Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:
For the most part, we read a work of nonfiction for two intertwined reasons — to learn about a particular subject and to enjoy the intellectual company of the book’s author. I started “Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School” because I’d long wanted to know more about the careers and thought of social theorists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and their loosely affiliated fellow thinker, the literary critic Walter Benjamin. I steeled myself for a hard slog — these were, after all, German theorists — but almost immediately discovered that British journalist Stuart Jeffries could summarize complex arguments so clearly that even a bear of little brain could grasp them. He was, moreover, witty, skeptical and an active presence on the page, questioning and probing each of the Frankfurt School’s various hypotheses, assertions and insights. As a result, this seemingly daunting book turned out to be an exhilarating page-turner.
The Institute for Social Research, as the Frankfurt School was formally called, initially came into existence in 1923 to explore why Germany failed to produce a successful socialist revolution in the years immediately following World War I. Its members were virtually all Jewish, the sons of well-off bourgeois families, and they viewed themselves as analysts rather than activists or revolutionaries. Nonetheless, they relied on Marx’s ideas about class, alienation and capitalism for the tools they needed to interpret and understand contemporary society.