Essays from the Book Clubs That Celebrated the Intellectual Life

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Byline: Woody West

Opening "A Company of Readers," one may feel he has "met a traveler from an antique land" with a tale of time and dissolution. This aura of a far-receded past is not as dire as "the colossal wreck" of the great monument in the desert - for substance endures in the essays in this book. Percy Bysshe Shelley's image isn't altogether whimsical.

Half a century ago, intellectual authority was generally respected; it was accepted that, in literature as in other disciplines, there were voices that deserved to be heeded by virtue of their learning, guides who knew the paths through the forest. It was also generally accepted that there was a definable thing called "culture" that represented what Matthew Arnold called "the best that is known and thought in the world."

For nearly a dozen years, three such guides - W.H. Auden, Lionel Trilling, both now dead, and Jacques Barzun (in his 90s still toting the bale, his magisterial "From Dawn to Decadence" published last year) - conversed with readers about books and authors in "The Griffin," the monthly bulletin of the Readers' Subscription (the name changed to the Mid-Century Book Club in its last few years before the venture collapsed in 1963).

These essays, 173 of them, each averaging 2,500 words, are small literary gems, and 46 are published in this collection. In our ambiguous present, when criticism routinely asserts itself above narrative and genuflects at the altar of theory, these articles are as welcome as letters long delayed in the mail.

In pre-World War II years, many homes with affection for books or with intellectual aspiration or pretension were members of the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club. The monthly books flowed in and almost surely introduced readers to writers they had previously not known, as a byproduct of moving the goods. These selections were usually of the "safely popular" genre.

Readers' Subscription, to the contrary, was more hopeful in origin and purpose from other book clubs, which existed for the undiluted purpose of selling books. (Well, fine, this is a commercial society.) A former student of Trilling's, Gilman Kraft, in September, 1951, founded the club with the idea of providing readers with books of "solid intellectual merit."

Mr. Barzun was then teaching a seminar with Trilling at Columbia and agreed to be a co-editor. The former suggested Auden as a third member. Each of them was of "strongly marked" character, as Mr. Barzun puts it, and of distinct literary preferences and backgrounds to appeal to "educated" readers - a term not defined, and half a century ago not requiring definition, though today it would be characterized as untenably "elitist."

"We behaved like friends talking over what to recommend to other friends," writes Mr. Barzun in the foreword, as he recalls the decade-plus of meetings between the poet, the historian and the literary critic as they discussed what book the club would offer as a main selection in the coming month and who would write the essay. "As critics we had one trait in common: none of us applied a theory or system." The three shared Arnold's faith, and his dictum that "The men of culture are the true apostles of equality."

"It is clear in retrospect that not we alone but the mid-century as a whole, particularly in the United States, made a many-sided effort to carry out the Arnoldian mandate. The hope of a collective enjoyment of the best in thought and art was still strong . . .," Mr. Barzun writes.

Arthur Krystal, who edited "A Company of Readers," notes in his Introduction that shortly after the club was shuttered in 1963, "the deconstructionist gale blew in from across the Atlantic, upsetting the historic balance between readers and texts, between literature and criticism - thereby casting the book-club essays by Auden, Mr. Barzun, and Trilling as some of the last examples aimed at a general audience by professional critics. …