I briefly edited The Common Review, the late magazine of the Great Books Foundation. I was named editor in August of 2010. The changing of the editorial guard received coverage in the Chicgo Tribune and in the Chicago Reader.

The foundation pulled the plug on the magazine less than a year later. Myriad magazines have bitten the dust in recent years. The fate of The Common Review was thus hardly unique.

But the Great Books Foundation did something truly egregious when it vaporized the contents of its erstwhile house organ — one that had brought enormous attention and prestige to the organization — from its webite, erasing a decade of great writing from the digital commons.

Thankfully I had this essay saved in my e-mail sent box. It was the editorial I wrote for my first print issue as editor — the Fall/Winter 2010 issue, which was a really outstanding one, I must say, with essays by Ariel Dorfman, Andrei Codrescu, Rebekah Frumkin, Richard Byrne, Rafia Zakaria, Hussein Ibish, and John Clark, among others.

In the spring of 2011 the magazine, like so many others, decided to go online only. We published some outstanding writing, all unavailable now. A few months later, the magazine was discontinued altogether.

Rescuing this editorial from the proverbial dustbin of history is bittersweet: relieved though I am to bring it back to digital life, it was difficult to re-read the first half of it, which exudes such enthusiasm about assuming the magaine's editorial reins. That euphoria proved to be short lived. But it was fun while it lasted.

In any event, here 'tis...


The Common Review (Fall/Winter 2010)


Tough Acts to Follow

By  Danny Postel

This is my first issue as editor of The Common Review, and thus my maiden voyage as the author of this column. In fact, this is the first issue in the magazine’s nine-year history not under the editorial stewardship of Daniel Born, its founding editor. As some of you may have by now heard, Dan has set sail for other shores: in August he stepped down both as editor of The Common Review and as vice president for postsecondary programs at the Great Books Foundation to take a position with Kaplan University.

Dan is one tough act to follow.

Michael Bérubé, a frequent contributor to these pages (and the president-elect of the Modern Language Association), recently remarked that The Common Review has “consistently been one of the best general-readership magazines of the past decade, thanks mostly to the superb editorial work of Daniel Born.” I couldn’t agree more. And I’m privileged to have seen what that superb editorial work looked like up close, in real time, as a member of the magazine’s editorial board since 2003.

Dan’s intellectual fingerprints are everywhere in the magazine. His editorial columns (themselves a heck of a tough act to follow) put his omnivorous range, his sinewy prose, and his mischievous wit on full display. But the work of an editor is often invisible to the reader’s naked eye. Those of us on the magazine’s editorial board, however, were treated to a series of private screenings of Dan’s prowess as an editor. Four times a year, he presided over some of the most spirited and stimulating conversations I’ve ever been part of. He was an orchestra conductor—he had to be, with the likes of me, and the former Poetry magazine editor Joseph Parisi, and the novelist and critic Achy Obejas around the table, each of us impossibly impassioned, at times downright intransigent.

Dan loved hearing us dig in and hold forth—he let us perform our solos—but he knew it could go on ad infinitum and come to no conclusion without his intervention. Strategically, deftly, without undercutting any of us, he moved the conversation forward. He took the various slabs of clay from around the table and molded them together. The editorial board meetings of The Common Review are our Algonquin Round Table, as one of our members recently remarked. Dan was their maestro.

And he skillfully conducted the larger orchestra that has performed in the pages of the magazine over these nine years.

Dan attracted a wealth of great writing into the pages of The Common Review. And he started from scratch. What exactly was this magazine he was inviting people to write for? Well, nothing—yet. It was what he was making it into. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Dan had studied with the likes of Irving Howe. The godfather of the New York Intellectuals supervised Dan’s dissertation at City University of New York, which became Dan’s 1996 book The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H. G. Wells. Howe knew a thing or two about editing a magazine—indeed, starting one up—having launched Dissent in 1954 and edited it until his death in 1993. Not a bad model. So Dan started The Common Review from scratch but had a deep well from which to draw.

Nonetheless, catapulting a new magazine into the world is a tall order. And Dan made The Common Review into something very impressive from the get-go. As he told the Chicago Reader in a wonderful 2003 profile, he saw in the magazine a chance “to try something, to gamble in a way. To launch something very tenuous, but with great potential.” Within just two years, Utne Reader had nominated The Common Review for an Independent Press Award for best arts and literary coverage, and three years later, Utne nominated it for best writing. “Book Coverage Is Down, but Not at The Common Review,” declared an Utne blog post in 2007. The Common Review, it continued, was “wholeheartedly dedicated to all things book-related.” To sit down with it is to get the “fix” that you “can no longer find in the daily newspapers.”

A historian and critic recently bemoaned to me that “there are so few good small magazines out there with both literary and critical verve.” The Common Review, he averred, was a shining exception. I of course agree, and we have Dan Born to thank for making it so.

Tony Judt was another tough act to follow.

And he died much too young, a mere 62 years old. “Historian, polemicist, man of ideas, brave chronicler of the disease that slowly killed him,” read the entry on Arts and Letters Daily, referring to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which Judt learned he had in September 2008.

Judt will be remembered primarily for his magisterial 2005 Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and for his luminous essays in the New York Review of Books, some of the best of which can be found in his 2008 collection Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. I’m afraid I’m in the majority in regarding Judt as one the great intellectual figures of our time. I was fortunate to have met him, once. It was the fall of 2003. The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities hosted an unforgettable day-long symposium “Understanding the 21st Century,” which featured just three interlocutors: Judt, the historian of ideas Mark Lilla, and the postcolonial theorist Ania Loomba. Judt delivered one of the most spellbinding lectures I’ve ever heard—so sweeping in its range, so compelling in its political nuance that he stole the show.

Here’s why I’ll miss Judt’s voice so much. In 2006, he wrote a pair of essays—one in the New York Review of Books and the other in the London Review of Books—whose juxtaposition created shock waves of cognitive dissonance but that in fact harmonize perfectly. “Bush’s Useful Idiots” appeared in the September 21, 2006, issue of the LRB. He wasted no time. Its opening lines read as follows:

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? Why, in short, has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?

The buzz was intense. The leftosphere ate it up. Opponents of the Iraq War were thrilled not just by the frontal assault on the liberal hawks but also by the source: not Noam Chomsky or Tariq Ali, but someone who belonged decidedly in the liberal camp himself. Many leftists had been skeptical of, if not hostile toward, Judt for eviscerating Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and other figures of the radical intelligentsia while championing Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, and other critics of the Communist Left. So Judt was thus not one of them—he was a liberal, not a radical. For a salvo like “Bush’s Useful Idiots” to have issued from his pen was almost too good to be true from their perspective.

In a happy coincidence, the September 21, 2006, issue of the New York Review of Books carried Judt’s homage to the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, titled “Goodbye to All That?” Kolakowski had been a Marxist in Poland but was eventually forced out for insufficient orthodoxy and went on to become one of Marxism’s most severe critics. In his tribute, Judt wrote that the

cynical application of dialectics to the twisting of minds and the breaking of bodies was usually lost on Western scholars of Marxism, absorbed in the contemplation of past ideals or future prospects and unmoved by inconvenient news from the Soviet present, particularly when relayed by victims or witnesses.

How could one and the same person have written the two pieces, some wondered? “Goodbye to All That?” simply dumbfounded many enthusiasts of “Bush’s Useful Idiots” and vice versa: Kolakowski’s admirers tend to be well to Judt’s right. A fusillade against liberals for capitulating to the conservative order of the day, in one stroke of the pen and, in another stroke of the same pen— appearing on the very same day no less—a celebration of one of Marxism’s harshest critics.

But there was no inconsistency whatsoever between the two pieces. There wasn’t even a tension between them. One can protest, as some did, that in “Bush’s Useful Idiots” Judt painted with too broad a brush, ignoring the many liberals who did anything but fall in line with Bush’s policies. (Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin fired off an article-length riposte and circulated it as a manifesto replete with a list of signatories!) A polemic is designed to provoke, after all—and Judt was a master of the form. One can, and should, debate the fine points of his argument.

But my point is that Judt occupied a special place on the chessboard of ideas: a trenchant critic of 20th-century radicalism’s leading lights who was himself a social democrat who reproached American liberals for moving too far to the right. Few of his contemporaries created such healthy dissonance with their interventions. For that he will be sorely missed.