Kindle book 39. Thinking The Twentieth Century by Tony Judt, Timothy Snyder.
Lots of this went over my head. I skipped quite a bit. But the bits I could follow were extraordinarily good. I wish I'd read stuff like this when I was actually studying history. Maybe I'd have got more out of it.
"the paradox of distributed responsibility: bureaucracy dilutes and obscures individual moral responsibility, rendering it invisible and thus producing Eichmann and, with Eichmann, Auschwitz."
"Since neither present nor future information—whether about economics or anything else—is ever vouchsafed us in perfect form, planning is inherently delusory, and the more all-embracing the plan, the more delusory its claims (much the same can be, but rarely is, said of the notion of perfect or efficient markets)"
"What really mattered to intellectuals was a milieu: people whom you knew—or people who were like the people you knew—and the things that happened to them"
"It is actually much harder to write well about someone you admire: dismissing Althusser, ridiculing Martin Amis, diminishing Lucien Goldmann—child’s work. But while it is easy enough to assert that Camus was a great writer, Kołakowski a brilliant philosopher, Primo Levi our greatest Holocaust memoirist and so on, if you wish to explain precisely why these men matter so much, and what influence they have exerted, then you have to think a little harder."
"If you asked my colleagues: what is the purpose of history, or what is the nature of history, or what is history about, you would get a pretty blank stare. The difference between good historians and bad historians is that the good ones can manage without an answer to such questions, and the bad ones cannot"
"It seems that what history has going for it, and one of the reasons that it survives, even as literary criticism falls into crisis and political science becomes unintelligible, is precisely that its readers agree that it should be well written"
"That not only should we write well because that means that people buy our books and not only should we write well because that is what history is, but also because there aren’t that many crafts anymore that have a responsibility to the language. Whatever sort of responsible craftsmanship remains, we’re right in the middle of it"
"The job of the historian is to take such tidy nonsense and make a mess of it."
"You and I are not the people who put the furniture in the room—we are just the folks who label it. Our job is to say to someone: this is a large couch with a wooden frame—it is not a plastic table. If you think that it’s a plastic table, not only will you be making a category error, and not only will you hurt yourself every time you bump into it, you will use it in the wrong ways. You will live badly in this room, but you don’t have to live quite this badly in this room. That is to say, I profoundly believe that the historian is not here to rewrite the past. When we re-label the past, we do it not because we have a new idea of how to think about the category “furniture”; we do it because we think we have come to an improved appreciation of what kind of furniture we are dealing with. A piece of furniture marked “large oak table” may not always have been labeled thus. There must have been times when it seemed to people to be something else: the oak, for example, may have been so obviously part of it because everything was made of oak that no one would speak of it. But right now, the oak counts more because—e. g.—it’s an unusual material. So what we are dealing with is a large oak table, and it’s our job to bring out the emphasis."
"There are lots and lots of paths, real and potential, marked and unmarked, through this forest. The past is full of stuff. But if you don’t have a path through it, you stare at the ground, you search for footing, you can’t appreciate the trees"
"Intellectual activity is a little bit like seduction. If you go straight for your goal, you almost certainly won’t succeed. If you want to be someone who contributes to world historical debates, you almost certainly won’t succeed if you start off by contributing to world historical debates. The most important thing to do is to be talking about the things that have, as we might put it, world historical resonance but at the level at which you can be influential."
"The characteristic intellectual of the television age has to be able to simplify. So the intellectual of the 1980s and after is someone able and willing to abbreviate, simplify and target his observations: as a consequence, we have come to identify intellectuals with commentators upon contemporary affairs."
"The alternative is to be a “media intellectual.” This means targeting your interests and remarks to the steadily shrinking attention span of television debates, blogs, tweets and the like. And—except those rare occasions when a major moral issue arises or there is a crisis—the intellectual has to choose. He can retreat to the world of the thoughtful essay and influence a selected minority; or he can speak to what he hopes is a mass audience but in attenuated and reduced ways."
"The time has come to write about more than just the things one understands; it is just as important if not more so to write about the things one cares about."