Poor Tony Judt. The much-published author of such books as Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and Past Imperfect , Judt recently took to the pages of the New York Times to review Michael Burleigh’s new volume, Sacred Causes . It was not what you might call a positive review: "This is a depressing and unpleasant book," runs the first line, and it goes downhill from there.
Fair’s fair, I suppose. Michael Burleigh had reviewed Tony Judt’s own book Postwar last year in The Tablet , and though he wasn’t as ferocious as Judt, the review was less than complimentary. "In an avowedly ‘opinionated’ book," Burleigh remarks, "perhaps the only thing missing is the author’s capacity to examine his own assumptions and prejudices." So if Burleigh gets to dismiss Judt’s book, why shouldn’t Judt get to trash Burleigh’s?
Well, mainly because book-review editors are supposed to prevent it. The ethics of book-reviewing aren’t generally higher than the standards to which angry ferrets are held, but the one thing a book-review editor must look to avoid is a reviewer’s using a review to get even with an author who gave that reviewer’s own book a bad review.
So our friend William Doino¯who reviewed Sacred Causes for First Things ¯ sent a letter to the Times asking: "Surely, it is unusual for an author who has been severely criticized by a reviewer to then turn around and even more severely attack the reviewer’s own book. What ever happened to the principle of ‘full disclosure’?"
Judt’s options were limited at this point, but he seems to have taken the worst of them by replying: "I don’t read The Tablet ¯I was unaware of its existence¯and I didn’t know that Burleigh had reviewed my book there."
Leave aside the unlikeliness of an author’s not reading his reviews¯it’s been known to happen, here and there. Still, we might pose this as a law for writers: Never try to dodge one embarrassment by embracing a worse embarrassment. Getting caught smacking down your reviewers’ books is certainly an embarrassment. But isn’t it worse for a historian of twentieth-century Europe to say of The Tablet that he is "unaware of its existence"?
To be unaware of The Tablet is to be unaware of more than a century and a half of one of the most significant European Catholic publications. (Begun in 1840, it is Britain’s second-oldest surviving weekly journal , trailing only The Spectator , founded in 1828.) This was the journal that published Graham Greene’s reporting on Mexico, which would eventually issue in his novel The Power and the Glory . (That reporting was finally gathered in book form last year as Articles of Faith: The Collected Tablet Journalism of Graham Greene, 1936¯1987 .)
For that matter, this was the journal that provided much of the best coverage of Europe during the Second World War¯one of the few magazines in England and the United States with real sources inside the Nazi- and Fascist-occupied countries. For Tony Judt to say he doesn’t know of The Tablet ‘s existence is to admit a major hole in one of his own areas of historical expertise.
Personally, I don’t believe it. Judt is the author or editor of many books, and his reviews and essays in places such as the New York Review of Books must run to hundreds of thousands of words. I have no energy to look through it all, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find a footnote somewhere in the flood of Judt’s writing that mentions The Tablet .
It’s unnecessary labor anyway, since on page 224 of Sacred Causes ¯the book, you remember, that Judt reviewed to start all this¯you’ll find Burleigh writing: "Throughout late 1939 and early 1940 Vatican Radio broadcast accounts of Nazi crimes in Poland, whose content was summarized in the London Tablet ."
Poor Tony Judt: attempting to dodge the charge of being an unprofessional book reviewer by claiming to be an unprofessional historian. It doesn’t look like a particularly smart trade.
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