A Great Idea At The Time (Book Review)

Beam, Alex. (2008). A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books.  New York: Public Affairs
In this post I will detour slightly from my exploration of the Great Books to discuss a book about the Great Books.  More specifically, Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (2008) is the story of the “Great Books Movement” which started as a teaching fad in the 1920’s and grew to become a pop culture phenomenon in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, housed in their specially made bookcase, was a fixture in our house when I was a child.  Yesterday I visited my father for Thanksgiving and noticed that it still occupies a prominent place along one wall of his guest bedroom.  As a youngster I took its presence for granted.  Except for one abortive attempt to read the Iliad when I was twelve, I don’t think I ever opened them.  Much later I learned that my father had bought the set second hand before I was born.  For him I believe the books were a symbol that even though he had not been able to finish college he has never stopped working to educate himself.  In this respect, I think he is like most people who ever bought the set.  They were always marketed as a way for middle class Americans, denied the sort of liberal education available to their social “betters”, to improve themselves.

The books in the Britannica set were nearly unreadable–heavy hard backs set in a tiny font with no footnotes.  Most of the translations are dreadful.  To make matters worse, because they were so expensive, no one felt like it was OK to underline in them or take notes in the margins.  A paperback Penguin edition of a classic was almost always the way to go, if you were actually going to read and study it.

Beam’s book tells the story of how the set came to be, and why there are still so many copies around.  With humor and insight he takes us from the first Great Books courses at Columbia and Chicago, through the genesis of the idea to sell a single collection that would encapsulate the entire western cannon, through the hard-sell door-to-door marketing of the 1960’s, and finally to the state of the Great Books movement today.  I found the book delightfully readable.

A Great Idea at the Time mostly avoids bias, except in one area.  It is clear from the first page that while Beam acknowledges Mortimer Adler’s brilliance, he truly doesn’t care for Adler, as a person.  The book is sprinkled with comments such as “…to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake.” (p. 5) He paints a picture of Adler as a hilariously pompous, egomaniacal huckster.  I myself have read enough of Adler’s writing and seen enough of his videos to conclude that he probably was rather full of himself.  Certainly, Beams ability to describe such a powerful character lends strength and color to his story.  Still, once must be aware that his opinion of one of the main personalities in the story has clearly slanted the narrative.

Mortimer Adler (Center for the Study of the Great Ideas via WikiMedia)

Mortimer Adler (Center for the Study of the Great Ideas via Wikimedia)

Reading this book as made me more aware of the ways in which my own relationship to the Great Books differs from that of Mortimer Adler, his mentor Robert Hutchins, or their many disciples.  Their interest started as an attempt to shore up a higher education system which they saw as fragmenting into overspecialization.  The Great Books were seen as a vehicle to teach reading and critical thinking to undergraduates.  I myself, as a teaching assistant, worked for two professors who successfully incorporated great books into their respective undergraduate business courses.  These days, however, I am no longer involved in post secondary education.

Over time, the Great Books project became a business venture for Encyclopaedia Britannica and an exercise in platform building for Adler, yet I don’t see any way that I will personally make money by studying the Great Books, or even by blogging about them.

The customers who bought the books mostly did so out of an appeal to their own insecurity and feeling of educational inadequacy.  As a published academic author with a terminal professional degree, it is hard for me to seriously claim that I feel inadequate.  There are still plenty of things which I would like to learn about, but that isn’t the same thing.

So if none of the motivations which have driven other people to embrace the Great Books affect me, then why am I doing it?

It’s because I am a writer, and a writer functions by inputting a large amount of other people’s writing, filtering and processing it through a mind shaped by his own life experience, and then outputting a relatively small amount of his own writing.  If I had to guess, I would say that I probably read at least 500,000 words for every 1,000 words of finished prose I write.  For me reading The Great Books, or at least good books, is a way to ensure a higher quality of inputs to the system which will, hopefully, lead to a higher quality of output.  Any further posts I write about the Great Books will be written, and should be read, with that in mind.

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