Friday, March 4, 2011

Education-related excerpts from Jacques Barzun, "From Dawn to Decadence"

(Note: I am posting additional excerpts, less related to education, from From Dawn to Decadence on my general-interest blog; you can find these here if you are interested.)

In a post I wrote a couple of years ago on Wide Awake Minds, I noted that "some books are an education in themselves" because of the breadth of topics they discuss and the seriousness of their insights about the world and about human life.  Historian Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present unquestionably meets that standard.

Barzun is one of the most erudite writers I have ever read. This New Yorker article describes Barzun's routine as he approached his 100th birthday in 2007, and comments on the range of his interests and knowledge:

"(Barzun's) idea of celebrating his centenary is to put the finishing touches on his thirty-eighth book (not counting translations). Among his areas of expertise are French and German literature, music, education, ghost stories, detective fiction, language, and etymology."

Here are a few excerpts from what I've read so far:


Anything that can be said about the good letters implies the book, the printed book. To be sure, new ideas and discoveries did spread among the clerisy before its advent, but diffusion of manuscripts is chancy and slow. Copying by hand is the mother of error, and circulation is limited by cost. ...Speed in the propagation of ideas generates a heightened excitement. ...To the modern lover of books, the product of the press is an object that arouses deep feelings, and looking Durer's charcoal drawing of hands holding a book, one likes to think the artist felt the same attachment. The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.

...The first generation of international publishers did not merely make and sell books; they were scholars and patrons who translated the classics, nurtured their authors, and wrote original works. Their continual redesigning of letter forms gave rise to the new art of typography.

...People were now reading silently and alone. ...Books, books everywhere, like home computers today. ...Print brought a greater exactness to the scholarly exchange of ideas - all copies are alike; a page reference can kill an argument by confounding one's opponent out of his own words. A price is paid for this convenience: the book has weakened the memory, individual and collective, and divided the House of Intellect into many small flats, the multiplying specialties. In the flood of material within even one field, the scholar is overwhelmed. The time is gone when the classical scholar could be sure that he had 'covered the literature' of his subject, the sources being finite in number.