How Historians Can Rewrite the Future

When the noted and controversial scholar Tony Judt fell fatally ill,Yale professor Timothy Snyder stepped forward to write one last book with him. Here, Snyder recalls the collaboration and the legacy Judt left behind.

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Left, Tony Judt (John R. Rifkin); right, Timothy Snyder (Ine Gundersveen)

"An intellectual by definition is someone temperamentally inclined to rise periodically to the level of general propositions." Thus spake the great historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, and this is just one of the memorable lines we are lucky enough to have on record in his last, posthumously published work.

For the last few years of his life, Judt suffered from a disease that left him trapped in his own body, eventually unable to write or walk. Famous among non-academics for his erudite and occasionally controversial essays on current affairs in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, Judt remains a giant in the field of 20th-century history--the author of the definitive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945--and it was one of his colleagues who had the idea to enable one last literary offering to the world.  

From January to July of 2009, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder met with Judt for a series of recorded conversations that would let Judt's voice communicate to the world what his arms and fingers no longer could. Thinking the Twentieth Century, released February 2 from the Penguin Press, is the product of those discussions. The tome covers far more than, as was originally intended, the British-born, Jewish-raised, and Cambridge-educated Judt's life and work. It is a breathtakingly pithy exploration of some of the great questions of our time, and what it means to be a historian. The alternately joyous and somber ramble touches on the sex lives of French intellectuals, the dangers of the Holocaust museums, and how high schools should teach the history of the Civil War. Observations about the modern media and the English language emerge amidst a provocative reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as we know it today.

Ultimately, the immensely quotable dialogue, whether you agree with the positions or not, is an argument in hard copy that words matter--that, to quote the equally quotable playwright Tom Stoppard, with words "you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos," and "if you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead."

To get a better sense of how this book came into being, and the concerns motivating its authors, we spoke by phone with Timothy Snyder.


Where did you first get the idea for this book? Conversational books aren't all that common.

It came to me in a flash. Like most of the people in Tony's broad circle of acquaintance, I had known that Tony was ill. It was, I think, the day after that I understood that he couldn't use his arms that I thought that we should talk the book together. So simply a moment of empathy. If I couldn't use my arms, I would still want to write.

Then I had to persuade Tony to do it. I started out by giving him my idea, which was that we would talk through his previous work and, in doing so, try to raise some questions that I thought had been half-hidden or implicit -- like the Jewish question, like the role of the intellectual in politics.

But then, as our weekly meetings continued, it became clear that there were a couple other approaches that were worth pursuing. We had a couple mutual friends, including Timothy Garton Ash and my wife Marci Shore, and both said we should talk about Tony's biography, because there was something inherently interesting about this working class kid from south London going through Israel, and Cambridge, and Paris, and Berkeley, and Oxford, and New York, and becoming Tony Judt.

And then also it emerged that Tony had a couple of books that he was under contract to write already. One was called Locomotion, a history of rail travel, that I think it was a great pity that he couldn't write, and the other was called Modern Republic of Letters, which was meant to be an intellectual history of the late 19th century to the present.

So I started out by talking through his previous work. We then went through the biography and then went through, chapter by chapter, this book that he had meant to write.

The book resembles, in some sense, a guided tour through personal mental library. Is this what you mean when you say in the introduction that "this book makes a case for conversation but perhaps an even stronger case for reading"?

One of the very special things about Tony was the sovereign command he exercised over facts and arguments. He was really just as good, if not better, in person than he was on the printed page.  And part of that, of course, was that he just had a very special mind. But part of it was that he was immensely well-read in a very old-fashioned way.

Neither of us was reaching for books or Googling anything as we proceeded. You have to remember that Tony was paralyzed and that we were working alone, just the two of us together. We were just talking. And that was only possible because there were all these layers of reference that were in his mind and in mine. I guess what I was trying to get across in that introduction is that a lot of solitary reading makes direct conversation possible. Because there's this world of letters that you wander around in alone for a long time. But then, when you meet someone else who has been doing even more of that wandering, you have an awful lot to talk about.

Presented by

Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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