Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Review - A Great Idea at the Time

The idea of being a person who had read the "greatest books" of the Western world is, in its best sense, the very sort of aspiration that promised wisdom and understanding (and led some of us to become librarians,) but, in its worst sense, was also the very sort of snobbish pretension that kept people from reading great liteature they might otherwise have enjoyed. A few people, mostly older, in some libraries nationwide still meet regularly to read and discuss the newly adapted list of books offered by the Great Books program, but as this book’s title implies, what was once exciting is now more than passé, mostly because they went about it the wrong way.

A Great Idea at the Time: the rise, fall, and curious afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam is a delight to read and it makes no pretense of being fair to the well-intentioned but far too misguided idealists who, by 1952, gathered “443 works by seventy-four white male authors, purporting to encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud.” The people behind it were two University of Chicago admiinistrators, the charming ivory towered Robert Hutchins and philosopher Mortimer Adler, who, the author suggests, got in the way more than helped . (Beam calls them “two fascinating people, one of whom you’d like to be, and one of whom you would not.”) From their days as student and professor they felt that it was necessary for civically engaged persons to have a shared background of what was later called cultural literacy.

The idea was that people would read one of the great books each week, and in classes at liberal arts colleges, or in local meeting rooms filled with tradesmen, housewives, and people of business and the professions, they would be led by a Socratic professorial type who would engage them in lively discussions of that book in order to bring out the meanings applicable to that day’s issues, events, and problems. It sounded then and now like a wonderful idea. But when published first in 1952 by the Encyclopedia Britannica company in conjunction with the university, Beam says, “The Great Books of the Western World were in fact icons of unreadability – 32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type.” And many of the books chosen were centuries old tracts of surpassed scientific specificity and philosophic meandering such that one could do little with them but fall asleep over them. Many of the Western canon’s great literary writers were there, of course, but not all, and no women, nor people of color until much, much later.

Still they meant well but when these sets were sold to status seekers by flashy salesman, who hadn’t read them either, millions of Americans kept unopened copies as tasteful room decoration. During the hype Adler created a kind of index to find any of 102 idea themes throughout the eighty-some volumes of the Great Books, by listing which page in which volume that idea was discussed or exemplified. He called it the Synopticon, a word he made up, meaning 'a way of looking at things from several angles' and it was used later by him in a reworking of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (It was not that useful on paper, but little did Adler know that he was inventing something like tagging long before the Internet where such mullitple angle searching would become useful at last.) According to Beam, however, he left quite a few important ideas out.

The whole fad was an actual movement however, as the
Great Books Foundation reminds us still, and many offshoots have come from it. Back when it was big in the nineteen fifties and sixties many people got into it. When I was younger I took the novels and dramas from the list, ignoring the science works completely, and combined with recommendations I took from Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan and lists of books taught in literature courses, made my own list of classic reads. I became a librarian because I had spent so much time in libraries tracking down those books and plays. Britannica re-launched the Great Books series in the early 1990s, but after Adler had already shown himself to be unwilling to adjust to the multicultural awareness the country now enjoys, it was pretty much a financial disaster.

There are more wonderful, active reading groups around the nation now then ever before, however, and people are reading what they want to read rather than what some august body of fuddy-duddies feel they should be reading. There are several very active regular reading groups here at the Glendale Public Library who choose their own books and the library has kits of books and topic questions for groups who would like a hand in selecting titles. This library, along with many others, participates in statewide and national reading events like One Book, One Glendale and other programs. (Look for a Summer adult reading program this year, not just for children anymore.) It can still be a great idea to get together to read and discuss what we read. Let's just do it in a more interest-sustainable way. A Great Idea at the Time was a fun read.

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000+ students)

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