As a books editor at the country's largest-circulation newspaper, I receive dozens of galleys and review copies each month from authors, PR agents and publishers hoping the Journal might review their titles. By necessity, I get to read only a very few of

As a books editor at the country's largest-circulation newspaper, I receive dozens of galleys and review copies each month from authors, PR agents and publishers hoping the Journal might review their titles.

By necessity, I get to read only a very few of these books. Still, the pile-up can be overwhelming, with each new author's voice joining the cacophony of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and essays already in my head.

To stay sane, order my mental space, and maintain my own intellectual interests and standards, I occasionally have to wave away the clamor of new books in favor of more-established classics. This year, I did that by reading an important work of history that I'd missed when its was first published.

"Empires of the Sand," by Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, was first published in 1999. The book chronicles the rise of the modern Middle East from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Empires of the Sand is notable for its lucid prose, analytical rigor and vast narrative sweep, covering the gradual decline of the once-mighty Turks; the greed, rivalries and clashing ideals of the great powers who sought to control the region throughout the 19th century; and the explosive birth of nationalist movements that rock the Middle East to this day.

Readers who know this history—or think they know it—will be fascinated and delighted by the book's trove of long-forgotten details and unorthodox conclusions.

To understand the history behind today's painful Mideast headlines, there is no better guide than Efraim and Inari Karsh's "Empires of the Sand."