United Nations for Beginners
Ian Williams. Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1995, 154 pp. (paper) List: $9.95; AET: $6.95.
Reviewed by Richard H. Curtiss
The first volume in the "Beginners Documentary Comic Book" series I ever looked into was entitled Arabs and Israel for Beginners and written by Ron David. I picked it up not because it featured a cartoon of a nearly naked Yasser Arafat wearing nothing but his keffiyeh headdress and a strategically placed holster, but because it was the closest book to a temperamental fax machine which I did not trust to send a news story unsupervised. Long after the story had been transmitted, however, I still stood there reading with awe and fascination the book I had started so casually. It described with words, photographs and irreverent cartoons the entire dispute, from the birth of Zionism to the birth of the peace process, accurately, humorously and, wonder of wonders, objectively. Unfortunately someone else already had spoken for the review. Had I reviewed it, however, I would not have spared the superlatives.
Now I can use those superlatives in describing Ian William's deceptively easy-to-read and light-hearted volume on the United Nations in the same series. This "for beginners" series also includes such diverse but nevertheless serious subjects as Judaism, "the Jewish Holocaust," Plato, Nietzsche, Zen, and Sex and Babies. I can't imagine, but mean to find out, how the publishers have prepared a "comic book" on the Holocaust. I'm not sure I'm ready, and therefore won't try to find out, what is contained in their Sex for Beginners. But The United Nations for Beginners is useful and instructive. It also is an irreverent romp through all the pompous arcania that has attended the birth, growth and, hopefully, temporary decline of this last best hope of humankind which, the book points out, is situated on an 18-acre sovereign enclave within the United States sited on land mostly provided by John D. Rockefeller which formerly was occupied by slaughterhouses.
For those who, like this reviewer, think excessively illustrated books both demonstrate and contribute to the "dumbing down" of America, a caution: In the case of this book, we are wrong.
I confess, nevertheless, that I read it not because I admire every ironic word the author writes in his "United Nations Report" in each issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (he free-lances for more than 40 publications worldwide), and not because I know that his iconoclastic weekly columns on the United Nations for the now defunct New York Observer resulted in the banning of that newspaper from the U.N. premises. (The U.N. Secretariat staff couldn't ban author Ian Williams himself because his peers in the U.N. Correspondents' Association had elected him their president.)
In fact I chose to review the book after asking another magazine editor, who happens to be my daughter, how she managed to find time to read the books she sometimes reviews for the five bimonthly magazines on which she does midwifery. "Choose books with lots of pictures and not too much text," she advised. "Send the longer books to free-lancers."
Thus when I saw The United Nations for Beginners I knew it was for me, even though I expected to learn little I didn't already know from a format that seemed to consist of about one-third impudent cartoons, one-third text, and one-third jokes, anecdotes, factoids and aphorisms.
(Sample joke: A visitor asks a U.N. guide, "How many people work here?" Answers the guide, "Oh, about half.") (Sample anecdote: the U.N.'s second secretary-general, U Thant of Burma, was an avid believer in astrology. That meant that long before Nancy Reagan's astrologer took over the setting of important times and dates for events on the calendar of the president of the world's only remaining superpower, astrologers also were helping chart the course of the august successor organization to the League of Nations. …