This is a book that should be bought two at a time (one to lend to friends). Serious students should return to it every few years along with George Orwell's essay on politics and the English language and C Wright Mills' appendix on intellectual craftsmanship in "The Sociological Imagination".
Barzun approached his special field of cultural history in a refreshingly irreverent manner. "You may like to think of culture - I often do - as an enormous pumpkin, hard to penetrate, full of uncharted hollows and recesses for cultural critics to get lost in, and stuffed with seeds of uncertain contents and destiny."
Early in his career he produced a connected series of books, starting with 'The French Race" (1932) and 'Race: A Study in Superstition" (1937 and 1965), moving on to "Darwin, Marx, Wagner" (1941) and "Romanticism and the Modern Ego" (1943). The major themes that connect these studies are (a) the appeal to race, class or nation to supply a new motive power for social change and (b) the an attempt to inject new life into the idols of Progress and Fatalism.
A subsequent theme in his work is the parlous state of learning and especially the widespread lack of understanding of the "house rules" for productive intellectual activity. The relevant books here are "The House of Intellect" (1959), "Science: The Glorious Entertainment"(1964) and "The American University" (1968).
The message of "The House of Intellect" is that its inhabitants, the intellectuals themselves, have trashed the house. The blame cannot be placed with the crassness or greed of big business, the shallowness of a consumer society, or the ignorance of the uneducated. The major malign influences are distorted perceptions of the nature and function of Art, Science and Philanthropy. These things have their value and their place, but Barzun shows how they have become diverted from their proper ends to impose in a destructive manner upon the conditions of scholarship and the life of the mind.
His comments on art later grew into a whole volume, "The Uses and Abuses of Art" and his views on the uses and abuses of science expanded into a whole book as well. The spirit of Philanthropy is expressed though the well-meant allocations of funds from the great foundations. However Barzun details how the net effect of this funding, especially that provided for conferences, is to dissipate rather than to concentrate thought, to take up time and effort on apparent novelties at the expense of solid and genuine but not superficially exciting or "relevant" work. A whole "grant application" industry emerged, engaging time and talents for trivial purposes, often enough dedicated to outright hokum, to the detriment of the proper function of intellectuals and intellect.
This book has "white dwarf" status because there is more in it each time it is re-read.