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The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri
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The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

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The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri
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Aug 30, 2016 | ISBN 9780143107484

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One of NPRs Best Books of the Year
One of The Guardian’s Best Books of the Year

“Sparkling . . . Marvelous . . . Wondrous . . . A monument of classical Islamic learning . . . Muhanna renders what might have been a rather baroque text in elegant prose. . . . The text opens a window into a lively and eclectic world of scholarship, a realm of humanist scribes and poetry-spouting polymaths. . . . Reading this compendium is like exploring a cabinet of curiosities, each section home to uncanny and startling mirabilia. . . . The pleasure of The Ultimate Ambition lies in exploring its bewildering scope, a range emblematic of the broad imaginations and curiosities of the 14th-century Islamic world.” —The New York Times Book Review

“This bizarre, fascinating book . . . illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam, so different from the crude puritanical myths purveyed by modern-day jihadis. . . . Reading it is like stumbling into a cavernous attic full of unimaginably strange artifacts, some of them unforgettable. . . . The book is full of strange myths and nostrums that hint at what mattered to people in the fourteenth century: sex, money, power, perfume. . . . From the alleged self-fellation of monkeys to the many lovely Bedouin words for the night sky . . . nothing seems to escape Nuwayri’s taxonomic ambitions.” —The New York Review of Books

“This energetic primer to a staggeringly rich moment in time might end up being an indispensable addition to your library. . . . [It] is a celebration of knowledge for its own sake. . . . For feeding your curiosity, it handily succeeds.” —

Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head.” —The Paris Review Daily

“[It] spills over with insatiable curiosity at its most irrepressible: an elixir for dark days.” —Marina Warner, The Guardian, “Best Books of the Year”

“A reader-friendly translation . . . with an extensive introduction and explanatory notes . . . There seems no reason why Al-Nuwayri’s vast compendium of useful, useless and curious knowledge should remain the province of scholars alone.” —Al-Ahram Weekly

“A fascinating peek at the minds of our ancestors. You can see how man’s understanding of the world has changed drastically in some ways and remained startlingly constant in others. Plus the book is just plain fun to read.” —A. J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically

“A smart, exhilarating selection from a vast work. The scholarship is solid but unobtrusive, and the style, clear and flavorful, draws the reader in. Al-Nuwayri’s encyclopedia, somewhat like Vincent of Beauvais’s a hundred years before him, delights as it moves between learned tradition, jaw-dropping anecdote, and elegant (and elegantly translated) poetry. Dip in, and a distant world, endlessly colorful, comes to sparkling life.” —Andras P. Hamori, Princeton University

“From the structure of the heavens to the curious anatomy of the hippopotamus, with stops to view everything from book-keeping to aphrodisiacs, this charming fourteenth-century encyclopedia gives a glimpse of the entire world as seen by a very learned Egyptian summing up the powerful tradition of medieval Islamic scholarship known in his time. Elias Muhanna’s very readable translation allows the reader to gain a rounded experience of a deeply interesting bygone world.” —Roy P. Mottahedeh, Harvard University

“Finally, thanks to Elias Muhanna’s expert translation, editing, and explanatory notes, we have access to a real encyclopedia to place alongside Borges’s mythical Chinese text. An extraordinary work, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition strives for nothing less than an orderly, total account of the world, and Al-Nuwayri’s unique accomplishment in the encyclopedic tradition is not to suggest that wonder is to be found in the many oddities, rarities, and exceptions of the given world, but to show how, beneath these features, there is a deeper and more marvelous order.” —Elliott Colla, Georgetown University

“This engaging volume lets you dip into the world of a fourteenth-century Egyptian encyclopedist who knew about the endless rain in England, the skillfulness of artists in China, how a woman can get away with claiming to be a prophetess, why a bureaucrat should never commit the size of the army to writing, and anything else worth knowing.” —Michael Cook, Princeton University

“This delightful volume offers readers of English the first opportunity to sample the vast and varied literature of Arabic encyclopedism. Under Elias Muhanna’s expert guidance you will encounter advice and information strangely foreign and occasionally familiar, drawn from al-Nuwayri’s 14th-century perspective on history and politics, medicine and the natural world.” —Ann Blair, Harvard University

“A veritable Wikipedia of its time . . . The erudition and breadth of the book is staggering, and it is a positively entertaining collection. . . . A valuable addition to the library of those who are interested in medieval miscellany [and] a corrective to narratives that might isolate the Islamic world from the wider cosmos of medieval thinking.”Publishers Weekly

“Fascinating . . . This condensed, abbreviated English-language rendition more than does justice to the Arabic text. . . . [A] clear, accessible translation . . . with copious notes and suggested further readings.” —Library Journal

“In a time like ours, when one of the world’s great religions and cultures is under attack in the west, it might feel like a civic duty to learn more about the texture and history of Islamic tradition, but don’t read this book only for that reason. Read it because it is profoundly poetic and filled with sublime passages of the most extraordinary delicacy. For instance, ‘The enmity between the wolf and the sheep is so great that if some bowstrings are plucked together—one made from the intestines of a wolf, and several others from the intestines of a sheep—they will not make any sound.’ Or, ‘The night is divided into twelve hours, each with its own name given to it by the Bedouin Arabs: Sunset, dusk, darkness, blackness, the enfeebling hour, midnight, the heart of the night, the disgracing hour, the foretokens of morning, the first dawn, the second dawn, the widespread dawn.’ An accessible, delightful, and stirring record of 14th-century Islamic thought.” —Jeff Deutsch, Seminary Co-op Bookstore

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