four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
By: 
Tony Judt
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744481.pngOutspoken British historian Tony Judt penned 15 works of nonfiction, including his sweeping history of post-1945 Europe, Postwar ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2006), which became a critical and popular success and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, at age 62.

The Topic: Transcribed from conversations Judt conducted with Yale historian Timothy Snyder when Lou Gehrig’s disease robbed him of the use of his hands, Judt’s swan song of a book interweaves his life and intellectual development with a history of the great ideas of the 20th century. Each of the nine chapters of Thinking the Twentieth Century opens with a personal reminiscence—from his Jewish heritage, English childhood, and early flirtations with Marxism and Zionism to his passionate interest in Eastern Europe. He then follows these memories with broader discussions of the related philosophies, politics, and economics of the era. Public intellectuals, Judt declares, have a duty to speak the truth no matter what the consequences may be, and he skewers those he believes have chosen to serve power instead.
Penguin. 432 pages. $36. ISBN: 9781594203237

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Because Judt was a public intellectual who wrote extensively about other public intellectuals, his thoughts on his peers are doubly fascinating. … It is Judt’s carefully considered and passionately held non serviam that makes this volume so invaluable and that places him among the great independent voices of our culture like Orwell and Camus." John Broening

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The way that Thinking the Twentieth Century, which seeks no less than to encapsulate the political and social currents of the 20th century, is also strikingly personal and rooted in his own history is startling. Not just because there is so much discussion of his British schooling and university training, family and ethnic background—and even his two divorces!—but because his political and historical judgments are so evidently colored by his experience." Martin Rubin

Milwaukee Jrml Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] sometimes dense but also bracing book that’s both reminiscent of and leagues better than even the most memorable late-night college bull sessions. … Thinking is a passionate, deeply felt indictment of ‘simple’ and seamless narratives that purport to explain everything: fascism and communism as well as Zionism and nationalism, identity politics and cultural studies, psychoanalysis and—our current infatuation— economics." Mike Fischer

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[An] intellectual feast, learned, lucid, challenging and accessible. … Even if Judt was ‘a trifle solipsistic,’ and in part because he made no pretense to objectivity, his extraordinarily informative work (and the stimulating conversations that comprise Thinking the Twentieth Century) help us contextualize, comprehend and critique the complex world in which we live." Glenn C. Altschuler

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"He skewers many people—Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Michael Mandelbaum, Judith Miller, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Ignatieff, myself included—for being ignorant at best and willing dupes of power at worst, never conceding that his opponents could be honestly wrong or that his own views might deserve more introspection. … In the end, what is striking about this book is the great difference between the 20th-century world it describes and the present." Francis Fukuyama

Critical Summary

"Judt leaves no doubt where he stands," observes the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He never did." And, true to form, Judt fervently condemns Israel, American foreign policy, identity politics, cultural studies, political correctness, and psychoanalysis, among other topics. While a few critics took exception to his tirades, others appreciated the zeal and deep feeling behind them. Snyder, "highly erudite and opinionated himself" (New York Times Book Review), is "not your typical journalistic interviewer," and their conversations crackle. It may not be the cultural history Judt had originally intended to write after the success of Postwar, but Thinking the Twentieth Century is "an important achievement of a scholar and intellectual whose premature passing we should all regret" (New York Times Book Review).