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An interview with Jacques Barzun

At age 94, even when his shoulders and back and legs ache, venerable writer and critic Jacques Barzun puts in a full three hours at his desk every morning. He takes a break for lunch at 11:30 a.m. and a 20-minute nap. Then the author of From Dawn to Decadence, an 877-page history of Western thought that became a surprising bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award, returns to his office for three more hours, answering correspondence from fans of his more than 30 books.

"After awhile, work becomes a bad habit and you can't throw it off," Barzun jokes in an interview in San Antonio, where he lives in a gated community with his wife, Marguerite.

A longtime Columbia University professor before moving to Texas in 1996, Barzun has established a reputation as the conscience of American education and a towering intellect. He has written authoritative books on everything from crime fiction to literature. He has also worked as both an editor and a critic _ he was the book critic for Harpers magazine for several years in the 1940s _ and was awarded the gold medal for criticism by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among numerous other honors.

But it wasn't until the scholarly but readable From Dawn to Decadence was published two years ago that Barzun became a literary star. Publishers rushed to bring out more of his work, including A Company of Readers, a collection of essays about books and authors by Barzun and fellow critics W.H. Auden and Lionel Trilling. Published last year, A Company of Readers was followed this year by yet another collection of his work, A Jacques Barzun Reader.

The critics can't rave enough about this transplanted Texan. Publishers Weekly calls Barzun "one of the outstanding scholarly intellects of the last century," and a "rare, confident master-of-all-trades." Texas Monthly proclaims him "the smartest guy in Texas" and "arguably the country's leading intellectual." His popularity even inspired a customer review on amazon.com by a fan who went back and read a book Barzun wrote in 1945 called Teacher in America and penned the following:

"The author's style is magnificent, he's truly a craftsman who can interweave wit, humor and seriousness as smoothly as chocolate fudge oozes down a woman's naked body . . ."

Barzun laughs out loud when that quote, which he has not seen, is read to him. He's sitting in the warm, bright sun room of his spacious brick home filled with art and books, and except for his snow-white hair and walking cane, there's little to suggest that this formidably literary man is in his 95th year. He wears glasses only for reading, he has no trouble hearing, and he answers questions succinctly, displaying none of the tendencies of many old people to ramble. He makes few concessions to age, in fact, and the subject doesn't seem to interest him.

"I don't sit back and say I'm very old and I have to do this, I have to do that," Barzun says. "I just do (what's) called for and forget it."

One of the affable author's biggest challenges came in his late eighties when he moved to San Antonio, part-way through writing From Dawn to Decadence. To simplify the move, he had donated half of his 5,000-volume collection to Columbia University. Later, trying to tie together massive amounts of facts and figures for what many critics consider his masterpiece, he found everything "in chaotic order _ all my books, all my notes. I knew I had something but where was it? Have I made a mistake and given it away?"

Getting around in San Antonio is much easier than in Manhattan, says Barzun, and a major reason he and Marguerite, an artist and former Trinity University English professor, settled there. They met in San Antonio in the late 1970s when Barzun lectured at Trinity and married in 1980 after the death of his first wife, with whom he has three children.

Barzim doesn't travel much anymore. His activities are limited by a condition called "spinal stenosis," in which the spinal canal narrows, squeezing and putting pressure on the nerves in the back (and the shoulder and legs, in Barzun's case) and causing pain, in spite of daily exercises dictated by a physical therapist.

He continues to write and lecture, however. He's often asked to pen introductions to other people's books, and to speak at local museums and universities. Barzun also answers periodic questions from a scholarly acquaintance who's writing his biography _ not a personal biography, mind you, but one that focuses on his intellectual accomplishments.

"I'm not going to do any baby pictures on the frontispiece," he says with a laugh.

Barzun doesn't know when the biography might come out, nor does he care: "I hope he doesn't finish before I do. I don't want to read it, I don't want to have an opinion on it."

Why is a man of his accomplishments not writing his own memoir?

Barzun is bored with autobiographies by writers and academics like himself. Their lives, he thinks, make dull reading. "Autobiographies ought to be written only by men and women of action," he says, demonstrating once again his ability _ even at age 94 _ to make a point clearly and gracefully in a few well-chosen words. "Sedentary careers should be exhibited in the work."

Elizabeth Bennett is a freelance writer who lives in Houston.

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