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What Are Intellectuals Good For? Paperback – May 1, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


George Scialabba has, over the years, delivered perhaps the most reliably acute cultural commentary to be found anywhere on the ethical left. He brings the review-essay to a state of high development, incorporating elements of memoir and skillfully deploying the wide range of literary and historical reference he commands. As this sample shows, he writes with wit and economy, and his work gives pleasure as it enlightens. --Norman Rush

Koestler's Rubashov lay in jail under the familiar and fatal constraint to put himself in the position of his opponent, and to see the scene through the other's eyes. George Scialabba shows, with his combined eloquence and modesty, that this critical intellectual faculty can transcend the prisoner's dilemma. --Christopher Hitchens

Scialabba writes with marvelous fluency and conversational ease and is a gifted expositor of the ideas of friend and foe alike ... Reading straight though this volume leaves one with an appreciation for Scialabba's many gifts particularly his rare combination of intellectual depth and reach with readability. He inhabits his role comfortably, without histrionics or nostalgia and with an untroubled resignation toward the contemporary intellectual's diminished standing in a cultural world now dominated by specialized knowledge and professional guilds. He manages, nonetheless, to provide a personal guide through the controversies of the age. --Wesley Yang, Bookforum

About the Author

George Scialabba was born (1948) and raised in East Boston, MA, and attended Harvard (AB, 1969) and Columbia (MA, 1972). He has been a social worker (Mass. Dept. of Public Welfare, 1974-80), a clerical worker (Harvard University, 1980 to the present), a faculty member of the Bennington Graduate Writing Seminars (2007-8), and a freelance book critic. His column, "New Thinking," appears bimonthly in the Boston Globe book section. In 1991 he was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing of the National Book Critics Circle. His first collection, Divided Mind, was published in 2006 by Arrowsmith Press.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 252 pages
  • Publisher: Pressed Wafer; First edition (May 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0978515668
  • ISBN-13: 978-0978515669
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #447,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Aaron Swartz on April 29, 2009
Format: Paperback
There was once an era where great men strode among us. The Intellectuals, as they were known, had an opinion on everything and would share it, at length, with elegance and verve. Unfortunately, the explosion of information beginning in the sixties rendered them all-but-extinct and the electronic transformation of the past few decades threatens to finish the job. Still, we can't but admire them and their milieu.

This certainly seems to be George Scialabba's position. The greatest working book reviewer -- when the National Book Critics Circle inaugurated their Excellence in Criticism award, he was their first recipient -- collects his reviews of these grand men's work and a sampling of his own in his new collection, _What Are Intellectuals Good For?_ The result is a delightful introduction to this world of ideas.

Scialabba's own position is best summarized by his dedication: "For Chomsky, Rorty, Lasch." In other words, he is a man of impeccable left-wing politics, a refusal to believe in any philosophical verities, and a deep skepticism about the benefits of Enlightenment progress. This is not exactly a popular combination -- surely Chomsky and Ehrenreich have more fans than Rorty and Lasch -- but it is a provocative one. And Scialabba's genius is that he can make such counterintuitive ideas, expressed by such Olympian intellectuals, seem not just clear but common sense. A dedicated follower of the left-rationalist-progressive tradition, I had to continually catch myself from nodding along in agreement.

Recommended for anyone who's a fan of the Intellectual Scene and the men and women who inhabit it.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Jay C. Smith on June 1, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What Are Intellectuals Good For? -- (with a Foreword by Scott McLemee)
Here is a publishing idea: find a narrowly-known non-tenured freelance social critic who has written book reviews, mostly for left-leaning (Dissent, The Nation, The Village Voice) or regional (Boston) publications; collect several of these, including a substantial majority that date to the 1990s or even the late 1980s; then put them together with a couple of introductory essays into a paperback volume with limited distribution. Obviously the folks at Pressed Wafer will not get rich from choosing to do just this when they handsomely produced George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For?, but their cultural commitment is commendable.

Often such collections seem stale, the pieces having lost whatever freshness they may have had at the time of their original publication. Scialabba's typical approach cuts against that tendency in this case, however. He usually comments on the larger body of work of the authors he reviews, often includes some biographical information about them, and frequently draws comparisons or contrasts to other cultural figures. A good example is "A Whole World of Heroes," his review of Christopher Lasch's (posthumous) Revolt of the Elites, where Scialabba assesses Lasch's broad oeuvre in ten pages. Thus, for me this collection served as a good refresher on several thinkers whose work I had not picked up in awhile (for instance, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, Richard Rorty, Alan Bloom, and others) and an introduction to a few with whom I was previously unfamiliar (notably Walter Karp and Nicola Chiaromonte).
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By David Keymer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 8, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
George Scialabba is that rarity, a public intellectual who has supported himself out of academia or publishing, preserving his independence from even his colleagues on the Left. He's an old fashioned skeptic and an old-fashioned reformer, by which I mean one who has an unerring nose for sniffing out Hokum on all sides but who persists in thinking there are better ways to do things in this complicated world. His role models are such non-clichéd thinkers of the traditional and New Left as Christopher Lasch and Russell Jacoby and the great, tough feminist critic Vivian Gornick. There are essays about all three in this book, and two about Lasch, who is one of my own particular heroes. He gets along well with Richard Rorty, who is quoted on the back jacket cover, praising Scialabba's earlier book, Divided Mind.

He is skeptical about Martha Nussbaum's defense of cultural humanism in her Cultural Humanism (1997). He's not against the ideals she espouses but he finds her methods of inquiry flawed and her conclusions overly general and Pollyanesque. (He characterizes her, not completely fairly, as "a slightly sententious Socrates.") The title of the essay discussing Nussbaum's book is "Pollyanna and Cassandra." Nussbaum is the Pollyanna in the essay; fellow classicists Victor David Hanson and John Heath, who wrote Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (1998) the Cassandras. It is a measure of Scialabba's fair-mindedness that he praises Hanson, a notorious political conservative and a supporter of many causes with which it is difficult to find Scialabba in sympathy, for Hanson's earlier work on the Greek experience, focusing on the countryside rather than the polis.
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