Monday, December 8, 2014

Thinking The Twentieth Century

Tony Judt was an intellectual's intellectual but don't let that put you off. He wrote clearly, he thought deeply, he was slow to take offense and quick witted to the very end. He died in 2011 of ALS and as he was dying he dictated Thinking The Twentieth Century to his friend and fellow historian Timothy Snyder, who prodded him along the way with searching questions about his own life and his ideals. 
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Thinking The Twentieth Century is my 4th Tony Judt book. His masterpiece of course is still Postwar (a history of Europe from 1945 - 2005) and recently I read Reappraisals (a collection of essays) and Ill Fares The Land (a collection of short pieces) both of which were excellent. One of the best essays from that book can be read on the LRB website, here. 
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Thinking The Twentieth Century is a curious mix of biography and a sort of intellectual autopsy of the twentieth century. Judt's specialities as a historian were France and Eastern Europe but his mind ranges widely. Unlike fellow Englishman Christopher Hitchens, Judt was not a gadfly, in fact he was an introvert and this introversion allowed him to avoid distracting dinner parties and spend more time in libraries reading original sources - the meat and potatoes of the serious historian. Judt and Hitchens were, of course, on opposite sides of the Iraq War debate and it's quite stimulating to place this book alongside Hitchens's Arguably which I reread earlier this year. Hitchens, I think, is the better writer but Judt is the most circumspect and deeper thinker; to read Judt's criticisms of the apologists for the invasion of Iraq, particularly Michael Ignatieff and The New York Times's two great frauds Tom Friedman and David Brooks, is like watching a controlled demolition. 
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Some of you will lose interest in this book when it wades into the French political debates of the 1930's but you should stick with it, Thinking The Twentieth Century is a grand tour around the thoughts, loves, lives and opinions of one of the best of our late contemporary historians and commentators, a man, who, like Hitch, left us far too soon.