Monday, May 13, 2013

Thinking the Twentieth Century

Thinking the Twentieth Century
Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

The historian Tony Judt was dying slowly from ALS when his friend and colleague Timothy Snyder proposed working together on a book. Snyder had recently published Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, a challenging examination of wartime genocides that extended beyond the Holocaust. Thinking the Twentieth Century takes the form of a conversation between these two historians and good friends, friends who expand on and circle around some of the most important and sometimes most obscure periods in the last century. It was, perhaps, a century with more history than any other. It was certainly a century with more deaths by atrocity than any other.

The conversation ranges widely across “history, biography, and ethical treatise,” and in doing so, presents forgotten or unfamiliar history. The history and biography here are alive—recalling his early life, Judt states, “The world of my youth was thus the world that was bequeathed us by Hitler.” As for the ethical treatise, in his Foreword Snyder has this to say:

There is one truth that seeks us rather than the other way around, one truth that has no complement: that each of us comes to an end. The other truths orbit around this one like stars around a black hole, brighter, newer, less weighty. This final truth helped me to give this book its final shape. This book could not have arisen without a certain effort at a certain time, little more than a companionable gesture on my side, but an enormous physical campaign on Tony’s. But it is not a book about struggle. It is a book about the life of the mind, and about the mindful life.
Judt’s previous book, The Memory Chalet, exhibited such deep care for the world he was leaving, and leaving behind. Thinking the Twentieth Century is also a book about the capacity for caring. In this case, caring deeply about a friend.

 - James Reid


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