Troy Patterson
July 28, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In 1959, at the tender age of 51, the writer Jacques Barzun made his first appearance on best-seller lists with The House of Intellect, a pointed critique of the American university system. Now — 41 years after that commercial smash — the nonagenarian historian, who taught at Columbia University for 50 years, has scored a second blockbuster with his 29th book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. At more than 800 pages, the book is a monumental survey distinguished by seemingly superhuman erudition and marked by casually radical insight, making it perhaps the most unlikely best-seller of the year. The likes of Erasmus, Voltaire, and Goethe now cohabit the charts with Morrie, Al Roker, and The Rock.

And how exactly does one go about synthesizing the teachings of Denis Diderot and William James with an eye toward elucidating the idea of God? Very patiently. In his author’s note, Barzun writes: ”During the writing of this book I was frequently asked…how long its preparation had taken. I could only answer: a lifetime.” His editor, Hugh Van Dusen, concurs. ”This really is a drawing together of the themes he’s been lecturing about and writing about for literally 70 years,” Van Dusen says. ”I’ve been talking to him about [the book] for 15 years. And he made a lot of notes, did a lot of 4 x 6 cards refreshing his opinions, and about six years ago he started to write it.” As for the business of turning an intellectual study into a popular hit, HarperCollins is relying on readers to judge the book by its cover. ”We worked very hard to get all the jacket blurbs,” says Van Dusen of the raves provided by Alistair Cooke, Gertrude Himmelfarb, John Lukacs, and others. ”Not everybody gets compared to Gibbon.”

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