The New York Review of Magazines

Tony Judt in Focus

By Ali Gharib

If you’re keeping track of intellectually-inclined magazines, it’s been pretty difficult to miss Tony Judt’s recent high profile. Judt, the British-born historian, is a mainstay of The New York Review of Books, where, recently, he’s been publishing a series of short memoirs (the two linked here are free ones, not limited to subscribers). Then,ah last month, he sat with The London Review of Books for a lengthy interview by Kristina Božić. But even if you find NYRB and LRB too high-brow (read: pretentious), you might have stumbled upon a moving profile of Judt in New York, or perhaps caught an interview with him on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.

The central feature of Judt’s recent exposure will not be a surprise to those who follow his writing: He’s struggling with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, usually known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Though forced onto a machine that aides breathing and rendered effectively quadriplegic, Judt keeps remarkably busy. Every month, several memoir essays appear in NYRB, kicked off by one about living with his ailment; Judt still directs New York University’s Remarque Institute; and, most recently, he’s been doing press for his newest book, “Ill Fares the Land,” excerpted in the April issue of NYRB.

The excerpt — I haven’t picked up the book yet — serves as a powerful reminder that Judt’s illness has not yet cut short his mind or his ferocious spirit. It’s a bald-faced call for social democracy, that very mode of government that American liberals spend most of their time running away from. Why? Because, as Judt writes, “We cannot go on living like this.” While his memoirs seem to fulfill a need to get his stories out before he no longer can (they’ll soon be collected in a book of their own), “Ill Fares the Land” has an imperative of its own.

“[N]ow I detect — and I don’t just think it’s because I have ALS — an urgency about the need to be angrier about what needs doing, what needs saving, and what needs changing,” he told New York. In other words, Tony Judt is completely self-aware enough to recognize that, despite what ails him, the gifts he possesses as an intellectual and a writer need to be used to resolve what ails the world.

When Lou Gehrig announced to the world, from the playing field at Yankee Stadium, that he was retiring because of ALS, he reflected mostly on his past and declared himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Judt, for his part, has been making this speech for months now, in labored breaths that land as words in NYRB. But his message is that everything is not okay — “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he writes. Those of us who get to read him every month, it turns out in this scenario, are the lucky ones.

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