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Essays to read with fear and delight

As the year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2010, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly until the New Year, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Below, Sharon Zukin (author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places) discusses the powerful last essays of Tony Judt, as collected in The Memory Chalet.

I have yet to hold the full collection in my hands, but like many North Americans I have read with fear and delight the essays from Tony Judt’s Memory Chalet, published in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times over the past two years. These are the most significant pieces of writing I read in 2010 and perhaps the most significant writing I am likely to read for the rest of my life.

Memory Chalet is Judt’s memoir, composed, dictated and published between his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2010, and his death soon after in 2010.  It seems he did not write these essays for publication, but they speak to so many lives and concerns that this may be his most universal, most meaningful book.  Certainly the essays are a memory chest for Judt’s children, but they are also a reckoning with his complicated heritage: privileged by intellect, promoted by meritocracy, punished by an outsider’s clear vision of hypocrisy and dictatorship of every form.  Memory Chalet is Judt’s personal version of his masterwork Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), a narrative of the past half-century in the West, when utopian plans flourished, grew stale and died of a thousand pinpricks from within the liberal capitalist dream.

The book bears witness to post-World War II economic growth and the rise to global dominance of Western industrial economies and the way of life – the consumer lifestyle – they built.  Judt himself experienced the higher standard of living, upward social mobility and “glittering prizes” made possible by a few Cold War decades.  But he also shows how it was possible then and is necessary now to forge a union between liberal democracy and socialist equality.

My favorite essays speak to me, and I guess they were published because they speak to so many other readers of left-wing intellectual media.  I love “Food,” in which Judt recalls his mother’s cooking and viscerally evokes memories of home, family and a secular Jewish identity that is consolidated by memories of relatives who were killed during the Nazi regime on the other side of Europe.   I also like “Meritocrats,” Judt’s account of his student years in the elite precincts of King’s College at Cambridge University, from his initial social trepidation as a scholarship student from a state school to his growing appreciation of politically conservative but tolerant intellectual mentors who showed unexpected patience and tact with a youthful, critical scholar. I find “Austerity” both strange and familiar.  For a Londoner like Judt, the austerity era recalls the World War II privations his parents endured just before he was born; for a Baby Boom American like me, it summons up the Great Depression underlying my parents’ thrift and care.  Other, much-commented on essays pose harsh questions about Israel and the romance of the collective life of the kibbutzim, the closest many Jews came to socialism before disillusionment with the state of Israel, and the role of their own governments in depriving Palestinians of nationhood.

I find Judt’s observations of New York City less original because so many urban writers have said the same things about the same cosmopolitan mix.  But Judt finds the critical edge by observing that he came to live in the world’s most famous cities – London, Paris, New York – at the very moments of their twilights, when their best years have passed and their current growth spurts look like weak efforts of revival.  Paris was the capital of the 19th century, New York the capital of the 20th, and their glittering lights – like the glittering prizes of postwar elite society – turn out to be Aladdin’s lamps in a dimly receding utopian cave.

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Read her column here.

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