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500 Years of Western Cultural Life

by Jacques Barzun

Pub Date: May 21st, 2000
ISBN: 0-06-017586-9
Publisher: HarperCollins

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.