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.

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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hello? Is this thing on?

This has been a long hot summer.  The oppressive heat of our un-air-conditioned house has left me staring into space rather than reading great books and writing blog posts about them.  When I have deigned to pick up a book, it has often been a light contemporary novel or memoir rather than an ancient classic. Add to that the fact that I was dealing with a personal issue (which is in a much better place) and all the reading it required to understand what was going on.

And now I'm up to my eyeballs planning our 7th grade homeschooling year.  Although we've taken a fairly unschooly approach in the past, following our son's interests and abilities as any given day suggests, this year we plan to be much more focused and directed.  We're trying to decide whether to homeschool through our son's high school years--and I think we need to figure not only how to make sure he is prepared for college work (and that our record keeping is adequate for college admissions) but that we can work together intensely with some semblance of civility and joy.

And the Skylark Sings with Me - Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based EducationAs we think about the upcoming year, I've read (and reread) some fascinating books about educating children.  An old favorite is David Albert's And the Skylark Sings with Me - Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education.  I read it just about every August, right before our school year starts.

The story of how Albert's two daughters were educated at home, Skylark is inspiring and thought provoking.  The author seeks to allow his daughters' gifts (and the girls are gifted in different ways) to develop as fully as possible, with as much freedom as possible.  Even within that freedom, the girls develop a deep sense of responsibility, direction, and relatively traditional academic values.  Some of my friends resist the story because they feel that the Albert family is special and the girls are so precocious that his book is unrepresentative.  Others dislike the fact that the book is not a how-to book in any way.  Reading the book this year, I loved it just as much as ever--but I must admit that I was disappointed to remember that the book ends right as his elder daughter reaches the age my son is now.  Although the critics are right to say that readers cannot extrapolate from Albert's story to make specific choices about our own children's education, I have always loved the model of his general approach to homeschooling and child-rearing.  Now that my son seems to have entered a whole new world, I would love to have Albert hold my hand as I grow to understand my own 12yo.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and EducationAnother book I love is Grace Llewellyn's The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.  When I first read the book many years ago, I dreamed of those future years when my son would take control of his own education and become as devoted to learning for learning's sake as Llewellyn clearly is.  In fact, perhaps this is the perfect book to follow Albert's.  Like Albert, Llewellyn is committed to a true life of an active mind combined with radical freedom.  But instead of talking about how parents can foster that freedom-education in their children's lives, she talks directly to teenagers about how they can create it for themselves.

Llewellyn lists all sorts of inspiring and thoughtful idea about things to do, subjects to study, and books to read.  Sometimes, though, some of the suggestions seem a bit too new-agey or too deliberately "deep and meaningful."  A bigger caveat: sometimes the author is so anti-school that I'm turned off, personally.  And that profoundly anti-school attitude makes little sense to youngsters who have been homeschooled from the beginning.

The Day I Became an AutodidactA more traditional academic path is taken by high schooler Kendall Hailey in her memoir The Day I Became an Autodidact.  Because of this book's relevance to my own adult project, I plan to review in much more detail at a later date.

You see what a hippie-nerd I am.  I'm drawn to both child-led freedom education and to the formal rigor of academia.  That combination of commitments is what makes this blog project so appealing for me, what makes these particular books so relevant to my life, and also what makes homeschooling such a great pleasure.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherBut I do read books that challenge my general approach.  I'd heard vicious accounts of the uber-popular family memoir by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother--and knew I would hate the author's beliefs about child rearing.  Perhaps partly because I was expecting something so awful, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed her short book.  I am contemplating getting my son to read this as well, just so he knows how the other half lives.

Rather than believing in child-led education and nurturing freedom, Chua supports what she calls Chinese parenting.  She feels that it is not only a parent's right to force a child to follow a particular path but a parent's responsibility.  Only by pressuring a child to work very hard, she argues, will that child develop into an adult capable of serious dedication and success.  Sometimes she uses blackmail, shame, and other parenting techniques that make me queasy in an effort to get her two talented daughters to develop their gifts. 

What I found persuasive is the author's articulation that requiring more from a child is fundamentally a sign that a parent believes the child is capable of more, of better.  Letting a child get by with a half-hearted attempt at something, or letting a child give up before exerting serious effort, teaches the child that he or she is not capable.  These insights are sprinkled throughout Chua's very funny narrative.  Although she ends the book still supporting "Chinese parenting," the reader sees the author struggle with the limits or problems of her child-reading style.   And throughout, as she recounts those queasiness-inducing parental behaviors I mentioned above, she is self-deprecating and even humble in her own sarcastic way.

*  *  *

The weather has cooled off here is DC--kind of odd for August, I guess, so probably temporary--and the school year is starting anew.  Time for me to get back to my classics reading!  The next few posts will be discussions of books about books, plus reviews of a few random summer reads I want to mention.  After that: Greek Drama!  Please join me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Howard's End is on the Landing

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from HomeI love the title of Susan Hill's memoir of reading: Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home.  Like the author, I arrange my books in a less-than-obvious way sometimes.  Being able to find them might be only by luck of memory: Homer and Herodotus filling the "now" shelf in the study (smack between the books published by friends, family, and self on the shelf above and knitting patterns on the shelf below), Dickinson in the piano room, Austen and the Brontes in the living room, Yeats and Keats having a party with Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie on the basement shelves, Shakespeare in my son's room, and Orion magazine (with its great review of The Bird Sisters) in the bathroom.  Maurice and Aeschylus on my bedside table.

Hill's book is a collection of very short, very loosely interconnected stories.  I had high hopes given the evocative title and the charming cover--but honestly, I did not love this book.  The essays were light and generally fairly enjoyable, but they did not come across as especially thoughtful or insightful.   I might have enjoyed the book more if I had read a chapter here and there in odd moments instead of in one big gulp.  If you're planning to read it, keep it stashed in your car so you can read a few pages while waiting for someone, or next to your bed for a little insomnia relief.

Some of the essays seem more like name dropping than like critical or appreciative reading.  I don't mean that Hill tells us much about the authors she mentions.  That might be interesting and even useful.  But just telling us that she met someone?  Not so much.  For example, Hill tells us that she met Iris Murdoch but "can only remember the Iris I knew, not closely, not well, but with honour and respect and with singular affection."  No real details to flesh out who that Iris was.  (One of the better essays is on Anthony Trollope--and I can't remember whether or not Hill mentions that she never had the pleasure of meeting him...)

Other essays seem to have a lot of potential--and just as they seem to really get going, they end abruptly.  And sometimes Hill just names books on her shelves without really mentioning actually reading them, much less what she thought of them.  Honestly, many of these essays feel like rushed blog posts put up on busy days.

There are a few gems.  I find Hill's chapter about Virginia Woolf far more thoughtful--about Woolf and about Hill herself.  Her discussion of Roald Dahl also has a flash of insight when she analyzes why Dahl's books are beloved by children and hated by so many adults.  Finally, Hill's discussion of reading carefully ("Slow, Slow, Slow-Slow, Slow") raisea interesting questions for me that I hope to address in a future post.

I also like this paragraph:
Books help to form us.  If you cut me open, will you find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me? ...So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read.  I am my literary DNA.
I've never read any fiction by Susan Hill before.  Have any of you?  I'd love to hear how this book compares to her other writing.
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