Monday, August 29, 2011

Indexing the Great Books

Mortimer Adler, one of the scholars who compiled the Great Books of the Western World, felt the series needed an index, or (as he called it) a Syntopicon. He chose what he thought were the 102 greatest ideas in the history of the world, then hired recent college graduates--eventually a staff of more than one hundred workers--to sift through the Great Books for any allusions in the texts they could find. Among his "great ideas" were Love, Rhetoric, Time, Truth, and Tyranny.

At the time--and ever since--people have questioned his categories. Some complained that Sex, Money, and Power had been ignored. Although War was a category, Peace was not. And there was a lot more Sin than Virtue.  Even with the limited number of categories, the Syntopicon eventually reached a length of more than 2400 pages, covered by two thick volumes.  A reviewer named Dwight MacDonald wrote a review of what he jokingly called "The Book-of-the-Millennium Club" and trashed the index.  "One has the feeling," he claimed, "of being caught in a Rube Goldberg contraption."

When a reporter saw the above picture, originally printed in Life magazine, he was struck by how much the cards stuck in their boxes resembled headstones--"as though Professor Adler and his associates had come to bury and not to praise Plato and other great men."

You can find more about the process of indexing the Great Books of the Western World in Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, which I reviewed in my last post.

1 comment:

  1. Slow, Plot Driven ReaderSeptember 01, 2011

    This certainly gives me a new appreciation of the value of a good index! Love the photograph.


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