The Great Books

Since I mentioned Alex Beam in connection with the Brocabulary book, let me say a few words about his recent book A Great Idea At the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (PublicAffairs, 2008), about the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World series (first published in 1952).

This not a review, but a brief appreciation. Beam’s writing is jaunty and entertaining (although not everyone will take to the jokey chapter titles, like “Faster, Pussycat! Sell! Sell!” — chapter 6, on the launching of the volumes and the sales campaigns that followed). The book is an account of the project (which went back to the 1930s) and also an engrossing tale of the two main personalities, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (Beam, p. 24: “I find it easier to think of them as two fascinating people, one of whom you would like to be, and one of whom you would not”).

Slate‘s Michael Kinsley pretty well nails things in his back-cover blurb:

Alex Beam’s A Great Idea At the Time is a hilarious tale about academia, commerce, and middle class intellectual insecurity in mid-twentieth-century America. In Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, Beam has a comic character on the level of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. This would be one of the best campus novels in a generation, except that it’s all true.

There’s a lot that could be said here (about, for example, the history of the books included; the role of the Great Books in the self-improvement movement in the U.S.; and the value of “original writings” in the history of ideas, whether philosophical, cultural, or scientific), but it surely belongs in another setting.

[On the books included in the set: more or less as soon as Hutchins died, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy (two of my favorites), among others, were axed, and In Praise of Folly and Huckleberry Finn (which unaccountably had been left off the original list), among others, were added.]

One final note, a quotation:

The products of American high schools are illiterate; and a degree from a famous college or university is no guarantee that the graduate is in any better case.

This is (p. 93 in Beam’s book) Hutchins in 1952, 57 years ago, arguing that the remedy was a liberal education based on classic texts (and of course trying to sell the Great Books). Though Hutchins doesn’t say this, the implication is that things used to be better. It’s actually possible that they were (since education in the U.S. expanded hugely in the first half of the 20th century), but I haven’t seen evidence that this is so, and commentary on the education of the young has for centuries tended to follow a Fall From the Golden Age script, so there’s reason to be dubious.

One Response to “The Great Books”

  1. maxster21 Says:

    Argumentum ad Hominem

    The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

    Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

    As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins’ pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

    If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

    Max Weismann,
    President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
    Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000+ students)

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