Book Review: Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880 -1930

Reading Arabia by Andrew C. Long

Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880 -1930 by Andrew C. Long is a study of the Middle East in British literature. Long earned his B.A. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and his PhD in Comparative Literature from the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. He currently teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies at the Claremont Graduate University. Long previously taught at American University in Beirut. 

I was not exactly sure what to expect from this book. My interests lie in history and English literature of that time period. I was expecting more of a socio-political treatment of the period rather than a detailed study of the literature and authors. This book is not about the major historical aspect of this period, such as the partitioning of the Middle East, the occupation of Iraq, the results of the Afghanistan conflict, but about literature of the period. 

The works covered include Richard Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra and Arabian Nights EntertainmentsThe Scented Garden and others by the Kama Shastra Society which were considered more pornographic than literature. Among the groups the Cannibal Club, members of Victorian society, interested in exotic pornography. Burton had quite a unique view of the world. He claimed by his research most Mediterranean men are bisexual while Arabs are pederasts. He also noted, and apparently measured, a male Somalian’s genital size for a footnote for one of his texts. Other texts covered and analyzed are Doughty’s Travels and Edith Hull’s The Sheik, made famous by Rudolph Valentino. 

Some of the literature had very little to do with the Middle East and Africa. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Tragedy of Korosko which was an adventure novel that merely used the Sudan as a backdrop for the story. Hull, who wrote The Sheik, had never visited the Middle East. She was what could be described as a middle class housewife. Following her, more authors started writing “desert romance” books. 

Reading Arabia covers an interesting period of British history and a few important advancements in British society. The first was the social movements that created leisure time and a middle class. Secondly, there were advancements in printing, making books affordable to most people. Lastly, there was the British Empire. Most people never left England and the far off exotic lands provided an interesting escape from daily drudgery.Reading Arabia may not be a book for historians, but for students of British literature and culture and sociologists this is a worthwhile read.

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