A JACQUES BARZUN READER

Michael Murray, Editor, Jacques Barzun, Author , edited by Michael Murray. HarperCollins $29.95 (640p) ISBN 978-0-06-621019-3

Beginning with Barzun's fearless argument for the centrality of race in Western consciousness in his 1937 essay "Race: Fact or Fiction?," and concluding with several selections from 2000's epic bestseller, From Dawn to Decadence, this is a staggering tribute to über-critic Barzun's legendary intelligence and cantankerousness. Literature is a prime topic: his essays on Swift, Diderot and Shaw brilliantly revitalize well-worn subjects, while "How the Romantics Invented Shakespeare" intriguingly probes the historiography of the Bard's ever-changing reputation. Barzun's own occupation is another dominant concern; Barzun asks, is criticism art or craft?, coming down, conclusively, on the side of craft. Other topics include opera, politics, baseball and Paris in the 1830s. What truly impresses here is Barzun's breadth of knowledge—in an age of academic specialization, he is a rare, confident master-of-all-trades. Barzun is also unafraid of being silly, as in a brief aside on the "puncreas," a gland that, when inflamed, causes people to "puncreate" uncontrollably. Of course, readers may not agree with all Barzun's conclusions: he can be exasperatingly arbitrary (detective novels are great but spy novels are not); he can also seem foggily behind the times (as with his fierce defense of "man" as a gender-neutral term). But, taken as a whole, these more than six dozen essays constitute one of the great critical collections of recent times and amply showcase one of the outstanding scholarly intellects of the last century. (Jan.)

Forecast: From Dawn to Decadence may have created a new audience for Barzun, though this, a collection of previously published material, will probably get less media attention. Still, this should be a steady, long-term seller.

Reviewed on: 12/17/2001
Release date: 01/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 640 pages - 978-0-06-093542-9
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