February 22, 2012
A Scholar Who Can Really Shake Things Up
The study of history may strike some readers as a sedate subject. Now and then, however, an historian comes along who can really shake things up. Timothy Snyder is one such scholar, and I am excited to announce that we will all be afforded an opportunity to meet Snyder in person when he appears as part of the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Central Library on Tuesday, March 6, 2012, at 7:00 p.m.
Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, boldly reframed the conventional narrative of the Second World War and the Holocaust in “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” a landmark book that reminds us of the crucial but often overlooked role of Poland and Eastern Europe in that tragic era. When I reviewed “Bloodlands” in The Jewish Journal, Snyder’s provocative take on the Holocaust sparked a lively debate among our readers.
Snyder’s latest work is “Thinking the Twentieth Century” (Penguin, $35), but his role in the book is a bit unusual. The primary author is the late historian Tony Judt, an influential mover and shaker who did some impressive reframing of his own, and the byline is given as “Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder.”
But the byline conceals a poignant story. At 62, Judt was stricken with a degenerative neurological disorder while working on “Thinking the Twentieth Century,” and it was clear that he would be unable to complete the book. Snyder came to his rescue by recasting the book as a conversation between the two scholars — a conversation that amounts to an impressive intellectual achievement but also a touching encounter between two good friends at the end of one man’s life.
“I washed my hands in very hot water,” Snyder writes of their daily work sessions, which took place in Judt’s New York apartment during the final stage of his illness. “Tony suffered terribly from colds in his condition, and I wanted to be able to grasp his hand.”
What is preserved in the book that Judt and Snyder created together is a unique encounter between two lively and provocative minds, “a contemplation of the limitations (and capacity for renewal) of political ideas,” as Snyder puts it, “and of the moral failures (and duties) of intellectuals in politics.” Like the earlier work of both men, “Thinking the Twentieth Century” casts a new light on what we are tempted to regard as familiar terrain and allows us to see things that have been hidden from us until now.
Timothy Snyder will be featured in the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, at 7:00 p.m. on March 6, and it will be my honor and pleasure to serve as his interlocutor. Precisely because I have already read “Thinking the Twentieth Century,” I can promise that Snyder’s remarks will be spirited and perhaps a bit unsettling.
I am proud that the two of us will share a stage, but thanks to Snyder’s extraordinary friendship and colleagueship with Tony Judt, his late co-author will be there in spirit, too.
For more information and reservations about the event, visit the website of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.