Friday, November 16, 2007


Before I left San Antonio, Barzun called my attention to what he slyly referred to as his “most notable accomplishment.” It was a book lying on a coffee table in the sunroom and titled “Introduction to Naval History: An Outline with Diagrams and Glossary.” I turned it over in my hands and looked inside: it was, as promised, a point-by-point synopsis of seafaring events, designed for the education of naval officers. It turns out that, during the Second World War, the U.S. Navy commissioned Barzun, an associate professor at the time, to write it. And why not? It was always risky to assume that any topic was beyond Barzun’s ken.

Shirley Hazzard learned this one evening, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, when she and Barzun found themselves standing in a storage room on East Seventy-ninth Street, up to their necks in books. They had been asked by the head librarian of the New York Society Library to help him weed out superfluous and out-of-date volumes. “There we were,” Hazzard told me, raising her arm, “books stacked this high, and I thought, We’re really in for it. We’ll never get through these. Then Jacques reached into a pile, glanced at the title—it didn’t matter which book it was—and said, ‘This one’s been superseded by another; this one is still valid; this one can stay until someone or somebody finishes his new study,’ and in a couple of hours we were done. It was a very impressive performance, because, you know, he wasn’t performing at all. It’s just Jacques.”

Jacques Barzun is 100 years old and still thinking deeply. Read the rest of The New Yorker article here.

[HT: Arts & Letters Daily ]

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