Thinking the Twentieth Century
Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder
Penguin, $36, 432 pp.
Tony Judt would have liked this book to be judged solely on its merits, but it is impossible to read it without being aware of the circumstances in which it was composed. In the fall of 2008, Judt, sixty years old, the father of two young sons, a respected scholar and celebrated public intellectual, learned that he had amyotropic lateral sclerosis, the motor neuron disease conventionally associated with Lou Gehrig. Although the pace may vary, the course of ALS is certain: a gradual paralysis, first of the limbs, then the rest of the body, that inevitably leads to death. There is discomfort but no pain; patients remain lucid, fully aware of their own deterioration.
During the two years in which Judt endured what he called “progressive imprisonment without parole,” he composed three books: Ill Fares the Land, a statement of his political values and a lament for their declining resonance, The Memory Chalet, twenty-five autobiographical vignettes, several of which first appeared in the New York Review of Books, and now Thinking the Twentieth Century, whose afterword is dated just a month before its author’s death in August 2010. All three are, by necessity, deeply personal books, based on Judt’s formidable capacity to recall what he experienced and read; all three combine history and autobiography, joining Judt’s...