Living in the Arab world yet - still - feeling rather ignorant of the place that I live in A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani was supposed to fill some of the more glaring holes. And it did while opening a thousand others
The intellectual, political and economic history of the peoples living between Spain (or Morocco) to the West, Iraq/Iran to the East, Turkey to the North and Sudan to the South is a daring endeavor for the most hardened and prepared writer, it is maybe even more so for the reader. Literally hundreds of topics and names are being touched upon without receiving their due treatment, at times I felt more like reading a list of philosophers, writers, religious schools of law (مذهب) and dynasties than an actual historical account.
In all honesty, while I drew a lot out of this book and feel I have developed a basic understanding and broad overview of Arabic history and thought, Hourani failed at writing the history he proclaimed in his title. He didn't fail due to his lack of knowledge nor even his capacity to bring across what he knew, but simply due to the sheer size of the task he set himself. Five hundred odd pages of dense history-writing might make for a long period of reading but it cannot provide more than a glance at a subject matter of this size and depth. I can recommend A History of the Arab Peoples as an appetizer that in a way leaves one hungrier than before as one has gained an understanding of one's true lack of knowledge.