Thinking the Twentieth Century is a three-dimensional map of intellectual terrain, marked hastily but with enormous detail and vividness in the course of a conversation between two well-regarded historians . They have spread the map out on the hood of your car—or perhaps, in honor of Tony Judt, who died a year after his discussions with Timothy Snyder ended, the map has been handed to you in a train station.
Robust, personal, and written in plain language, this atlas is encyclopedic, but not an encyclopedia; historical, but not a straight history filled with footnotes and references; opinionated, but not polemical. The legends point to various strains of political, economic, philosophical and historical thought of a century captured neatly in our rearview mirror. If you read closely enough, you can see the path from Marx (a necessary 19th-century topic) to John Maynard Keynes to the Affordable Care Act with more veracity and truthful complexity than anything you’ll get from the 24-hour news channels. But where we go with it—what work we make of it—is up to us.
Judt did his work, and did it superbly, over the course of a too-short career in academics and public opinion, before his life was ended by complications of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease) in August 2010. In the roughly two years between his diagnosis and death, the historian published three books—Ill Fares the Land, a jeremiad; The Memory Chalet, a memoir; and this one—that amount to more than some have achieved in their entire careers. He wrote as his body failed, as he became a quadriplegic increasingly reliant on a breathing apparatus and a vocal amplifier. He had to rely on dictation instead of writing.
Thus the form of Thinking the Twentieth Century makes sense; practically, it was achievable, and aesthetically it calls forth the best of Judt’s qualities: his ability to talk clearly and powerfully about two continents’ worth of themes, subjects, and ideas. His wife Jennifer Homans wrote recently in The New York Review of Books that, “To retrieve a memory, [Judt] didn’t have to ask anything of anyone: it was just there, in his mind, and as long as he could still talk, he could use his memory at will.” (“Tony Judt: A Final Victory”.)
Indeed, the book is an improvised analysis of 20th-century thinkers and their thoughts, and what we ought to make of them now. Snyder’s conversations with Judt, conducted between winter and summer 2009, followed a rough outline organized around Judt’s previous work, his own intellectual development—these are captured in brief, biographical essays preceding each chapter—and Judt’s existing plans for a book on the same subject.
I stress a description of this book’s method for a few reasons. It’s a complicated work combining elements not often woven together with such breadth and intelligence: memory, history, autobiography, conversation, and professional reflection on career and field of study. The more pressing reason—not just in my mind, but in Snyder’s and Judt’s as well—is our contemporary perception of history. Few agree about the purposes of such a ‘map’ in the first place, and increasingly, public culture doesn’t care about the map or the territory it illuminates.
Those of us in intellectual fields have our own specialties, our own fine drawings; we feel little need to make broad connections, and take for granted that the broader picture is either impossible to draw, fated to disingenuousness and manipulation—there is a track record of this, after all—or neatly agreed upon. In his Foreword, Snyder identifies this as a commonplace, apathetic pluralism that historians should replace with a rigorous pluralism which is “not a synonym of relativism, but rather an antonym,” one that “accepts the moral reality of different kinds of truths, but rejects the idea that they can all be placed on a single scale, measured by a single value.”
That is the challenge Judt and Snyder took on as they talked their way through the 20th century: to draw the terrain of Western history for a public with little to no interest in the subject, and an academic and intellectual profession that has become increasingly myopic and disinterested in the public’s disinterest. The conversational strategy of the book may seem ripe for easy agreement or ambiguous resolutions, but Judt never settles for either, and to his credit, Snyder pushes Judt to clearer arguments.
Relying on a shared mental library, they banter, occasionally bicker, and sometimes complete each other’s sentences. The result is not only dynamic, it’s touching. Seeing the book for its form and subtle narrative—not Judt’s life, per se, but the ongoing mission the two share here for getting things right—ought to give some readers a way into its dense, impressive ambition, and it ought to remind intellectuals, especially those in historical fields, of their obligation to speak honestly about what they know and what they believe. Or as Judt says in the final chapter’s essay, “The time has come to write about more than just the things one understands; it is just as important if not more so to write about the things one cares about”.
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