Saturday, August 27, 2011
A Great Idea
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.