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A Company of Readers : Uncollected Writings of W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling from the Reader's Subscription and Mid-Century Book Clubs

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Arthur Krystal

The monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, published last year, may be Jacques Barzun's crowning achievement, but A Company of Readers: Uncollected Writings of W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling from the Readers' … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Author: Arthur Krystal
Publisher: Free Press
1 review about A Company of Readers : Uncollected Writings...

The Culture of "Inclusiveness"

  • Mar 13, 2002
While I was growing up in Chicago, one of my greatest pleasures was listening to classical music while reading the latest selection from the Readers' Subscription Club to which I belonged. That was almost 50 years ago (!) and yet how vividly I recall pouring over brief but brilliant essays in the latest edition of The Griffin (the monthly bulletin) to select titles to order and then, several weeks later, reading those selected as soon as they arrived. (By the way, I found Bach's "Goldberg Variations" to be an ideal companion to my reading, regardless of subject matter.) In this volume, with a Foreword by Jacques Barzun, followed by an Introduction by editor Arthur Krystal, we have a rich and varied selection of the uncollected writings of W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling who, from 1951 until 1963, served as editors of the Readers' Subscription Club which later became the Mid-Century Book Society. As I began to read this book, I recognized only a few of the 45 essays which Krystal has organized as follows:

Biography and Belles Lettres (e.g. Barzun's "The Artist as Scapegoat")

History and Social Thought (Auden's "Apologies to the Iroquois")

Novels and Novelists (e.g. Trilling's "A Triumph of the Comic View")

Music, Theater, and Fine Arts (e.g. Barzun's "Why Talk About Art?")

Poetry (.e.g. Auden's "T.S. Eliot So Far")

A Round-robin (i.e. all three editors collaborated on "The New Auden Shakespeare" and "Jameschoice for January."

Krystal then provides an "Editor's Note," followed by two appendices: Complete List of Essays and Reviews from The Griffin and The Mid-Century, and, Essays from The Griffin and The Mid-Century Published Elsewhere.

After reading all of the selections in this volume, I now realize and appreciate what I did not (and probably could not) so many years ago: the three erudite and eloquent authors of the selections never "wrote down" to their readers while providing an intellectual, aesthetic, and (at times) social context for each of the authors and works discussed.

In the Foreword, Barzun explains that "As critics we had one trait in common: none of us applied a theory or system. Apart from this unifying mode, our tendencies and backgrounds differed widely, surely a desirable diversity for the purposes of the club." He goes on to point out that they were guided by "the principle of what Trilling was the first to call 'cultural criticism,' that is, criticism inspired by whatever is relevant to the work. Its genesis, form, and meaning have roots in the culture where it appears, and it is also unique through its author's own uniqueness. To us, none of this was new. We were cultural critics with no need of a doctrine, for the essence of culture is inclusiveness." In the Introduction, Krystal then provides a brief explanation of how and why the Club was founded, what happened throughout its eleven years and six months of existence, and what he views as its unique contributions. Auden, Barzun, and Trilling "were like those classical musicians who, upon leaving work at the symphony, head downtown to play jazz all night in a smoky club." No small part of the "pleasure they derived from playing together...lay in the knowledge that they were performing for a literate audience who had come expressly to hear them." This simile is apt.

Who will most enjoy reading this book? Certainly those who were once a member of either Club and have so many pleasant memories of their own associated with the monthly interaction with the three editors as well as with the subjects they discussed. But countless others, "non-members" if you will, who will also be intellectually stimulated while thoroughly enjoying the pleasure of the three editors' company. Jacques Barzun was right: "The essence of culture is inclusiveness."

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