Saturday, 26 May 2012

Book review: Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012)

The 20th Century is not my forte. From a history perspective I prefer the 18th Century and early 19th Century, but the 20th was the century I was born in and so I naturally have assimilated a lot of information about it in the course of my life. So it wasn't my normal inclination that drew me to this book. It was, rather, simply that a few influential people on Twitter were saying that they were reading it. It was the social graph, guv'nor.

Now, I start a lot of books and finish quite a lot fewer, but I finished this one. This, despite the fact that a lot of the discourse is difficult and even obscure. Judt and Snyder use hard referents at times, even going so far as to couch discussion in terms of philosophical precedents. Their familiarity with the material makes them refer to people and even events that are unknown to most people. But despite these obstacles I read the book with pleasure. Those obscure things made their way into the matrix of my own knowledge of the 20th Century, filling in the cracks between my own, blockier, ideas with their fine analyses.

Judt also, especially, has a very elegant and efficient way of talking. Because the book takes the form of a verbal conversation you can only assume that Judt's written style is equally nice. So while the material can be obscure at times the delivery is always lucid. The book itself came about because Snyder knew that Judt was dying of a progressive disease and decided to capture the historian's thoughts on tape. The discussions were then transcribed and served to form the matter for the book. The discussions took place in Judt's New York apartment prior to his death in August 2010.

Each chapter in the book takes the same form. The chapter begins with Judt talking about his own life. So the book is partly a diary of the life of a successful historian. After this initial stage, Snyder himself enters the narrative asking questions. The question-and-answer stage takes up the rest of the chapter. So each chapter is like a wave in shape; the diary stage crests and becomes a long discussion about the 20th Century as seen through the eyes of two highly qualified writers of history.

I suppose there's something geeky about listening in on a fairly arcane discussion between two history specialists, but I also presume that the word 'geek' does not pose such an impediment to social success nowadays as it did, say, back in the 80s when I first learned it. I guess that a geek is someone who is amused by some set of inaccessible minutiae, but I'm not that. Or not just that. As Judt says in the book, you have to know the history before you can draw conclusions; approaching history with a pre-existing and firm principle that you then try to substantiate by looking at past events is just bad history, he says.

What this book will do for people born in the 20th Century (and that includes the overwhelming majority of people who would buy the book) is stretch their minds. Yes, it has a lovely cover that suggests both Art Deco and Frank Lloyd Wright, but that's just the teaser. The substance of the book is both interesting and important. How you wish that your history teachers at high school had been as knowledgeable as these two men! For a person born in the 20th Century, understanding that period is essential; to being a complete individual, to being able to exercise his or her democratic rights, to generating a full picture of his or her parents and grandparents, to even understanding him- or herself. And this multicoloured book can also form the basis for further reading. I certainly will be looking to get hold of Judt's Postwar, for example. And then Snyder, too, can now form part of my cognitive map as I navigate my way through the incessant barrage of information and disinformation I am exposed to on a daily basis.

You don't have to be a geek to grok this book but it will help if you are the type of person who can be entertained, challenged and informed, all at the same time.

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