It is unlikely that you will find C P Snow's The Masters in Waterstone's (and it is not surprising that until recently the work was unavailable from Amazon). More likely it festers somewhere off the beaten track, amidst charity shop regulars ... at your local 'Help The Aged' where it can usually be picked up for the same few shillings for which it first sold in 1951.
So why did The Masters temporarily fall into oblivion? Well, for one thing its subject matter - the election of a new master in a quasi-fictitious Cambridge college - is hardly what you would call exciting in the modern, Grishamesque sense. There are no cliff-hangers, no sudden revelations and (thankfully) no final twist. The characters themselves - a small group of college fellows with a 700 year old academic tradition behind them - ensure that the pace of events is well within the limits of respectability. Minor outbursts of emotion are the nearest we get to 'action', and these situations are quickly soothed by the more diplomatic members of the college.
Another reason for The Masters' obscurity is its apparent irrelevance to the modern academic mind. Unlike today's university fellows, Snow's characters have no Research Assessment Exercise to worry about. Nor do they to any real extent concern themselves with student matters (fifty years ago learning was considered pretty much the responsibility of the student). Oh, how times have changed! With the academic culture of today's universities subject to exactly the same market forces as those buffeting the under-qualified school leaver, a book about the unadulterated ivory-tower is hardly must-read stuff for those in higher education.
However, knowing only this, the discerning reader ought instinctively to feel a basic attraction to what is the greatest of Snow's 'Strangers & Brothers' novels (which themselves comprise one of the greatest literary sequences of the 20th Century). Knowing, furthermore, that at heart The Masters concerns very much a contemporary social issue the book should be hard to resist.
In The Masters, our protagonist - the semi-biographical Lewis Eliot - is confronted with a choice between two rival candidates in the election of a new college master. On the one side we have Jago, an imaginative, magnanimous and sensitive person, but one who is undistinguished as an English scholar. On the other side we have Crawford - a confident, first-rate biologist but, as a man, somewhat two-dimensional and lacking in the human qualities. Over the course of the novel we learn a lot about the candidates and even more about their colleagues, several of whom transfer support to the 'opposition' when forced to confront properly the issues at stake.
Like Eliot we today face a similar decision between the two branches of thought - the humanities and the sciences - whenever environmental or biological issues are raised in the news. Should science be master of and lead the human values, or should it operate within a humane framework? When we engage in the issue of, say, human cloning we should remember that the science-humanities debate has dominated the academic world for most of the Twentieth Century. In fact, you could say that CP Snow first articulated the debate in The Masters.
Snow himself is ambivalent towards the election result, despite his clear tendency to favour science in his 1959 'Two Cultures' speech. He is wise enough, however, to realise that the debate can never be won conclusively by one side or the other; that an alternative method of resolution must be found. The character Gay - the oldest of the college fellows - at one point expresses Snow's attempt to transcend the difficulties of counterpoising two sides of human knowledge:
"A man can do distinguished work in any [branch of learning], and we ought to have outgrown these arts and science controversies before we leave the school debating society".
In other words, it is the quality of the work (and, more importantly, the qualities of the man or woman behind the work) that counts, irrespective of the field. The Masters is in essence a study of human qualities, and of the political considerations which should assume priority over our initial(and perhaps superficial) judgements about today's scientific controversies. Snow tackled this specific issue as a humanist, and reading The Masters will surely deepen our humanity.