A quietly fierce, resoundingly literate pedagogic autobiography. In an age when books are often regarded as mere texts, Pritchard (English/Amherst Coll.; Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, 1984, etc.) is one of the few remaining champions of literature for its own sake, an eloquent advocate of letting books ``speak for themselves in such a way as to lift us into a new, absorbing world.'' Pritchard has the nerve to argue not only for the value of ``Great Books'' but also for reading's crucial role in teaching one to write and, indeed, to think. In the tradition of The Education of Henry Adams, Pritchard uses his own education as a fulcrum for trying to understand the swirl of his times. First as an undergraduate at Amherst and then as a graduate student at Columbia and Harvard, he was the beneficiary of what has often been called the ``golden age'' of American universities, a time when there was a ``virtually unanimous consensus about the best way to educate young people; about what they needed to know and the order in which they needed to know it.'' But then, as an English professor at Amherst, Pritchard watched in shock as the '60s tore this consensus apart. Some changes, including coeducation and increasing minority enrollment, were long overdue, but many, especially the gutting of core requirements, he regards as devastating. This decline of the American university has been frequently detailed but rarely with the kind of elegiac grace that characterizes this remembrance of things past. While Pritchard occasionally veers off into the esoteric and is a little too quote- happy (typical pitfalls of his profession), his intelligence and thoughtfulness are a welcome antidote to the spew and babble that have become all too characteristic of today's culture wars. A subtle, modest chronicle, yet one that often burns with a hard, gemlike flame.