An extraordinary achievement by one of the glittering minds of our time.




This lively and opinionated survey of western culture marks the capstone of the noted scholar’s intellectual career.

Many academics can’t be found in the pages they write. Barzun (former provost and professor at Columbia) is everywhere present in his. His seemingly limitless learning, wit, and always distinctive views shine in every paragraph of this, his first full-fledged trade publication since A Stroll with William James (1983). Few scholars combine erudition with such clarity and ease of expression as he does; few wear their learning so lightly or write so purposefully for the general reader. Now 93, Barzun seems to have read and to know everything. Starting with Luther’s revolution within Catholic Christendom, Barzun describes, evaluates, and, yes, judges the events, people, and ideas that have composed the history of western Europe and its overseas transplants for a half-millennium. But this is no textbook: it sparkles and courses through time and places like water in a clean-running brook. Readers will gain new insight here into figures, movements, books, and ideas that are probably already familiar; they will also discover little-known individuals, works, and events. One of the book's distinctive features is Barzun's engaging method for encouraging his readers to deepen their knowledge. Rather than conventional footnotes or lists for further reading, he gives direct, parenthetical exhortations (“the book to read is . . .”). Also characteristically, he never minces words: early 20th-century intellectuals, he states, gave a “turncoat response” to the Great War of which they were initially “rabid glorifiers.” In addition to such bracing frankness, the book justifies its price simply by the wonderful quotations that stud the margins of its pages. Barzun is pessimistic about the West's future, but his gloomy views rarely cloud his judgment and do not, fortunately, permeate the text. In every way, this is a book to savor.

An extraordinary achievement by one of the glittering minds of our time.

Pub Date: May 21, 2000

ISBN: 0-06-017586-9

Page Count: 816

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2000

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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