"Some Englishmen... believed that a rebellion of Arabs against Turks would enable England, while fighting Germany, simultaneously to defeat Turkey. Their knowledge of the nature and power and country of the Arabic-speaking peoples made them think that the issue of such a rebellion would be happy: and indicated its character and method. So they allowed it to begin..." And so also begins T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a memoir of the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt that took place during the First World War. He opens his tale with a clear understanding of context, and a sly smile as to the uncanny nature of the story about to unfold. Lawrence, a young archaeologist familiar with Arab-Islamic culture, quietly enters the British army at the outbreak of the First World War. He then rides into the desert, ostensibly under British direction, to encourage the Arabs to aggressively fight the Turks, and create a diversion from the main efforts of the British regular army. To rally the disparate Arab tribes, he preaches a message of absolute liberation and glory, wherein the Arabs might reestablish their dominance in the Middle East, and expunge the light of foreign influence. Lawrence helps the Arab chiefs create and channel a painful, violent, and masochistic campaign of guerrilla warfare. He assassinates wayward followers, glories in combat, and waxes philosophic as to the futility of mercy. Lawrence lives in the world with an exciting, irreligious energy. He couples that energy with a British school boy's sense of decency and a mastery of Arab mores, particularly those pertaining to power politics. He struggles with incompatible allegiances to both the British Army and the Arab nationalism. In a few short years, the British and their Arab allies annihilate the Turks and seize the great city of Damascus. Lawrence finds that the city's abrupt capture "disclosed the exhaustion of my main springs of action." He resigns his post. "And at once, I knew how much I was sorry."
Lawrence's penchant for introspection and abstract formulation move the book beyond a mere catalog of facts. His writing demands that one ask whether literature or history or sociology might best value the blood-soaked fruits of his battles in the desert. He comes across as a man of virtue and spirit, uniquely suited to understanding and appreciating the beauty and complexity of the Arab guerrilla campaign. In the least, Seven Pillars accomplishes Lawrence's goal of creating a monument to the men he fought with. Yet it also stands for something more: a testament to human will, and the ready potential for unleashing our imaginative, violent impulses not for cause or country, but for the sheer glory of the action.
If you wish to purchase a used copy, I strongly recommend looking for the 1938 "De Luxe" edition from Double Day. The editors cut the book marvelously well, and include may helpful drawings, cartoons, maps, and abstracts. I cannot say much about the other editions except the 2011 Wilder edition with a grey cover: Avoid this version at all costs. Filled with errors, the Wilder edition treats its readers like a dog treats a fire hydrant--yes, the book is glad you're there, but it has a terrible way of showing it. If you're looking for an audio version, James Wilby ably read an abridged version of the book for CSA Word Classic.
UPDATE: 5 November 2014
Thanks to the Harry Ransom Center I have had the opportunity to look at several versions of Seven Pillars. My favorite version was the 1926 volume that he printed in full color; he only printed 200 copies for his subscribers, so this version is not easy to get a hold of. But it is well worth the trip to the HRC to see it. The scores of graphic images and portraits not only magnify Lawrence's themes, but also place the book firmly in the twentieth century. The 1938 copy reads like a Medieval epic with updated pictures. But the 1926 version feels like a cross between a graphic novel and an illuminated manuscript. It is wholly original and never boring. It represents the only way to understand what Lawrence was laboring towards for close to eight difficult years. It is cliche to say the story 'leaps off the page,' but it just this, and then fills the room, burns down the roof, and lets in the rain.
Many publishers have attempted to abridge Seven Pillars, and to strip out its portraits and drawings for the sake of decreasing the cost of publication. The only abridgment worth touching is Revolt in the Desert: the Authorised Abridged Edition of 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom.' This is the abridgment that Lawrence himself created. As Jeremy Wilson (Lawrence's authorised biographer) states in his 2011 introduction to the book, Lawrence relented to public pressure to create a popular narrative of the capture of Damascus. For the task, Lawrence trimmed the book's political, social, and psychological dimensions, and even cut out his capture at Der'ra and his abandonment of the mission. The book nevertheless tells a coherent story and communicates the nature of Lawrence's campaign in a meaningful way. It is much shorter than Seven Pillars. If teachers are looking for a reasonably priced version of Seven Pillars to assign to their undergraduate students, this is probably the one to choose.