I picked up Tony Judt’s Reappraisals almost at random on a bookstore’s shelves because I needed a paperback to read, and I’ve got to say this is one of the finest essay collections I’ve read in a long, long time. Because Judt – the acclaimed author of Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945 (a New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2005, winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award, and Pulitzer Prize finalist), as well as twelve other books – died in 2010, the book, first published in 2008, also reads as the parting gift of an exceptional writer to his audience and our last glimpse into a first-rate mind fascinated by questions of Europe versus America and the engaged intellectual.
Judt himself explains, in the book’s introduction, that his essays have two dominant themes: (1) “the role of ideas and the responsibility of intellectuals” and (2) “the place of recent history in the age of forgetting.” They have been divided into four parts: The Heart of Darkness; The Politics of Intellectual Engagement; Lost in Transition: Places and Memories; and finally The American (Half-) Century. The book ends with an essay revisiting “the new ‘social question’ of poverty, underemployment and social exclusion.” I’ve read all of Parts One and Four and a lot of Part Two so far, so I can’t quite judge the book as a whole, but I know enough to strongly recommend Reappraisals, if you’re looking for an essay collection on current affairs with a European, post-WWII theme.
Throughout the chapters I’ve read, I’ve consistently been impressed by Judt’s ability to write as if he was sitting across the table from his readers and sharing well-argumented thoughts in an assured voice, without pontificating, lecturing or speechifying. One could easily read the essays aloud, and yet the language is not casual – he simply comes across as a very gifted orator who must have mesmerized his students with his lectures at New York University, where he was University Professor and Director of the Remarque Institute, “which is dedicated to the study of Europe and which he founded in 1995” (from the biographical note).
I’ve enjoyed all the essays so far and learned a lot, but I’ll only single out two for particular praise:
Albert Camus: “The best man in France”, published when Camus’s novel The First Man was published in France in 1994, thirty-four years after the Nobel Prize winner’s death into a car accident – that essay made me buy The First Man during my subsequent trip to the bookstore (I bought the book in French when it was first published but never got a chance to read it for various reasons, and now I read most of my books in English),
Hannah Arendt and Evil, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1995 following the publication of a new collection of Arendt’s essays and her correspondence with Mary McCarthy, and which further motivated me to watch the movie about the philosopher, after one failed attempt during a soggy afternoon that saw the movie theater sell out before I could buy a ticket. (The following attempt was a success and I found the movie outstanding.)
I plan to write soon posts both on Camus’s book and the movie about Arendt, so I won’t go into the details here, but I always love when a book entices me to discover other things (books or movies, in this case) and pushes me in new directions. Judt writes beautifully, convincingly, and displays a staggering breadth and depth of culture without looking down on his readers. Instead, he talks to us as if he expects all of us to be (almost) his intellectual equals and so doesn’t need to water down his arguments, can make his point and trust us to seriously consider what he says, whether we agree with him or not. It is refreshing to read someone who aims high in his writing, with such a strong mastery of the English language and exceptional argumentative skills. I only wish Judt could have written many more books.
Here is a video (uploaded by mediagrrl9 on YouTube) announcing Judt's death of Lou Gehrig disease and describing the main themes of his work.
But what I want to end up on is a short audio excerpt (uploaded by audiobookmturk26a on YouTube) of Judt's Postwar book, which will undoubtedly be an important part of his legacy.