It can be hard to write what is in essence a review of reviews.
Fortunately, George Scialabba’s wit, erudition, political and moral sensibility and sheer depth of knowledge make the task a lot easier.
All are on abundant display in What Are Intellectuals Good For?, a collection of pieces Scialabba wrote between 1984 and 2005.
Thanks again to uber-connector Danny Postel for getting me a copy of the book.
Scialabba’s passion for language and bone-deep pleasure in reading shine through each of the 250 pages of this memorable work. He is unafraid to take on titans of the left, right and formerly left who turned right-read Isaiah Berlin, Matthew Arnold and Christopher Hitchens, respectively.
Modest about his own considerable talents, Scialabba is clearly committed to advancing public conversation around key questions of this and other day: what, if anything, does life mean; what is justice; and how do we render truth?
He covers a wide range of disciplines on the journey to consider these questions.
While What Are Intellectuals Good For? is firmly rooted in the humanities, within that space one learns about philosophy, the art of the essay, cultural history, and a twist of sociology and psychology. Scialabba shows equal facility with fiction and non-fiction work alike, and is catholic-please notice the small c in this word-in his reading.
That said, I felt, and I could be reading too much into this, Scialabba’s affinity for his ancestral home of Italy.
I learned about writers like Nicola Chiaraomonte and Leonardo Sciascia, whom I have not yet read, but whose works I emerged from Scialabba’s book eager to absorb. His essay about Pier Paolo Pasolini is similarly heartfelt. In addition to evaluating individual authors, Scialabba also talks about movements, as he does in an engaging look at the demise of the New York intellectuals. He brings his formidable evaluative talents to bear in each of these formats.
In some ways, the book reads like a fugue in that specific authors are introduced, their works become the subject of exposition and then kneaded into the fabric of the rest of the work. Chiaromonte is one example of many of this tendency in the work. Dwight Macdonald, a hero of Scialabba’s, is another. I enjoyed this musical aspect to the book both because it helped me understand how authors’ works reverberated over time and because it gave the pieces a rhythmic sense of connection.
It bears mentioning that Scialabba has done all this work not within the context of the academy, but while working for nearly the past 30 years as a clerical worker at Harvard University, his undergraduate alma mater. His work, then, is not only a stellar example of civic engagement by a “layman.” Rather, Scialabba shows that, decades before journalism collapsed, he had figured out a way to do the work that he wanted on his terms and get it to a diverse set of audiences.
I have not read all of Scialabba’s work, so cannot say whether the near dearth of writers of color or examination of authors from Latin America or Asia is a reflection of the choices for this collection or a more general absence in Scialabba’s reading. While I did not know exactly what he would say in all instances, I did get a sense over time of standard elements in many Scialabba reviews: a clever opening; some textual exposition; some interweaving of the author’s personal life or contradictory aspects; a posing of major questions the author’s work raises; and a concluding thought. Understanding architecture does not mean diminished pleasure in reading. If anything, it could be taken as a compliment of the work that I read so many consecutive pieces that their structure felt familiar, and even a tad predictable.
The massive reading list I got from this book notwithstanding, I plan to be at Friday’s event and hope a large group turns up to see and learn from this son of East Boston. Through his work and career path, Scialabba has answered the question he posed in his book’s title.