I’ve found the book my heart has been yearning after lo these many years: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. Because I’m essentially pig-ignorant I came to it without any prejudices (I actually picked up a copy at the Palace of the Legion of Honor bookstore because I’d been having a very interesting conversation with nj and Morrisa about the nature of Western identity, and it seemed vaguely topical).

If I’d realized that Barzun, with Lionel Trilling, was the presiding genius behind the hallowed culture program at Columbia University, I’d probably have been too snarly and chip-on-my-shouldery and resentful to read the thing. As it was, it went into the backpack because Volume Two of the Janet Browne Darwin is still in hardback and too heavy to carry on the flight to Amsterdam. My life is gloriously punctuated with such happy accidents. The book is pure distilled essence of curmudgeonly humanity, with an embedded bibliography I’ll probably be able to immerse myself in for the next year or two. It’ll be just like taking a Western Culture class at Columbia only with no fees and no exams, woot!

His perspective on the stuff I know reasonably well – say, Shakespeare and Josephine Tey and the Tudor lie and Swift and Bach and the rise of the novel and Fielding and the Regency and Romanticism and Dickens and Dorothy Sayers (and this is no credit to me, by the way, but all to my good teachers and fabulous high school librarian) – is extremely accurate and illuminating, which makes me trust him as a Dante’s-Virgil-ish guide through the savage vastnesses where my above-mentioned pig-ignorance is profound – Montaigne and Pascal and Hume and Locke and Hegel and Kant and the French revolution and Beaumarchais and Berlioz and the Transcendentalists and well, the rest of the Western canon. Cough.

It is, in short, a brilliantly generous book in the sense that I was banging on about the other day; it invites you in. He’s explicitly in favour of short strong words and transparency and intellectual rigor and common sense, as opposed to obscurantist jargon and the rarefied blather of the academy. Remember how I said that when my reading is on the right track it throws up all sorts of serendipitous coincidences? Barzun quotes that exact same essay of Hazlitt’s on Shakespeare. (Oh, and Alex and I, all unknowing, read A Problem From Hell at exactly the same time.)

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