Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Great Idea

A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books is a very readable account of a what the author calls the very "icons of unreadabliity": the Great Books of the Western World. This fifty-four volume series of classics was developed by scholars at the University of Chicago and was formally launched in the spring of 1952. Although it is hard now to believe, a million households bought the books from door-to-door salesmen with the hope of identifying with a shared intellectual heritage and participating in a national conversation about enduring ideas.

Beam begins his "undidactic history" with Robert Maynard Hutchins, "the 'boy wonder' appointee" to the presidency of the University of Chicago, who put together the Great Books with the help of "his brilliant, Hobbit-like sidekick, Mortimer Adler" (who was "an unholy pain in the neck.")  Although there is much evidence that Hutchins and Adler were genuinely committed to the democratization of the classics, Beam points out their "irrepressible intellectual hucksterism."  He argues that these "Great Bookies" (and the marketers at the press) targeted the insecurities of poorly educated Americans in an effort to sell them expensive sets of books they would never read.  (Want to impress your boss? Want to attract the attention of  a well-educated female?)

Although I enjoyed reading Beam's snarky little book, I remain unconvinced that Hutchins and Adler were primarily motivated by money.  Yes: after the books were published, hucksters carried the volumes from door to door around the country and often lied to clients in order to make a sale.  But Hutchins and Adler were deeply committed to the study of the classics (which they taught both in college classrooms and in the community) from long before the idea of the published series arose.

Beam frequently laughs at people who still seem devoted to these works or even believe that someone would read them.  But he also makes it clear that many of these people are quite genuine in their commitments.  In fact, Beam gets bitten by the classics-reading bug himself.

This is not a book that requires a lot from the reader, nor is it particularly thoughtful.  Beam does not help me come to terms with my own desire to read the canon, nor does he help me comprehend my deep hesitations about this project.  But the history of the publication of this series is an interesting one.

My vote: Skim the library's copy.


  1. yeah, but.... As a child, i read what was in the house (and yes, i had access to a great library, and went weekly).

    In the house, all the books we owned were in a 3 foot high by 3 foot wide bookcase. On top, was the incomplete (buy a chapter a week with your groceries--only some weeks they didn't) Funk and Wagnold Dictionary (is it any wonder today i own 30 or so complete dictionaries!)

    Books were a luxury (in a poor household.)

    The small book case had some great books (perhaps because of a some traveling salesman)--and every book in the bookcase was read-eventually.

    One rainy summer i read (for lack of anything else in a rented summer cottage) Zane Grey. (it was not memorable--except for being awful!)

    Sometimes having books in the house leads to them being read.

  2. What a perfect comment. Beam mostly talks about the motives of the "Bookies" rather than the not-particularly-bookish people who bought some of their books. You are absolutely right that we often read whatever is around us--perhaps especially when we're not surrounded by television and internet and the like. I know I've read some really wild things in beach houses--everything from complete trash to remarkable erudite.

    Incidentally, do you happen to remember the Waltons episode about the Great Books? Really gets to your point. Must go dig it out of the internet world....

  3. Beam's argument is surely not against the reading of the classics, is it? Or having books in the house? It's against those ungainly editions - against the Great Books, not against the great books.

    My vote, to mimic your ending, is to read Joseph Epstein's essay "Mortimer Adler: The Great Bookie" which can be found in In a Cardboard Belt. Epstein actually worked for Adler.

    Full disclosure: I actually dragged myself through Tom Jones in one of these editions. One should not have to drag oneself through Tom Jones! Every decision, about type and paper and so on, was the wrong decision. Adler could have chosen to sell readable books door to door - like Everyman's Library editions - but chose something else, something much worse.

  4. I read the book and did not enjoy the snark at all. (My blog post: Beam seems to confuse cynicism with critiqe (as so many do today). As you point out, it's particularly bizarre because he admits to liking the great books. I'm now reading The Whole Five Feet, about the Harvard Classics, which is much better, though still a bit ambivalent about the value of great literature. It's just not cool to appreciate the great art of the past these days!

  5. Slow, Plot Driven ReaderAugust 29, 2011

    Sylvia - You may want to check out LTR's post last month on the Whole Five Feet: I think it may LTR's favorite in her collection of "Books About Reading" See her tabs at the top or visit: Then again, she also really liked Dirda. And then there is Fadiman. So how do you rank them LTR?

  6. I've had a second-hand copy of this one lying around for a while, but I've never felt the urge to pick it up. I'm still unconvinced...perhaps it will find its way out of my house during my next book purge, whenever that may be!

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