Staff Pick: 'What Are Intellectuals Good For?'

There are some writers whose style is alluring but almost gaudy, ornamented: they are gifted, but you are very much aware of those gifts when reading their work. I mean it as the sincerest compliment I can muster that George Scialabba’s writing is of a different sort; he makes the exceedingly difficult seem easy, and you can read your way through his essays scarcely noticing the sheer talent and craft on display. It is a style meant to clarify and educate, rather than merely impress. The words Scialabba once used to describe Noam Chomsky’s work are fitting adjectives for much of his own writing: lucid, penetrating, austere. Which is not to say they lack style. Rare indeed is the writer who can explain complicated philosophical ideas in such a clear and compelling way, all while wearing his prodigious learning so lightly.

Scialabba’s collection of reviews and essays, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, has been one of my trusted companions throughout this dark political year. As its title indicates, the book’s overarching theme is that of the nature, role, and influence of the intellectual in American life, especially in an age of specialization—a perennial concern, but especially timely now, given debates about how writers and intellectuals, as well as “the media,” should respond to the rise of Donald Trump. Scialabba sketches out an answer to that abiding question mostly through review essays about particular intellectuals: Irving Howe, Michael Walzer, Allan Bloom, Vivian Gornick, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Buckley, Christopher Lasch, Richard Rorty, Noam Chomsky, and many others.

Scialabba dedicates the book to those last three writers—Lasch, Rorty, and Chomsky—calling them “three answers.” He writes from an unapologetically left perspective, while never failing to realize the real insights of conservatism at its most noble. Likewise, even among those for whom he clearly has some fondness, he remains capable of critical distance. His essay on Hitchens, for example, really does make clear just how disappointed he was in Hitchens’s embrace of war and alignment with neoconservatives after 9/11—while underscoring that it wasn’t exactly a surprise. But it ends not with a harangue goading Hitchens to rejoin his former comrades on the left; rather, Scialabba asks him to take up, once again, the true task of the intellectual: to recognize “that there is no honorable alternative—no ‘relief’ to be had from—the frustrations of always keeping the conventional wisdom at arm’s length and speaking up instead for principles that have as yet no powerful constituents.”

A typical Scialabba essay does a few things, and always well. Often he’ll take the publication of a memoir, biography, or career-spanning collection to render judgment on the sweep of an intellectual’s career. In doing so, Scialabba will reference a number of their works, offering pithy summaries of their arguments and noting what their best efforts were, all while situating them in relationship to the history they lived through and the contemporaries they engaged. Every Scialabba essay, then, is an education, and every one is the product of hours upon hours of reading. In that, his essays also are models of compression: line for line, page for page, no one will teach you more than Scialabba. 

Because Scialabba’s form is the essay, his work makes for exceptionally pleasant reading. I was serious when I called What Are Intellectuals Good For? a companion over the last year. You can read a short review on the subway, or read a longer one, or even a few of them, on a lazy afternoon. They all charm, delight, and instruct. It is now a truism among Scialabba’s small but dedicated—and, happily, growing—readership that they don’t make them like him anymore. And that is largely true; there is no greater generalist, no better heir to the midcentury public intellectual, than he. But his work teaches us to not quite despair. Even losing causes should have their defenders. In these times of illiteracy, mediocrity, shallowness, and stupidity—not only but especially among our scribblers and pundits—George Scialabba stands out. We should be grateful for the tradition of writing and criticism he keeps alive, and do our part to continue that noble cause. That starts with buying his books. You really should do just that, and fast.

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Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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