Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun and crime

[The reading of detective stories is] a habit ... wasteful of time and degrading to the intellect ... 
into which [people] have been bullied by convention....
Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials

Jacques Barzun died last night aged 104. Obituaries and essays describe his many contributions, few of which affected me very much. My first awareness of him resulted from his interest in detective stories. In 1971 I acquired A Catalogue of Crime: Being a Reader's Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, & Related Genres by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor. It's over 800 pages of brief evaluations by the authors of books of those types — and their judgements led me to many hours of pleasure. The Edmund Wilson quotation is from that book — and the authors, friends who had shared their enjoyment of mysteries since boyhood, obviously disagreed. From their introduction:
What this critical survey of some 7,500 works provides is the kind of repertory that the French call a catalogue raisonné—a list with reasons. Some of the reasons are negative: "Don't bother" This injunction may save the time and money of readers who, after perusing these remarks and sampling a few entries, will know what our standards are and decide to follow them for their own pleasure.

It is open to other readers to get their enjoyment by reversing our advice and reading the works we dismiss or dislike. Our comments should serve both disciple and dissenter, for we have tried to write transparently, ....

In choosing from the mass of good books and shameless trash that we have read or skimmed in half a century, we have not been purists. Though we prefer the classical genre inaugurated by Poe as "tales of ratiocination," we find it easy to enjoy stories in which detection is subordinated, provided something other than mere agitation takes its place. We do not allow the trappings of the form without its substance to deceive us—or the reader. Where this palming off occurs we declare in our entry: "No detection" or "Detection feeble." To put our creed positively, we hold with the best philosophers that a detective story should be mainly occupied with detecting.... [A Catalogue of Crime]
I have kept that book and enjoy browsing in it. Used copies can still be purchased at a reasonable cost.