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Friday, April 27, 2012

Guest Blogger: A Polemic From the Prairie

The Political Challenges Inherent in Solving English Language Instruction and the Push for Latin as a Tool to Instruct Children in Learning Grammar

This essay is in part in reply to an article Pamela wrote concerning her frequent use of the present active participle. I was struck by the way in which American society at present rarely discusses grammar and the way in which grammar is taught today.  Originally, I had planned on writing only about how Latin might better teach children grammar in English, but my thoughts soon turned to the larger problem of NCLB and the way in which English is taught to children today. 

I read your article on the present active participle (that you posted some time ago), and I wanted you to know I enjoyed it. We as a society rarely discuss grammar, and it's good to know someone appreciates it as much as I do! Maybe we could reverse this trend if we brought Latin back into the curriculum, but that's a hard sell these days, though for what it's worth I was a colloquium a few years ago at U of I and the chair of the classics department at Indiana was going on and on about how Latin and foreign language in general are so effective at teaching kids grammar in English. I would surmise this is likely because our English grammar was adapted from Latin (and later French as well) and as such is not very intuition-friendly. Once the grammar has been established in another language, however, the student "translates" the grammar he or she knows from that language to English, just as the original grammarians did.

Yet, despite the common sense conclusion of the above stipulation, there is little reason to believe that school districts are going to start implementing Latin into their curricula at any time in the near future.  There are a number of reasons for this, mostly rooted in the fact that school districts must educate students in such a way so that they pass state standardized testing requirements at the end of the year.  These requirements, set forth in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, serve as a metric for which to judge school performance. Schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” in consecutive years may be forced to close, and states that fail to meet guidelines may lose federal funding.  So in response to the need to meet these requirements school districts across the country have implemented curricula that place emphasis on the material covered in these tests to such a degree that a standard curriculum has been adapted to meet the very language of the test, often to the detriment of the education the child actually receives. A good example here is the use of the term “magnitude” for “absolute value” in mathematics education. Even though the term “absolute value” is used across the board in higher education mathematics and the academic world in general, because someone decided that the term “magnitude” was more palatable this is the term used to educate students.

The situation is no better in the reading and writing curriculum which, instead of nurturing a desire to read and an appreciation for language via grammatical instruction, forces children to memorize the differences between, for example, the “main idea” and “supporting details” in very boring passages so that they can pass the tests the state needs them to pass in order to receive federal funds. Forget diagramming sentences, which have almost entirely gone by the wayside; the push now is to develop only those ideas which are tested at the state level.  This is a tragedy, students are denied the best tools to develop actual comprehension, teachers are denied the autonomy they need in order to teach effectively, and those who develop a curriculum must tailor it in ways to meet the standards set forth by the states at the expense of what actually works. Yes, there is presently a “dumbing down” in curriculum development, and almost everybody is losing.

--Which is why it is all the more difficult to argue for changes such as the implementation of Latin and French as instructional tools in teaching effective grammar skills. The blowback that academics who push for this change undeniably face (if they are heard at all) is perfectly well understood because in many cases there simply is no space for these ideas in the curriculum.  Where there is space, educators are hard at work implementing their own ideas and might not be receptive to what they perceive to be little more that elitist academic suggestions. 

This is unfortunate, to say the least. Elitist or not, it is simply a fact that English grammar was shaped by Latin and that grammarians who taught English historically understood that language as well. There is no good reason not to teach English in such a way in that it “makes sense” to the students, especially those who come from backgrounds where English is not a first language or where the English spoken as home differs significantly from the English as it is taught in the schools.  Latin allows for the implementation of grammatical rules that do make sense, that teach subject and object, imperfect and perfect tense, and the relative pronoun in such a way as that it is abstracted from the politics of the English language; no matter what variety of the English is spoken at home, the rules learned from Latin carry over and comprehension is improved. 

I think eventually we will come to terms with NCLB and the way in which education is disseminated in America, but it may well be years down the road when we realize that the standardized testing–driven approach to education is counterproductive.  When that occurs, we will look more seriously at the arguments made by academics and educators to implement a better English curriculum, and we will undoubtedly find arguments to return to sentence diagramming, the teaching of Latin, and also the teaching of foreign language not just as a tool to understand another language but to better understand our own.

Despite the fact that I am pessimistic about change in the near future, I am not willing to capitulate, because if there is no push from those of us who are aware of the benefits of teaching English in this way, then we will most certainly lose. Maybe the solution is a push from the nonprofit sector to implement more "Language Arts" (a nebulous phrase as we rarely use the term "arts" in that sense any more) and incorporate some Latin into the curriculum--in other words, taking an entirely gradualist approach. At present that's not where the money is, but once is case is made to the right people, in the right way (i.e. not just expecting people to adapt their curriculum because we are right and they are wrong), perhaps it will be.

We also have to be aware of the politics at play and be sensitive to the fact that many individuals have their hearts in the right places and really are doing what they can to educate students.  I'm not on vanguard here (yet), but I do recognize that this push must come from people from different walks of life, not just academics who are known to shout angrily into the wind on occasion. 

In any event, it’s a long, tough road ahead.

- Matthew Case
B.A., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Master’s in Public Administration candidate, 2013,
University of Illinois at Springfield

P.S. Monday, April 30: For another view and response to Matthew's position, see Ben Wetherbee's blog post here

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I Am Back, AND Anna Lavinia Has Arrived!

Prairie wind, Illinois
Catching up with a blog after a long hiatus can be difficult. My task is more daunting than usual since I was off adventuring for almost two weeks, visiting family and friends, seeing old sights much changed and new scenery that took my breath away. I also spent a full week with a friend of many years whom I was meeting in person for the very first time. I was reading, too, while away....

Having started Tony Park’s new novel, African Dawn, I took that with me on my drive to Illinois, thinking it would accompany me on the flight West—but no, the story was so exciting that during my stay at my mother’s house I raced to the novel’s conclusion and had to borrow something from my mother (Born in Shame, by Nora Roberts) to take with me to Arizona. How much did I read on the plane? Not much! Views of my beloved planet from above scattered clouds had me too excited to take my nose from the window. I felt like Neil Armstrong! Earth! My planet! My beautiful home!

My first night at Helen’s house (after we stayed up talking until 1 a.m., which is 4 a.m. Michigan time), I wrapped up my reading of the Nora Roberts novel and selected from her well-filled shelves (oh, the agony of decision when one’s hostess is another booklover and bookseller!) a nonfiction tale with the intriguing title, Auto Nomad in Barbary, the author Wilson MacArthur. Fascinating as the story was, I fell asleep over it every night and never did finish, but one night I set it aside for Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia, of which I only managed nine pages before overtaken by sleep but which I finished the next morning, laughing so hard I was afraid I'd wake Helen.

Library guest room--perfect!
Helen and I made various sorts of explorations around her home of Carefree, Arizona. We toured museums in Scottsdale, thrift shops in Cave Creek, and magnificent scenery up north around Jerome and Sedona. We also did a day of major bookshopping, with delightful visits to Alcuin Books in Scottsdale and Old Town Books in Tempe. You know the term “busman’s holiday”? We two had a “booksellers’ holiday”!

Helen and proprietor at Alcuin Books, Scottsdale, Arizona

Bookseller at Old Town Books in Tempe
Before departure, I filled two large boxes to mail home and then had to borrow a book from Helen for the plane. The one that begged to make the trip east with me was The Lost Garden, a novel set in rural World War II England (Devon) by Helen Humphreys. Here is the first of many passages I copied out of that lovely book, this one very appropriate to a travel adventure,
 ...for when you wander it is hard to believe that you will not one day revisit the places that have captured your imagination and struck a chord of sympathy.
Desert and mountains near Carefree and Cave Creek, Arizona
Tuzigoot Monument
Outside Jerome, Arizona
Looking across valley towards Sedona to the east
Certainly I hope that Helen and I will have many future visits! She is an indoor person, I prefer outdoors; she a night owl, I a morning person; but for all that and other differences, we definitely found ourselves to be what Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) called “kindred spirits”--in our case, a pair of booksellin' fools who happen also to share a birthday!

Here we are outside Jerome, Arizona
Back in Illinois, I spent another couple of happy days with my mother and sisters before facing the arduous drive back to Michigan via I-80 and I-94. Expressways! How I hate driving them! Is it any wonder I yielded to the temptation of the Paw Paw exit? My reward for leaving the “superslab” was finding a new store of used books in Paw Paw, Fat Cat Books in the old Village Playhouse building. That was fun!

FatCat Books, Paw Paw, Michigan, home of Grimmsley the Cat
Kalamazoo keeps changing, and the changes confuse and bewilder, but old country roads are still lovely and comforting, as were flowering dogwood at the home of my friends (Laurie and I did our third annual garlic mustard pull-out) and a late breakfast the next day with my son before a drive home taken the way I’ve always dreamed of traveling, i.e., without a plan, and without consulting a map. I wandered north and then west, north a while more and west again. I was on dirt road once for several miles, going west, but eventually, as I figured it would, the dirt road intersected with two-lane blacktop, and i turned north again. By the time I got through Grand Rapids (a short expressway excursion) and was on dear, familiar M-37, the trip seemed all but accomplished, and very delightfully so.

Home, sweet home! David! Sarah! The next morning, Northport and Dog Ears Books! Now I am hurrying to read Dante’s Paradiso and looking forward to various literary events and meetings with friends. There is also grass to mow, there are trees to plant, there is the garden to dig, so these are busy times.

But here’s a little piece of bookstore excitement: the long-awaited re-release of Palmer Brown’s The Silver Nutmeg finally arrived, and my back-ordered copies are at last in hand. A couple of people reserved copies, but I have extras, too, for anyone who already loves Anna Lavinia and Toby’s story and also for those who want to experience the enchantment and magic of The Silver Nutmeg for the first time.

Open the door to adventure--

--and prepare to take the plunge!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Where on Earth Have I Been?

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote 
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne, 
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to go on pilgrimages....

Since it is still Poetry Month, I have borrowed from Chaucer for this magical mystery tour.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Take a Break for Poetry

The reason that our little library in Northport is having a poetry evening on April 11 is that April is National Poetry Month, a fact that almost escaped me this spring, my focus being in several other directions. But Poetry Month it is, and the library is one good place to find books of poems. Another good place is your local bookstore, Northport’s being Dog Ears Books on Waukazoo Street. Accordingly, the table by the front door now features work by (in alphabetical order) Wendell Berry, Al Bona, Fleda Brown (who be a bookstore guest on June 22), Jim Harrison, Todd Mercer, Anne-Marie Ooman, Mary Ann Samyn, and Kenneth C. Wylie. Except for Berry, all these poets have strong Michigan connections, even roots, and every one of them merits your lingering attention.

But now a caveat: I will be away from my bookstore for at least a week and a half, beginning with Sunday, April 8. Bruce will return home from his latest trip while I’m gone on mine, and David will be around, too, but while David and/or Bruce will open the bookstore now and then as the spirit moves them (call to see if someone’s there before making a long trip, unless you’re out for the scenery whether the bookstore is open or not), there will be no regular posted spring hours at Dog Ears Books until the last full week in April. This is because once Memorial Day rolls around, we’ll be open seven days a week until Labor Day. Vacation? Now or—not never, but not until September! 

As for my destination, I’ll keep that for a later surprise—when I get there and have pictures and stories to share. For now, I'll leave you with a favorite verse:
My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
No matter where it’s going.
       - from “Travel,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Welcome to Rocket's Burger Shack

[This is the first of a ten-story cycle I wrote a little over two years ago. All the stories are set in or at least have some slight connection to the same fast food restaurant.] 

Mallory’s People©

      While they lived they were his creatures, his rule over them absolute. He had brought them to life, and he could destroy them at any moment, in any manner he chose.

Or so he told himself when he grew sick of the world. Both worlds, really—the one he had been thrown into at birth, which became more difficult to navigate with each passing year, but also, inevitably, the one he had created, closely modeled on the first except for the fact that it was completely under his control, subject to his every whim. At least, such was the belief he clung to like a shipwrecked sailor to a floating spar, even on days when it was a toss-up which world was more obdurate and bent on driving him mad.

      Today was a good example, his usually controlled world set at odds by the “rebellion,” as he viewed it, of Mona. He had given the bitch a heart of granite and no conscience whatsoever. He had put this con woman extraordinaire on a crooked but very broad road of deception and chicanery, a brilliant criminal career within her reach. She was not supposed to fall in love. --That is to say, she was not supposed to indulge in the self-deception of fancying herself in love: Mallory didn’t believe love existed and did not countenance it among his people, who were known for their toughness, independence, nonchalance, and for laughing at the slightest hint of sentiment. They flourished by deceiving others, but they themselves remained clear-headed, clawing their way over weaker mortals to achieve worldly success as measured in visible increments--expensive cars, clothing, watches and luggage, unlimited foreign travel, and plenty of gourmet dining accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol. Such was the world he had created, and while it had its critics they were on the outside. If one got inside from time to time, he didn’t last long, and that was how Mallory intended to keep it. Now for Mona, of all people, to stray so far over the line! Well, she would have to be eliminated, no two ways about it.

      Mallory lifted his head from his hands and locked his fingers together, elbows still on the table. He was almost always the first breakfast arrival at this unremarkable fast food restaurant, and now he looked up and off into the far corner where a television set droned and chattered continuously, bringing disaster from all corners of the world. The bad news coming from the screen was almost a relief because he was not responsible for any of it and could not be expected to fix any of the problems thus brought to his attention. He had not robbed that bank, driven the car in that fatal accident, ordered troops in the jungle to kill. He was not a politician or a doctor; he had no duty to govern or cure. Weather news was even better: no one could possibly be held responsible for that! Mallory took a series of deep breaths and let himself become lost in the succession of images, one unrelated story following the next, none demanding anything of him.

As the dark of early morning gradually gave way to light, other people claimed booths and tables between Mallory near the door and the television in the corner. Three white-haired men, “senior citizens” (that is, old enough to qualify for the 50-cent cup of coffee before 9 a.m.), took one end of the only long table, leaving empty chairs at its other end. Mallory recognized them. The trio arrived daily between eight and nine o’clock, Sundays no exception, and stayed until almost noon, enjoying endless refills. Somehow the management tolerated them, and Mallory had picked up the idea that one might be the owner’s father-in-law. Sometimes all three men looked up silently at the television together for a few minutes, and when they did, for some reason they reminded Mallory of geese. Then one would shake his head and laugh or exhale sharply in disgust or shout angrily in disbelief, even slamming a fist on the table, uttering pointed remarks on whatever news story had just aired. The others would chip in their two cents’ worth, and the three would either argue or agree, but either way their table would be noisy for a while until they once again fell silent.

      Across the room, an overweight man sat alone in a window booth with a big breakfast order. In the booth behind him, an attractive middle-aged woman in a dress and tailored jacket and a somewhat younger man in a sportcoat conferred over folders and papers, sipping coffee as they talked. The man nodded and smiled frequently, Mallory noted. Eager to please, he thought dismissively. Pussy!

Directly in front of the television a mother with two children sat immobile while her two young boys wrangled over their food. The mother, like Mallory, seemed to be using the television to escape her private world. As he recognized his commonality with the woman, he lowered his head back into his hands and shut his eyes again, returning to the other world. He had work to do.

      His coffee was cold in its styrofoam cup, and he’d had his limit of refills (two), but he didn’t come here for coffee as much as to escape what he always remembered his mother referring to in despair as “the four walls!” and to prove to himself that he could conquer each new day by molding his people and his world into the trademark shape his admirers had come to expect. That was the challenge today, and it was always the challenge. Though new each day, it was also the same, day after day.

      In the beginning, as a young man, he had written longhand on yellow legal pads, working late at night in a series of dingy rented apartments, drinking whiskey and smoking endless cigarettes, sometimes only falling into bed with the dawn. Now, a grey-haired workhorse, he began his labors at six in the morning, on a laptop computer, at a fast food joint half an hour from the big house he still could not bring himself to call his “home,” though the architecture magazines loved it. Between six and twelve o’clock he allowed himself no more than three cups of coffee. Cigarettes, nevermore! But for all the apparent differences in his habits over the years, nothing essential had been altered. If anything, the shape of his work had carved an ever-deeper channel over the course of his career.

His world was peopled by hard-boiled, maladjusted neurotics and psychopathics. Among this population there was a lot of obsessive-compulsive behavior and a lot of violence, both ritual and random. In the end a rough justice was always meted out, and yet his readers always had the sense that if some very small, almost microscopic detail had been altered, criminals and avengers could easily have exchanged roles. They were not different from one another at all, just playing on different teams. His admirers loved this aspect of his work, while readers who hated it never read beyond their first Mallory. But that was it: his books were known quantities, brand-name products, and his name was the brand. It was like the coffee or the burgers at Rocket’s Burger Shack: they weren’t a great restaurant experience, but you knew ahead of time what you were going to get, and that’s what you came for, so you were never disappointed.

Impatiently, Mallory wracked his brain for a way to destroy Mona. A simple search-and-replace would remove every mention of her name, but the problem would remain, since the problem was with her, not her name. At the other end of the range of solutions was the possibility of deleting the entire manuscript. (Strange word, he mused, momentarily distracted, for something not handwritten and not even on paper, as his old typewritten “manuscripts” had been.) Destroy his work! Only once in his life had he taken that drastic step, and his present anger at Mona surged with the remembrance. That she should push him to this, to even considering this, though it would mean her total annihilation!

      Women were always problematic, and Mallory had wished more than once that he could construct a world without them, but his attempts had always been unsuccessful. The universe went flat, its action became mechanical and overly predictable without the plot-advancing mutual incomprehension that men and women brought to their interactions. So Mallory compromised. He gave his women unbelievable beauty and overwhelming powers of seduction, leaving them in every other characteristic indistinguishable from his men—grasping, opportunistic, amoral, heedless of others, and complete strangers to remorse. “Sociopaths,” one critic called his characters, “set loose in a dystopic universe.” Mallory’s feelings weren’t hurt. His sales soared in the wake of the review.

      He couldn’t call the problem with Mona one of betrayal. Mallory’s people were always betraying one another. No, it was her weakness that Mallory’s world could not tolerate. Any feeling that pushed self-interest to the background was weakness and a betrayal of self, according to Mallory’s grand design, and even a momentary slip doomed a character to elimination. After all, Mallory would not be the only one to notice that new, soft look on Mona’s face or the way she held the phone too long in her hand after Dan had already hung up. “Uh-oh!” his readers would think at that point in the story, picturing Mona gazing out the window without seeing the scene before her. “She’s a goner!” And since her pernicious and seemingly self-willed straying from the road laid out for her didn’t look as if it would be momentary, her elimination would have to be swift and unequivocal, bloody and gruesome and utterly original in execution. Mallory’s people knew the rules.

      If women were a general problem in the wider world (as Mallory was convinced they were) and Mona the current specific problem in his controlled universe, what was the link between the general and the specific cases in the two worlds? He hated like hell to face it head-on, but the answer was staring him in the face: Mona couldn’t help falling in love with Dan because (a) Dan was Mallory’s alter ego, (b) Mona was based on Mallory’s mistress of almost three years, Peggy, and (c) although Peggy tried her best to hide it, even Mallory could see that Peggy was in the grip of certain biological and social female imperatives and that she had fixated on Mallory for their execution in fantasy, if nowhere else. He was sure of it. He would have staked his life that she fantasized about a wedding, married vacations, even children. He tried telling himself that she probably couldn’t help it, any more than a kleptomaniac could help shoplifting, but it was hard for him to maintain such a generous view this morning in light of the infection having spread to Mona. But how had it spread to Mona? He clenched his teeth at this unbidden question.
      The bizarre and maddening truth was that Mallory could not control every aspect even of the world he had created. From time to time, inexplicably, one of his invented people took the bit in his or her teeth and struck out for the woods, running wild, as it were. It infuriated Mallory whenever it happened. Damn these people! But he always had the last word. That was how it worked, because his people would never have existed except for him.

Mona, now, was the closest he had yet come to creating the perfect woman. As independent, as cunning, as ruthless as any of his male characters, unbelievably gorgeous, she had already in her debut appearance provided several of those male characters with to-die-for sex. (Two had died for it--with nothing to regret, in Mallory’s opinion). Finding himself somewhat weary of the Dan character after living inside him through eight successful and completely formulaic novels, Mallory had begun to let himself dream of grooming Mona to take Dan’s place. The idea excited him, made his breath come faster and sharper. It would make his harsher critics sit up and take notice, too, he thought, narrowing his eyes with anticipatory satisfaction at the calculation that, for him, was never far from arousal. Mallory writes a female protagonist! Mallory breaks new literary ground! Literary? Well, they might say that someday, he told himself. But that dream was barely hatched before Mona developed her unforgivable feet of clay. Now she could never graduate to main character status. Hell, Mallory couldn’t even keep her around for the last page of this one novel, the way she’d turned out! After such a promising entrance, her development pissed him off no end.

      Mallory was suddenly distracted from the problem of Mona by a new arrival to the morning breakfast scene and an unfamiliar electric charge to the atmosphere. No wonder! Haughty and statuesque, with black hair flowing down her back past her waist in a loose braid, wearing (his eyes were drawn to her feet to begin the visual inventory) high-heeled boots, tight jeans, what looked like a real fur jacket and wrap-around sunglasses, this woman looked like no one he had ever seen before, here or anywhere else. Holding a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and a black attaché case in the other, she stood stock-still for what seemed an eternity before striding to and sliding into the seat of the booth directly across from Mallory. He sat transfixed. St. Theresa visited by the Virgin Mother could not have been more so. His new character! The replacement for Mona! He forced himself to stop staring and began tapping at the keys of his laptop, recording a description of the beautiful stranger, already brainstorming a way to introduce her into the story.

      Meanwhile, the stranger placed her attaché case on the table before her and unzipped it, removing her own laptop computer. Her lips curved almost imperceptibly as she stared at the screen. Then she turned to gaze for a moment at Mallory, just as he was glancing up to take another look at her. She placed her fingers purposefully on her keyboard, and Mallory’s two worlds went black suddenly and simultaneously.

Deleted, he never knew what hit him.

- P. J. Grath, 2010

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Competition? What Competition?

This coming week, beginning on Sunday, April 8, is National Library Week. Some people see bookstores and libraries as competitors. Libraries and bookstores both begin with books, it’s true, and the two institutions serve some overlapping needs and demands, but there are important differences. I had it in mind to write more about the differences, but somehow my inspiration fled. Lucky you!

The important points are next week’s recognition of libraries and, in Northport, a celebratory evening Wednesday, April 11, from 6 to 8 p.m. It’s a poetry and soup evening, so bring poems to share and your favorite soup mug. There’s also a special Robert Burns connection, which makes me doubly sorry I’ll be out of town and will miss the fun. I would have loved another chance to perform an interpretive reading, in Scottish dialect, of “To a Mouse,” my favorite Burns poem.

P.S. If anyone thinks I’m kidding about bookstores and libraries not being competitors, I’d like to say that our local librarian and at least three Friends of the Library members attended my recent author event and bought signed copies of the author’s book. Also, I have been working with the FOL committee to help put together this summer’s author series at the library. In a place as small as Northport, we all have to work together so that all may swim and none may sink.

P.P.S. Dog Ears Books will be closed today, Wednesday, April 4. The Leelanau Township Library opens at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and is open until 8 p.m. Tomorrow both bookstore and library will be open morning and afternoon.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tony Judt: Much More Than Just “Amazing”

I don’t think I quite grasped it at the time, but “understanding” was becoming for me an increasingly central objective: harder, deeper and more enduring than merely “being right.” – Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, with Timothy Snyder (NY, Penguin, 2012)
How to begin to describe the mind of Tony Judt? That is the question that came into my mind yesterday. In current parlance, one would automatically say “Amazing!” But then, everything is “amazing” these days, isn’t it? A new jacket, a movie, a hairdo? So to use the word in a serious (let alone a casual) context is to say nothing at all.

First of all, his mind was “well stocked.” The phrase is his own, as he referred to the memories he used to construct the essays in The Memory Chalet. That writing was reflective and impressive, along with being personal, even deeply intimate, but in Thinking the Twentieth Century we see more clearly yet the extent to which Judt’s mind was stocked not only with personal experience but with a lifetime of reading and intense engagement with both experience and ideas.

His mind was engaged. It is clear from reading this book that his mind was always engaged and that the engagement ended only with his death. He didn’t just “talk his way” through this book. He and Snyder talked it, and then Judt edited each chapter, continuing to clarify his ideas about our world in the twentieth century, because it mattered to him. Thinking was not an idle game for him but an activity of crucial importance. He cared about his world and felt a responsibility to the present and to the future.

He thought critically. He did not easily give his assent.His was not a mind to acquiesce easily, either in the pronouncements of others or to his own initial responses, and he continued to question others, the world, and himself as long as he drew breath. But neither was he one to dissent merely to be different, to gain attention, or to play devil’s advocate lightly, as a diversion. Again, he analyzed and reflected endlessly but never as a game—always because he saw thinking as important work.

His thinking and expression had a style all their own. Analytical by temperament and by training, Judt retained a poet’s love for the sensuous details and the great romance of the world about him. Anyone who has read The Memory Chalet knows this. Whoever has not read it, should.

For the remainder of this post, I want to highlight a few passages from Thinking the Twentieth Century, beginning with the somewhat unromantic (most would say) of economics. Judt identifies the Reagan-Thatcher view, “that the right to make any amount of money unhindered by the state is part of an unbroken continuum with the right to free speech,” and he goes on as follows:
It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that this is not what Adam Smith thought. And it was certainly not the view of most neoclassical economists either. It would simply never have occurred to them to suppose a necessary and permanent relationship between the forms of economic life and all other aspects of human existence. They treated economics as benefitting from internal laws as well as the logic of human interest; but the motion that economics alone could supply the purposes of human existence on earth would have struck them as peculiarly thin gruel.
On the role of the historian, a topic of great importance to him, he is particularly eloquent.
The task of the historian, if you wish to think of it this way, is to supply the dimension of knowledge and narrative without which we cannot be a civic whole.
Has anyone ever described the job better? A couple of pages later he is more precise:
I would break that thought into two parts. The first is simply this: the job of the historian is to make clear that a certain event happened. We do this as effectively as we can, for the purpose of conveying what it was like for something to have happened to those people when it did, where it did and with what consequences. This rather obvious job description is quite crucial. The cultural and political current flows in the other direction: to efface past events—or to exploit them for unrelated purposes. It’s our job to get it right—again and again and again. The task is Sisyphean: the distortions keep changing and so the emphasis in the corrective is constantly in flux. But many historians do not see it this way, and feel no responsibility of this kind. In my view, they are not real historians. A scholar of the past who is not interested in the first instance in getting the story right may be many virtuous things, but a historian is not among them. However, we have a second responsibility. We are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest. ... We are never free of that.
 Accordingly, we must operate in two registers simultaneously....
Critical as he was of all national political agendas, Judt was very clear in his mind that before students can criticize history, they must learn it. Facts first. Without facts, “criticism” becomes a hash of opinions slung about willy-nilly. And, in thus making history irrelevant, in making it chaotic, “we [historians] lose any claim upon the civic conversation.”

He thought a lot, also, on the distinction between history and collective memory:
...I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. Such mnemonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective: those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies—sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not. In either event, they cannot substitute for history.
I could quote endlessly from this book but give these samples only in the hope of inducing hunger for more, so the last passage I have chosen for today is one from my previous post, and it has to do with faith and judgment:
...It is one thing to say that I am willing to suffer now for an unknowable but possibly better future. It is quite another to authorize the suffering of others in the name of that same unverifiable hypothesis. This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.
Tony, his wife tells us, believed in two things: love and serious public debate. That is, love and informed conversation. Both require that human beings care.