Favorite Reads of 2010: Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by Reza Aslan

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

When was the last time you read an anthology cover to cover? What about a 700-page one? For me the last–and the first–was Tablet & Pen. I read this anthology cover to cover, and in fact I did most of that reading in 8-hour bouts of extreme concentration while on a transatlantic flight. Any book that can induce that kind of concentration in that kind of circumstance is doing something incredibly right.

Tablet & Pen is essentially a one-stop guide to 20th-century Middle Eastern literature (with the Middle East being broadly conceived). The readability comes from the fact that a solid 90% of this anthology is simply great literature, as well as the fact that editor Reza Aslan did a wonderful job laying it all out and adding in enough scaffolding to make it all cohere into a comprehensible whole.

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What do you think of Adam Kirsch’s review (also in TNR) of this book? http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/52402/bordering-on-malicious/

Some of the comments following it are hair-raising, not least the nutjob who thinks that the most popular male name for male babies in the UK is Mohammed.

That’s an interesting point of view, although Kirsch might have done a little more research, as Aslan has addressed some of these points a number of times already (and at greater length and depth than in his intro to the book, which Kirsch does quote).

I don’t want to speak for Aslan, but he has been very vocal that there is no such thing as “the Muslim world” and that the terms makes no sense, so it’s a little strange to see Kirsch call this an antho of “the Muslim world.” Similarly, I’ve heard him explain his take on the term “Middle East” and why he extended this antho to North Africa, Turkey, and the subcontinent.

The question about Hebrew writers is a little thornier. For what it’s worth, I happened to see Aslan address this question at an event, where he essentially said that Hebrew writing in the 20th century was so different from the writing in T & P that it would have taken away from the cohesiveness of the book. (He also noted that the book does include works from Israelis writing in other languages.)

I think his point on the Hebrew writers is contestable (really? no one at all that would have fit in?), and, yes, some of the pieces in T & P struck me as a little off-base (as do some of the things I read in classics of the Western world). It’s probably true that this book had an occasional editorial slant, but, c’mon, it is a 700-page book. It’s not like you come away from it feeling that any one viewpoint has been over-represented.

If Aslan’s premise for the volume was the homogeneity of the writers from North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia — as those, rather than a diverse patchwork, they were of a single colour, and Hebrew writing of another — then the racism of his undertaking really is quite breathtaking. Aslan’s Middle East is one with no room for diversity. That is a shame.

[…] book, Tablet & Pen, is pretty impressive. It was one of my favorite reads of 2010. More from Conversational Reading:The Black Perspective on Black History Month Cigarettes are […]

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