ummah.
Few of the stories in this book were new to me, as I’ve read many of the same ones in the many other crusades books that I’ve read. However, the emphasis was on different details and different characters.
The audiobook is also very well recorded. It is read by the author, which is always the best. It also came with a downloadable file that includes diagrams of all of the maps that are included in the original book.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who knows a little about the crusades but wants to learn more from a different perspective. Really good and well produced audiobook version.
By Neal Stephenson
Published in 1995
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
(This review does not contain any spoilers.)
This may be the weirdest book that I have ever read.
I rarely read fiction books. This book reminded me why.
Diamond Age has a lot of interesting technology ideas jam packed into it: ideas about the future of education, nanotechnology, virtual reality, warfare, travel, etc… It also explores how a stateless anarcho-capitalist society might look like, which is always great.
However, for every interesting idea that is explored in Diamond Age, there are frustrating problems which partially ruin the book.
First, the book has a number of plot holes that don’t make sense. There are also a number of weird, gratuitous, and rapey sex scenes. the first two thirds of the book are great, but the last third of the book is predominantly about orgies and wild sex. The motivations of characters are often confusing - it seems like many characters do things because Stephenson wants them to act in a certain way, not because it would make sense for them to act in those ways given the variables of their universe. All combat and fighting is cringy and unrealistic. Most infuriating, many questions are raised that are never answered. A number of characters disappear, with no explanation or further mention.
These problems are not present in the beginning of the book, but slowly become increasingly ubiquitous. By the end of Diamond Age, the book devolves into a meaningless postmodern literary experiment in chaos.
The book takes place in the same universe as Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and Diamond Age, although there is no need to read the books in order, and each constitutes a standalone story. The three books are separated by decades / centuries.
Few books have been as recommended to me as Diamond Age. Due to the overwhelming wave of recommendations from friends, my wife and I decided to read it.
Like Snow Crash, I didn’t find it particularly interesting. It was interesting, but wasn’t by any means great.
After reading Diamond Age and Snow Crash, I am now completely sure of one thing: Neal Stephenson is definitely insane.
God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades
By Rodney Stark
Published in November 2010
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
God’s Battalions can be understood as a hyperpartisan history of the crusades written by a modern Catholic to justify any and all atrocities committed by Christians at the time.
That being said, there is nothing inherently wrong with a hyper partisan historical text, however its bias must be understood for what it is.
The book itself is a short narrative of events surrounding the rise of Islam in the centuries before the crusade and a milktoast narrative of the first 3 canonical crusades.
Although I finished the book, I didn’t learn all that much from it. I mostly read it to contrast it with pro-Arab hyper partisan histories I am also reading in parallel to this book.
I do not recommend this book, except for the purpose of contrasting it with biased books written from the Arab perspective.
By Zoe Oldenbourg
Published in 1966
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Crusades is a history textbook that covers the history of the first three Middle Eastern crusades.
I found that The Crusades managed to strike a neat balance between being a narrative history covering major events and major players and an experiential history describing the daily life of people.
Learning about the economics and logistics of the crusades is always fascinating, and this book more than delivers. I especially enjoyed the description of the events in the interim between the second and third crusade. Learning about the succession of warlords that preceded Saladin, ultimately leading to the fall of the Fatimid caliphate, are often ignored yet very important.
I also enjoyed learning about the degree of cultural mixing between the crusaders and Muslims. I was most surprised when I learned about the tentative anti Turk alliance between the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo and the Byzantine Empire.
Zoe Oldenbourg draws many interesting and unconventional conclusions which shed light on the events of the crusades. For example, she excoriates Richard Lionheart as an incompetent fool who doomed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to fall permanently to Islam. She also concludes that female slaves taken into the harems fared the best of all of the female slaves.
Overall, I cannot recommend this book to average readers. It is too long and too detailed to be of interest to a general audience - it also is pretty advanced and requires a significant understanding of the crusades to be appreciated.
I do recommend this book to amateur historians and nerds interested in a deep dive into the history of the period and region.
Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages
By Richard E. Rubenstein
Published in 2002
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
I read Aristotle’s Children as part of my ongoing studies of Islam in the Middle Ages. When I picked up the book, I thought it would be similar to the House of Wisdom and cover Islamic Golden Age thought. Instead, this book discusses the transmission of Aristotle’s works throughout the Middle Ages.
Instead, Islam is only mentioned in passing. Despite this, I thought that Aristotle’s Children made for a great read, especially for people interested in the history of philosophy.
I’ve not read very much Aristotle - the only text attributed to Aristotle that I’ve finished is Politics. Reading Aristotle’s Children helped re-familiarize myself with Aristotle’s works, and better understand the history of his writing.
There are two particularly stunning insights that Rubenstein lays out in the introduction. Both insights kept repeatedly hitting me over and over throughout the book, and have reshaped my way of thinking about philosophical and scientific progress.
The first is the idea of a “monolith.” There is a common trope in sci-fi movies, such as 2001 Space Odyssey, where humans find artifacts from a more ancient advanced alien civilization. These artifacts enable humans to progress rapidly technologically.
The reason why these stories resonate so strongly is because they actually happened. In the past, technological progress was not linear. Instead, there were pits and downturns. When people, during one of these long term technological downturns, rediscover the ancient works of an author such as Aristotle, they have their own “monolith moments.” The most obvious examples being the Islamic Golden Age’s translation movement and the Italian Renaissance where interest in the ancient classics was revived.
The second revelation was that the Catholic church has promoted, rather than opposed, historical progress. In modern pop culture, we imagine a dichotomy where the religious authorities are opposed to scientific and technological progress. This idea, however, only comes from the post-reformation world where reactionary protestants and Catholic Jesuits actively fought change.
By contrast, in the Middle Ages, much of the progress came from the church itself. The great thinkers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were funded, promoted, and endorsed by the church. A similar parallel phenomenon existed at the same time in the Islamic world, where the secular authorities and religious scholars worked together to promote the Islamic golden age.
Each chapter is written as a little history of a major thinker who supported or opposed Aristotelean thought.
The book opens with a biography of Aristotle himself, and a cursory summary of his thoughts and writings. It then covers the lives and thoughts of later thinkers such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Peter Abelard, and St. Thomas of Aquinas.
What I found to be the most fascinating was Rubenstein’s description of the loss and regaining of Aristotelian knowledge. At times, his work had slipped into obscurity, with all but his most famous tracts forgotten. Later, Aristotle would be placed on a pedestal, blindly followed by scholars regardless of the actual merits of his ideas.
It really goes to show that the authors of the past we remember today are different to those remembered in forgone days.
Another aspect I found fascinating was how various political and intellectual movements throughout medieval Europe would either support or reject Aristotle. Late in the Middle Ages, there would be significant intellectual battles fought in the universities of France and England over the degree to which Aristotle should be embraced or rejected.
Overall, this is a fascinating read. I recommend it to people interested in the history of philosophy, or to people doing a more in depth study of the Middle Ages.
The House of Wisdom: The remarkable story of how medieval Arab scholars made dazzling advances in science and philosophy and of the itinerant Europeans who brought this knowledge back to the West
By Jonathan Lions and Jim Al-Khalili
Published in January 2009
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
I decided to read this book after I saw Jim Al-Khalili’s 2015 Al Jazeera documentary series about the Islamic Golden Age.
Jim Al-Khalili is an atheist Iraqi British physicist living in the UK who, in addition to studying science directly, also studies the history of science. I found his documentary series to be very interesting, and his book, accordingly, did not disappoint.
This book covers how Islam went from a religion followed by backwards Arab nomads into the world’s most advanced reigning civilization for centuries.
Al-Khalili’s main argument is that the medieval Muslims, like other civilizations that rapidly progressed, did not do so from scratch. Instead, they did so by incorporating the knowledge of past civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Persians, and Chinese into their own.
The House of Wisdom’s main focus is the translation movement, which was funded by the Caliphs in order to transcribe the learning of other civilizations into Arabic. Al-Khalili argues that Islam achieved its high level of progress by understanding and assimilating this information, then building upon it.
Interestly enough, this model of civilizational progress seems to hold true for other civilizations - the Italian renaissance would, in turn, draw its own inspiration from the Islamic Golden Age.
In this book I learned about a wide variety of early scientific advancements made by the Muslims. This includes extensive progress in medicine, optics, and chemistry. Al-Khalili also covers Islamic scholarship in other areas such as theology and philosophy, albeit in less detail.
Most interesting was how the Muslim scholars integrated the Indian concept of “zero” with Greek mathematics to create modern math as we would understand it today. If it hadn’t been for the Arabic ability to integrate knowledge from different regions in Eurasia, the development of mathematics would have been significantly delayed.
Even modern scientific language often originates from Arabic. For example, the word “algebra” comes from the bastardized Arab word “al-jabr” which means the union of broken parts. Other obvious examples starting with “al” include “alchemy,” “alkaline,” and “alcohol.” Many stars were first named and observed by Muslims, as well as a wide variety of botanical names.
The scientifically curious and philosophically pondering Islam from the Abbasid Golden Age is long gone. Now, it has been replaced with a backwards and inwards looking religion that fails to produce quality scientists and thinkers.
The House of Wisdom offers modern readers a glimpse of a time when Islam was very different, and when Muslims led the world’s thinkers.
Overall, this book is a must read for anyone interested in several categories of knowledge: the history of science, Islam, or the Middle Ages. This book is well written, easy to listen to as an audiobook, and accessible to just about anyone.
By Chris Wickham
Published in November 2016
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
Medieval Europe is a survey history that focuses on institutional change in Europe from 500 until 1500. Due to its brevity, this book does not focus on the specifics, but rather on broad trends shaping states and social institutions.
I didn’t really like this book that much. First, I found that the information was too basic for me, because I have been studying the Middle Ages in depth for several years. However, I also think that this book is likely to be too complicated and too uninteresting for a neophyte who doesn’t have any background in the Middle Ages.
Chris Wickham’s writing style doesn’t jive well with me either. He makes many arguments to “go against” popular or academic conceptions of the Middle Ages. I don’t really care about oppositional statements, and find them very off putting in historical works like this.
The book had a lot of boring sections. Part of this is because the book is neither a narrative or a historiographical treatise. Narrative histories are less accurate and more prone to legends, but are interesting as they have characters and motives. Historiographical histories focus more on the methods of text analysis and archaeology, and are very intellectually stimulating.
This book does not cover many specific narratives as it is only intended to serve as a very broad survey. It also doesn’t cover the methods of historians and archeology.
I thought it was a pretty boring and very milktoast book which doesn’t have very many gems hidden in it. My recommendation is for readers to skip it entirely.
I did not finish the book, only made it roughly two thirds until the end before I put it down.
The Intelligent Investor
By Benjamin Graham (Updated by Warren Buffet and Jason Zweig)
Originally Published in 1949 (This edition updated in February 2006)
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Intelligent Investor was originally published in 1949, but has been regularly updated every decade or so since. The result is that the original spirit of Benjamin Graham is there, at the bottom of the book, but the actual book I read recently is a mess of statistics and examples from a wide variety of disconnected decades.
I didn’t really like the Intelligent Investor that much. I thought that the advice was very much in the category of “do this do that” rather than a systematic explanation of concepts.
I was looking for a book that would tell me in depth what a stock and bond was, why people bought and sold them, and about the laws.
Instead of a descriptive work, this work is almost entirely prescriptive.
The book gives specific advice such as putting 75% of your money in stocks, and 25% in other instruments. It also gives vague advice like “don’t speculate.”
This book is great for average sophistication and intelligence people who have no idea what to do on the stock market with their life savings. It is essentially useless for people who just want to understand financial markets in greater depth.
That being said, there is good advice. Avoiding highly speculative investments, being conservative, and focusing on not losing rather than making big wins are all good to know. I like how he stresses to avoid the crowds.
This advice meshes well with the advice I’ve gotten from the many extremely rich and successful investors I’ve met.
However, some of his advice doesn’t mesh at all with what I’ve heard from the wise and successful.
For example, he advises against investing in industries that you are familiar with because you will enter the market with biases. This might be true for people who are doing things at a low level and have enough knowledge to be at the top of the Dunning-Kruger curve. However, this does not apply to people who are working at higher levels or as industry analysts. It also does not apply to people who have a pessimistic bias, only to those who have either an optimistic or greedy bias.
I recommend this book to anyone who is tempted by get rich quick schemes, but not to anyone else. Anyone who believes that ICOs, penny stocks, hot tech stocks, and amateur day trading will get them rich needs to read this book to disillusion them from their dangerous beliefs.
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed
By James Scott
Published in 1999
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
This is one of the best books I have read since I have started reviewing books. It is one of the few books that is a must read for everybody.
James Scott explains how the perceptions states have, which are often based off statistical ideation, often fail to align with reality. The result is that well intentioned policies often turn into disastrous affairs which ruin the lives of real people.
The book, despite having been written 20 years ago, is still completely relevant.
He goes over numerous examples of state policies throughout history, and explains how they failed because the states which sought to implement them did not perceive the realities on the ground. Scott’s examples are clear, interesting, and wide ranging through time and space.
Whether discussing forestry in Prussia, agriculture in the Soviet Union, or urbanization in Brazil, James Scott always impresses. His examples are so interesting and clearly written, that the reader always immediately understands what he wants to say.
This is the single best book I’ve ever read, with perhaps one or two exceptions, that explains why government policies fail.
Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain
By Joseph F. O'Callaghan
Published in September 2013
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
After reading two very biased histories about Spain in the Middle Ages, this book was a refreshing clear headed and impartial analysis of the period.
The Ornament of the World was biased towards the idea that Islamic reign was peaceful and tolerant. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise was specifically written to refute the arguments laid out in The Ornament of the World.
Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain acknowledges the achievements and horrors of both Islamic and Christian reigns. It was not written as an attempt to alter or rewrite the nature of history, or promote a political agenda.
The book focuses especially on the reconquest period, although it does briefly discuss the initial Arab occupation of Iberia. One key argument made by the author is that the Christian reconquest of Spain can be classified as a proper crusade, and fell well within the tradition of Middle Eastern crusades.
I recommend this book as a good starting place for people who want to learn more about the wars between Christians and Muslims in Spain throughout the Middle Ages, and does not want to be bombarded with a modern political opinion.
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