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.
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.