Jacques Barzun was one of the great thinkers of the past century — a scholar who, in a remarkable eight-decades-long career, wrote dozens of books and analyzed subjects ranging from classical music to detective fiction, and from Jonathan Swift to baseball.
Barzun, who died yesterday in San Antonio at age 104, is best remembered for a book that, amazingly, he published in 2000 at age 92: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life From 1500 to the Present, a sprawling 877-page opus that ambitiously sought to cover the ideas hatched by every great mind in European and American culture, from Martin Luther and Molière to comedian Bill Murray. While Barzun’s dour view, as Atlantic magazine blogger David Wagner puts it, was that western civilization “has been declining steadily since the Renaissance,” his own productivity as a writer didn’t waver as he got older.
Indeed, even after turning 60, he churned out 20 books and a collection of his best essays, sometimes producing multiple books in a single year. Here are some of his greatest hits.
- Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (1975). This how-to manual contains a classic bit of Barzun’s own pithy prose: “Unlike the sculptor, the writer can start carving and enjoying himself only after he has dug the marble out of his own head.”
- A Stroll with William James (1983). Barzun’s analysis of the work of influential psychologist and philosopher William James was described by a New York Times reviewer as “an eloquent and wise testimonial.”
- The Culture We Deserve: A Critique of Disenlightenment (1989). This brutal take-down of contemporary culture contains another of the zingers for which Barzun was famous, in which he castigated the modern art world for what he saw as a proliferation of mediocre work: “We can pay farmers not to grow crops, but we cannot pay artists to stop making art.”
- Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991). In this collection of essays, Barzun denounced what he saw as a declining educational system in which students no longer read classic works of literature deemed too tough to comprehend. Barzun, in contrast, argued that it was necessary to read difficult books. “The great works do not yield their cargo on demand,” he wrote. “But if one reads them with concentration … they give us possession of a vast store of vicarious experience.”
- The Modern Researcher, with Henry F. Graff (2004). Amazon.com notes that “this classic introduction to the techniques of research and the art of expression is used widely in history courses.”
Here’s a 2010 question-and-answer session with Barzun.