Monday, November 28, 2011

Paul Berman: The Flight of the Intellectuals

In the days since I've finished reading Paul Berman's "The Flight of the Intellectuals," I've thought of a number of ways to write this review. One is to write a book just like it. Paul Berman has an issue with the way current influential intellectuals deal with Islamism, and he sums it up in the last two sentences of his book, while spending 200 pages on something entirely tangential. But the book itself is a (short) full-length response to an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2007.  Journalist Ian Buruma profiled Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim of Egyptian descent (his father was exiled from Egypt).  Berman dislikes pretty much everything about this article, and the intellectual trend that it stands for, and is either lucky, privileged, smart, well-respected or some combination of these things, enough to have authored an entire book in response.  So my first thought is to write a book in response to a book. Or at least to write a book in response to an article I didn't like and add an aside, ala the many asides Berman throws in: "By the way, this book is a followup to reading "Flight of the Intellectuals," wherein Paul Berman explicates his feelings after reading a New York Times Magazine article for 200 pages. Which is not to say that this book has anything to do with that book, just that this is where I got the fabulous and slightly self-aggrandizing idea."

I ruled that one out though, because I'm not upset enough with any one particular article to write an entire book, or even a short book, and I'm not famous enough that anyone would publish it. (Paul Berman is author of the best-selling "Terror and Liberalism.") Then I thought I would write a sort of summary of what this book is about, but really, it's about a long and complicated subject that I don't know anything about and would bungle if I got anywhere near summarizing Berman's summary. The subject is Islamism, and its supporters and detractors, and the semantic complications of words like "fascism," "totalitarianism," "terrorism," "moderate," etc, and how these words seem to have caused modern scholars to follow the wrong Islamist leaders down the wrong path. This review does a nice job of summarizing the book.

I ruled both of these approaches out.  I ruled out not reviewing the book at all, because I actually did like the book, which reads like an extended lecture from a very entertaining and engaging college professor, and I learned a lot about a very interesting and timely subject. The book was extremely well-researched: it seems like Berman may have read every book in every language remotely related to his subject. (Sidenote: strangely, while he refers to each book in his text, he does not use footnotes, end notes, or include a bibliography.) I also ruled out not writing up anything about the book because right before picking up this book, I put down another book, something I really really have a hard time doing, and am still feeling guilty about. I tried so hard to read "Triumph of the City" by Edward Glaeser, and failed. The book is written in a style tried to emulate an entertaining and engaging college professor, and while it appears that Glaeser also knows his subject thoroughly, he throws in examples like they are common knowledge. The book is written for popular audiences, and, being part of this audience, I have no idea what he is talking about.  The book fell flat, where "The Flight of the Intellectuals" kept my interest for all 200 pages of a response to a magazine article. Strangely, Berman's polemic works.