Some people say that the age of the public intellectuals is over, that there are no longer many grand thinkers like Lione-l Trilling or Rein-hold Neibuhr writing ambitious essays for the educated reader. It's true that there are fewer philo-sophes writing about the nature and destiny of man, but there are still hundreds of amazing essays written every year.
In celebration of that fact, and in case you're looking for some mind-expanding holiday reading, I've decided to create the Hookie Awards. Named after the great public intellectual, Sidney Hook, they go to the authors of some of the most important essays written in 2004.I should mention that essays for The New York Times and other newspapers are not eligible for these prizes, and that if you go to the Web site version of this column, at www.nytimes.com, you will find links to the winning essays.
Here is the first batch of Hookie Laureates:
* "When Islam Breaks Down," by Theodore Dalrymple, The City Journal. A British prison doctor analyzes radical Islam. A typical passage: "Their problem, and ours, is that they want the power that free inquiry confers, without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: Either they can abandon their cherished religion, or they can remain forever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is very appealing; and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modern world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs."
* "The Other Sixties," by Bruce Bawer, The Wilson Quarterly. When we think of the '60s, we think of Vietnam and Woodstock, but Bawer revives the early '60s, the era of Jack Paar, David Susskind and Sammy Davis Jr.- people who were too hip for the '50s but not hip enough for the late '60s.
Bawer writes: "In 1950s America, middle-class values often seemed to be sacrosanct, while in 'The Sixties' they would be dismissed condescendingly by some Americans and defended fiercely by others. In the early 1960s, Americans still respected these values but responded open-mindedly, even enthusiastically, to irreverent humor at their own expense."
* "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews," by William J. Stuntz, Tech Central Station. This is an online essay by a Harvard Law professor who is also a member of an evangelical church. Harvard and the evangelicals are supposed to be on the opposite side of the red-blue divide, but Stuntz says the institutions have a lot in common. People in both places study texts and spend their time thinking about how to help the poor.
They also have much to learn from each another. Evangelicals can learn intellectual rigor. Academics can learn a little humility.
* The Iraq imbroglio has produced some amazing and, for war supporters, painful essays. James Fallows published "Blind Into Baghdad" in The Atlantic Monthly, which showed that most of what happened in postwar Iraq was predicted prewar by government analysts. It's just that their reports were suppressed or ignored by the people making the decisions. Seymour Hersh's work on Abu Ghraib for The New Yorker is closer to reportage than essay writing, but it was the most discussed body of magazine writing this year.
* The global decline in fertility rates has likewise prompted some astonishing essays. Phillip Longman published "The Global Baby Bust" in Foreign Affairs, noting that while we have images in our heads of throngs of unemployed young people in the Middle East, fertility rates are falling faster there than anywhere else on earth. And over the next half-century, Mexico's median age will rise by an astounding 20 years. By 2050, Mexico will be an older society than the United States.
Download some of these. You'll be smarter for 2005.