Thomas Edward Lawrence was born today, the 16th of August, in 1888, in Wales. The family situation was, well, complicated. He read, as they say, history at Jesus College, Oxford. Taking his degree he received a scholarship to travel to the Middle East. Lawrence quickly learned Arabic and worked as an archeologist under the direction of the renowned Leonard Woolley and others.
In 1914 Woolley and Lawrence began working secretly for the British military. In October of that year he was commissioned.
If you’ve seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia, you have the broad outline of the story.
All of it a dreadful mess. Personal tragedies. And vastly larger scale catastrophes. The consequences of the so-called Great Powers and their meddling in the Near East are even at this moment playing out as sadness for uncountable numbers of people.
As to me. Somewhere in my late adolescence I stumbled upon a copy of Lawrence’s storied memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It said on the title page it was a first edition and the used book dealer who was offering it said it would be a great first acquisition for an aspiring book collector.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a book collector (and indeed would instead become a book accumulator, a horse of a very different color), but ever since the movie I was a big fan of Lawrence. So, I bought it.
Turned out this “American first,” not even actually the American first, but the first of an edition from a large book club that was a thing in those days, was somewhere in the vicinity of common as dirt, and was worth considerably less than the not too much I paid for it.
I learned a lot about book dealers. I learned a little about the Near East in the First World War. And I learned a bit more about Lawrence. Lovely writer. Dark. Compelling. Something unhealthy about him. And yet…
He still strolls across my dreams once upon a while…