Auden's characteristic reading style is demonstrated here in his low-key delivery, reflecting his hatred of anything that smacked of sonorous rhetoric. Also apparent is the curious accent Auden developed, the flattened American "a" at odds with his otherwise classically English tones. However, what remains uppermost in the listener's mind is Auden's rigorous restraint, both in the text and his speaking of it. Although he never wished to be seen as a spokesman his over-arching achievement is ever-more apparent: he remains one of the few voices with whom all subsequent poets have to converse.
I’m a little shocked that you are so shocked. Aside from its idiosyncrasies (opera libretti?), this much reading was not beyond the bounds of a upper-level and graduate course as late as the 1970s. There are some long books here; there are also a number of plays, every one of which can be read in an afternoon. Of course, even at the elite schools, students didn’t genuinely read everything on the list; you picked what you thought was more important or more to your liking and faked others with notes or skimming. You can be sure this was also the case in 1941, when the “elite” were predominantly social elite, not SAT-screened scholars. Prep schools can only help so much; most preppies were happy to take their “gentleman’s Cs.”