Thinking the Twentieth Century

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"Ideas crackle" in this triumphant final book of Tony Judt, taking readers on "a wild ride through the ideological currents and shoals of 20th century thought.” (Los Angeles Times)

One of our most brilliant historians, Tony Judt brings the past century vividly to life in this unprecedented and original history. Structured as a series of intimate conversations between Judt and his friend and fellow historian Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century presents the triumphs and the failures of the twentieth century's most prominent intellectuals and their ideas, guiding readers through the debates that defined our world. Spanning an era with unprecedented clarity and insight, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a tour de force: a masterful analysis of the life of the mind and an unforgettable guide to leading the mindful life.


"There are so many ways that Thinking the Twentieth Century is a remarkable book. The lifetime of scholarship and intellectual engagement lying behind that verb "thinking" in the title. The way ideas crackle in the interplay between the authors. The passionate involvement with issues political and controversial. That the book could have been written at all, given the tragic circumstances surrounding it... Judt proceeds to take the reader on a wild ride through the ideological currents and shoals of 20th century thought." — The Los Angeles Times

“An intellectual feast, learned, lucid, challenging and accessible.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“Fans will find plenty to sustain them in this poignant coda to a life marked by great feats of penmanship, scholarly insight and contemporary polemic… [Judt’s] bravery is ever-present, but rightly understated. As Mr Snyder notes in his introduction, the book is both about the life of the mind and a mindful life. Judt exemplified both.” — The Economist

“Judt was a provocateur, but maybe an accidental one, and after reading this remarkable, impassioned book, it's hard to doubt his sincerity… Thinking the Twentieth Century is Judt's final salvo against what he saw as a culture of historical ignorance and political apathy, and it's every bit as brilliant, uncompromising and original as he was.” — NPR 

“Incandescent on every page with intellectual energy.” — Pankaj Mishra, Prospect Magazine (UK) 

"Scintillating... a lively, browsable, deeply satisfying meditation on recent history by a deservedly celebrated public intellectual." — Publisher's Weekly (starred review) review

New Yorker Blog review


“This book is history, biography and ethical treatise. It is a modern history of modern political ideas in Europe and the United States. Its subjects are power and justice, as understood by liberal, socialist, communist, nationalist and fascist intellectuals from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first century. It is also the intellectual biography of the historian and essayist Tony Judt, born in London in the middle of the twentieth century, just after the cataclysm of the Second World War and the Holocaust, and just as communists were securing power in Eastern Europe. Finally, it is a contemplation of the limitation (and capacity for renewal) of political ideas, and of the moral failures (and duties) of intellectuals in politics.

To my mind, Tony Judt is the only person capable of writing such a broad treatment of the politics of ideas. As of 2008, Tony was the author of intense and polemical studies of French history, essays on intellectuals and their engagement, and a magnificent history of Europe since 1945, entitled Postwar. He had allowed his gifts for moralization and for historiography to find distinct outlets in brief reviews and longer scholarly studies, and had brought both forms very close to perfection. This book arose, however, because at a certain point that November I understood that Tony would be incapable of any further writing at all, at lease in the conventional sense. I proposed to Tony that we write a book together the day after I realized that he could no longer use his hands. Tony had been stricken with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a degenerative neurological disorder that brings progressive paralysis and certain and usually rapid death.

This book takes the form of a long conversation between Tony and myself. On Thursdays during the winter, spring and summer of 2009, I took the 8:50 train from New Haven to New York’s Grand Central Station, then the subway downtown to the neighborhood where tony lived with his wife, Jennifer Homans, and their sons, Daniel and Nick. Our meetings were scheduled for eleven in the morning; usually I had about ten minutes in a cafe to collect my thoughts about the day’s subject and make a few notes. I washed my hands in very hot water in the cafe and then again in Tony’s apartment; Tony suffered terribly from colds in his condition, and I wanted to be able to grasp his hand.”

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