I wonder how college students first encounter Jacques Barzun these days, if they do at all. Some may hear of the Grand Old Man through the summation of his life’s work as a cultural historian, From Dawn to Decadence. Whether they accompany Gibbon’s peer through 500 years and 800 pages of promising starts, lost opportunities, and great achievements in the West is anyone’s guess, or a professor’s prerogative. Others might catch a glimpse of Barzun by way of a striking quotation, but without following his thread. Snippets are seldom enough to convey the richness of the original work and of his interwoven thought.
I suspect that luck counts in such matters as well. When I was an undergraduate, a student’s early acquaintance with Jacques Barzun was most likely to come from an essay in an assigned anthology or a manual of instruction – unlikely though not impossible sources of enthusiasm. I may be most fortunate in never having had Barzun assigned. And the book that first inspired my youthful enthusiasm was a later edition of a work begun in his own youth. Classic, Romantic, and Modern spoke directly to me then and is still a great place to start with Barzun. Originally the Lowell Lectures of 1941, the subsequent work retains the lively sense of a man thinking on his feet.
I would be glad to hear of actual first experiences of reading Barzun, among students of any age, recalling that 104-year old Jacques still calls himself a student of cultural history.