Friday, May 8, 2015

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: Thoughts

Let me begin by saying, it took me almost two years to finish this book.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is the autobiographical account of T.E. Lawrence as he served in the British Armed Forces during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. Lawrence makes it clear that this book “…is not the history of the Arab movement, but just of what happened to me in it. It is the narrative of what I tried to do in Arabia, and of some of what I saw there.”

I find his use of the word “some” to be one of the greatest understatements I have ever come across. Lawrence described nearly all of what he saw there. This was not a high level overview of major events. This was a day-by-day and sometimes even hour-by-hour account of everything he did, heard, and saw. This is why it took me nearly two years to finish. (Reading a day-by-day account of a two year conflict should take two years, right?)

With that out of the way, I’ll admit that this was an epic that was worth the time it took to read. Is it a page turner? No. Is Lawrence the romantic hero so many make him out to be? I don’t think so. But he did some amazing things. He thrived in a world completely foreign to most of us.

In his early explorations, he was constantly in awe of the life and spirit of the Arabs he journeyed with and of the kinship they felt for their desert. In one passage he described exploring a ruined palace with several of his companions:

”…which the Arabs believed was made by a prince of the border as a desert palace for his queen. The clay of its building was said to have been kneaded not with water but, for greater richness, with the precious essential oils of flowers. My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from one crumbling room to another, saying, ‘This is Jessamine, this ambergris, this rose.’ But at last Dahoum drew me: ‘Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all’: and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, endless wind of the desert, throbbing past.”

Lawrence’s main role during the Arab revolt was to be the link between the British forces and the Arab forces, and to convince the Arab leaders to coordinate their efforts with the British. To gain the trust of his companions, he abandoned the comforts of Western living and tried to emulate the lifestyle and dress of the desert. He even carried this to the extreme. When Arabs journey through the desert and come across a well, they will drink their full, almost to bursting, and then they will continue their journey without carrying any water with them. They will do this even if the next well is hundreds of miles away. It is a sign of weakness to carry water into the desert. In this custom, and in all others, Lawrence proved himself a true and faithful companion to the Arabs, and as a result they followed him into battle with unquestioning faith.

Much of the work that occupied Lawrence and his companions was undermining the efficiency of the Turkish armed forces. In a nutshell, this involved numerous demolition raids on the Hejaz railway. They would sneak up at night on their camels, plant explosives under the tracks, and then wait until dawn for a passing supply train. In time, Lawrence led his men up the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Damascus, and with the support of the British troops overthrew the Ottoman government and gained Arab independence. The day after their liberation, Lawrence rode into Damascus with the Arab leaders:

“When we came in, there had been some miles of people greeting us: now there were thousands for every hundred then. Every man, woman, and child in this city of a quarter-million souls was out on the streets: and as the miracle of victory was at last confirmed, they waited only the spark of our appearance to unchain their spirits. Damascus went mad with joy. The men tossed up their tarbushes to cheer, the women tore off their veils. Householders threw their flowers, their hangings, their carpets into the road before us. Their wives leaned through the lattices and splashed cups and vases, even bath-dippers of scent at us… We English had been too long free to keep even a memory of its first delirious taste: so that this named gratitude and thanks from a hundred thousand voices broke us with the humiliation of over-great honor.”

The most difficult part of this book for me was Lawrence himself. As I stated before, I do not doubt the greatness of what he accomplished, but I do not think he was a very likeable person. He even said that much of what he did wasn’t out of any great ambition of his own, but merely out of curiosity, to see if he could. To this end, he would often play with the emotions of others. It gave him great satisfaction to treat someone roughly, and then in the next breath treat them with great kindness. Then he would run away and leave them wondering what sort of strange creature he was. Lawrence recognizes the perverseness of this, and on his 30th birthday goes into a state of deep reflection about his true nature. He emerges from this personal inventory with the conclusion that he does not like himself.

I recognize that to achieve great things, a man doesn’t have to be perfect. All men are flawed, and those (like Lawrence) who admit their flaws and move forward anyway, may deserve even greater respect. What Lawrence did was great. There is no denying that. He set out to accomplish the impossible, and whatever his reasons were, he stuck with it and in the end came off conqueror.

“This therefore is a faded dream of time when I went down into the dust and noise of the Eastern market-places, and with my brain and muscles, with sweat and constant thinking, made others see my visions coming true. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. This I did.”

My rating: 6 out of 10

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

June's Book: Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is an unusual and rich work. It encompasses an account of the Arab Revolt against the Turks during the First World War alongside general Middle Eastern and military history, politics, adventure and drama. It is also a memoir of the soldier known as 'Lawrence of Arabia'.Lawrence is a fascinating and controversial figure and his talent as a vivid and imaginative writer shines through on every page of this, his masterpiece. Seven Pillars of Wisdom provides a unique portrait of this extraordinary man and an insight into the birth of the Arab nation. 

(Summary from

Friday, May 31, 2013

Into Thin Air: Thoughts

1996 was the single deadliest year in the history of Mount Everest expeditions. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air chronicles the events leading up to the May 10, 1996 summit attempt where 8 people lost their lives and many others were in danger of losing theirs as well.

I know this is a famous book, perhaps one of the most widely read from the whole National Geographic Adventure list, but I had a hard time getting into it. Something about me just automatically goes cold when I find out that one of these adventure books is written by a journalist, whose main purpose of going on their adventure was to write about it. It’s difficult for me to put these adventurers into the same category as an Earnest Shackleton or a John Muir. That being said, I do respect the theme of the story that Krakauer set out to write. He was commissioned to write a magazine article about the commercialization of Mount Everest and the associated risks and repercussions. Interestingly, this month’s Issue of National Geographic Magazine had an excellent article on this exact issue. The thrust of the argument is that commercialization of the mountain has led to overcrowding, which is making the mountain more dangerous. More climbers with less experience are crowding the slopes and as a result, many have to sit around at dangerously high altitudes just waiting for their turn up a rope. Krakauer spoke of this when he was trying to descend after his summit and he had to wait around in the “death zone” while waiting for the group below him to clear out. Sitting around for two hours in the death zone (above 26,000 feet) is dangerous for anyone, but more especially for an inexperienced climber.

“Above the South Col, up in the Death Zone, survival is to no small degree a race against the clock… Depending on each person’s acclimatization and physiological makeup, we would still be able to function above the South Col—but not well, and not for long. We would instantly become more vulnerable to HAPE, HACE, hypothermia, impaired judgment, and frostbite. The risk of dying would skyrocket.”

Another problem associated with the overcrowding of Everest is the mass amounts of waste produced by the hordes of climbers. This isn’t so much a problem at the lower camps, where garbage can easily be carried off the mountain, but in the higher camps there are piles of trash and human excrement that have been building up for years. A related problem is what to do with all of the human bodies scattered all over the mountain. The slopes of Everest are littered with the frozen remains of hundreds of unlucky climbers. Many of them have fallen down cliffs or crevasses and been lost, but some remain just off the beaten path. Krakauer encountered two such corpses, one which had been on the slopes for three years, and one higher up which had been there for 10-15 years.

“The first body had left me badly shaken for several hours; the shock of encountering the second wore off almost immediately. Few of the climbers trudging by had given either corpse more than a passing glance. It was as if there were an unspoken agreement on the mountain to pretend that these desiccated remains weren’t real—as if none of us dared to acknowledge what was at stake here.”

In his book, Krakauer presents a possible solution to the overcrowding of Mount Everest, and after reading his story, I am inclined to agree with his proposal. He believes that no one should be allowed to climb Everest with supplemental oxygen. For one thing, this would reduce the amount of litter on the mountain, but it would also cause people to prepare much more intensely for their summit attempts. Perhaps people would take the mountain more seriously if they had to face it head on without the crutch of an oxygen tank to support them. Or perhaps only serious climbers would make the attempt. All I know is that it is an idea worth considering.

All this being said, the National Geographic article was quick to point out that although more people flock to Everest each year, the overall mortality rate has not gone up significantly in the past decade. More experienced guides and better technology are making the mountain safer than it has ever been. For instance, on May 19, 2012, 234 people reached the summit and only 4 climbers died. Even so, I can’t help but think how bad it could be if something went wrong on a day like that. If a freak change in the weather occurred, the death toll could be catastrophic. Basically, my main takeaway from this book is that I’m never going to try and climb Mount Everest.

“In the midst of all the postmortem ratiocination, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that climbing mountains will never be a safe, predictable, rule-bound enterprise. This is an activity that idealizes risk taking; the sport’s most celebrated figures have always been those who stick their necks out the farthest and manage to get away with it. Climbers, as a species, are simply not distinguished by an excess of prudence. And that holds especially true for Everest climbers: when presented with a chance to reach the planet’s highest summit, history shows, people are surprisingly quick to abandon good judgment.”

My rating: 6 out of 10

Saturday, May 4, 2013

May's Book: Into Thin Air

Reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion, Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest in the early afternoon of May 10, 1996. He hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. As he turned to begin the perilous descent from 29,028 feet (roughly the cruising altitude of an Airbus jetliner), twenty other climbers were still pushing doggedly to the top, unaware that the sky had begun to roil with clouds…

This is the terrifying story of what really happened that fateful day at the top of the world, during what would be the deadliest season in the history of Everest. In this harrowing yet breathtaking narrative, Krakauer takes the reader along with his ill-fated expedition, step by precarious step, from Katmandu to the mountain’s pinnacle where, plagued by a combination of hubris, greed, poor judgment, and plain bad luck, they would fall prey to the mountain’s unpredictable fury.

(Summary from the back of the book) 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Kon-Tiki: Thoughts

Thor Heyerdahl had a crazy idea, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. He believed that the Polynesian islands were peopled by South Americans who journeyed across the ocean on large balsawood rafts. However, despite his extensive research and supporting arguments, he could not get the scientific community to believe that it was even possible to cross an entire ocean on few logs lashed together. So, in order to prove them wrong, Heyerdahl did just that.

Kon-Tiki is the thrilling account of a group of Norwegians who sailed from Peru across 4,000 miles of ocean on a balsa wood raft, arriving safely in the Polynesian islands after 101 days at sea. They lived almost entirely off of the bounty of the sea and never wanted for food or water. Because their raft was so low in the water, less than a foot off the surface, they would often dine on the fish that had been washed aboard during the night. It was the job of the first person up in the morning to gather the flying fish that had landed on deck during the night and fry them up for breakfast. Sometimes they would wake up with fish in their sleeping bags, and once even a baby octopus.

“The sea contains many surprises for him who has his floor on a level with the surface and drifts along slowly and noiselessly. A sportsman who breaks his way through the woods may come back and say that no wild life is to be seen. Another may sit down on a stump and wait, and often rustlings and cracklings will begin and curious eyes peer out. So it is on the sea, too. We usually plow across it with roaring engines and piston strokes, with the water foaming round our bow. Then we come back and say that there is nothing to see far out on the ocean.”

 If they wanted to eat something more substantial than flying fish, they could hook a dolphin in a matter of minutes. Occasionally they would dine on shark meat as well.

“We had not been long at sea before the fist shark visited us. And sharks soon became an almost daily occurrence… If there was a high sea, the shark might be lifted up by the waves high above our own level, and we had a direct side view of the shark as in a glass case as it swam toward us in a dignified manner with its fussy retinue of small pilot fish ahead of its jaws. For a few seconds it looks as if both the shark and its striped companions would swim right on board, but then the raft would lean over gracefully to leeward, rise over the ridge of the waves, and descend to the other side.”

Toward the end of their voyage they even became very adept at catching sharks… with their bare hands! At one point they had nine large sharks on board their deck and had to be very careful to remember which ones were fully dead and which ones were just waiting for the men to come a bit closer before taking their final revenge.

The most intense part of the story was during their second big storm when one of the crew was accidentally washed overboard by a wave. Because of the nature of their raft, they could not steer in any direction other than that in which the wind was blowing. Experience had taught them that anything caught in their wake was lost forever, and there they stood watching their companion float away, unable to do a thing about it. I don’t want to ruin the story, but through an act of unusual courage and sacrifice the man was saved and all members of the team safely continued their voyage west.

I really got into this book and enjoyed it immensely. Not only do I believe in the truth of Heyerdahl’s theory (see the Book of Mormon) but I found the unique nature of their voyage fascinating and felt myself longing to chop down some trees and give it a try. These words by the author sum up for me some of the true majesty of the experience.

“Coal-black seas towered up on all sides, and a glittering myriad of tropical stars drew a faint reflection from plankton on the water. The world was simple—stars in the darkness. Whether it was 1947 B.C. or A.D. suddenly became of no significance. We lived, and that we felt with alert intensity. We realized that life had been full for men before the technical age also—in fact, fuller and richer in many ways than the life of modern man. Time and evolution somehow ceased to exist; all that was real and that mattered were the same today as they had always been and would always be.”

My rating: 9 out of 10

Monday, April 1, 2013

April's Book: Kon-Tiki

“Am going to cross Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come? …Reply at once.” That is how six brave and inquisitive men came to seek a dangerous path to test a scientific theory. On a primitive raft made of forty-foot balsa logs and named “Kon-Tiki” in honor of a legendary sun king, Heyerdahl and five companions deliberately risked their lives to show that the ancient Peruvians could have made the 4,300-mile voyage to the Polynesian islands on a similar craft.

(Summary from

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Running the Amazon: Thoughts

Joe Kane’s Running the Amazon was an incredible journey trapped inside a mediocre book. That probably sounds harsher than I mean it to be, but I think a journey by river across the entire South American continent deserves better than average travel memoirs writing. Though not nearly as bad as Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest, I feel like the author spent too much time focusing on petty things, like arguments between expedition members, and (like Hansen) never failed to mention anything even remotely indecent that occurred during his seven month journey. He also spent a surprising amount of time sleeping in hotels. It’s a shame, because I feel like Kane had a lot more potential than that with this book. He started out just like Hansen, as a “non-adventurer” whose main purpose in traveling abroad was to try and write a bestseller. However, over time, I noticed a slight change in Kane. As the expedition team grew smaller and smaller, he stepped up to the plate and managed to grow beyond this narrow focus, and in the end, he truly achieved something remarkable.

The journey began high in the Peruvian Andes, not more than 200 miles from the Pacific Ocean. From the top of the continental divide, Kane and three of his companions traveled over 4,000 miles from frozen glaciers, through whitewater canyons, and down the entire length of the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean.

The most exciting part of the book was the section of the river they traveled called the Acobamba Abyss. This section of the river was high in the mountains and canyon walls were so tall and narrow that in places they appeared to connect at the top. The river was riddled with class VI whitewater rapids with little or no way around. (A class VI rapid is one that poses extreme threat to life with little chance of rescue.) The team would portage around the class VI rapids that they could, but many of them were unavoidable because of the steep canyon walls. It is remarkable that they didn’t have more accidents, especially since all but one of the team took a swim in the whitewater. This part of the book was exciting and easy to get lost in, unlike later in the book when they seemed to go from one river-town bar to another.

Though I didn’t love the book, I do want to give credit where credit is due. Joe Kane and his companion Piotr Chmielinski traveled the entire length of the world’s longest river entirely under their own power. They were the first, and as far as I know the only, ones to accomplish this incredible feat. They battled freezing temperatures, whitewater, and altitude sickness in the high Andes, and in the Amazon basin they faced scorching heat, wild animals, disease, narco-traffickers, and exhaustion. Nonetheless, they endured… and they didn’t stop paddling until the water beneath them became salty. And for that I have to tip my hat to them.
My rating: 5 out of 10