Were 'Great Books' a great idea?

October 22, 2008
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The 54-volume Great Books of the Western World series, a set of books that sold more than a million copies in the 1950s and '60s, was:

 a. an empowering, groundbreaking effort to bring brilliant writing to the masses.

b. a sales stunt perpetrated by Encyclopedia Britannica.

c. a precurser to the Oprah book club.

d. a dust collector.

e. a sign that, 50 years ago, we cared more about ideas than we do now.

f. a noble folly created by some University of Chicago eggheads.

g. an attempt to enshrine the works of "dead white men" at the expense of other voices. 

h. all of the above.

i. none of the above.

Having just read Alex Beam's "A Great Idea at the Time," a fascinating look at the Great Books phenomenon (due out next month from PublicAffairs publishers), I'm still wrestling with that question. While my family didn't own an official Great Books set, we did have a book club variation from Classics Club. And, like many such sets, ours still doesn't feature many cracked spines, even as I've moved it from house to house.

Beam's very readable book, unlike many of the Great Books, is both informed and breezy. And he doesn't shy away from throwing attitude around, especially when it comes to pompous Great Books champion Mortimer Adler. It explores not just the history of the series and the process of its selection and creation but also its impact, including the creation of book groups around the country.

The Great Books Foundatin, by the way, is still around. You can find it here.

So did you have a shelf of these books in your home? And is a classic by definition, as Robert Hutchens, one of the key men responsible for the Great Books series, said, "a book no one reads"? Read any Euclid or Nicomachus lately?

Your thoughts?
  • My husband was so enthralled with the Great Books collection that as soon as he got his first real job, he purchased a set for our house...which now sits around collecting dust. Also interesting to note, he gained his love of the Great Books growing up in Canada, so it seems that the Canucks experienced this phenomenon too.
  • Classics are classic because they stand the test of time; generations of readers believe they are among the greatest of all books ever written. So yes, I think that the various lists of great literature serve a purpose. Just read a Nicholas Sparks novel and then Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, for example, and tell me you don't wish someone had pointed out beforehand which you should spend your time on.

    Too many people are intimidated y great books or classic literature. Give one a try! With a few exceptions like Kite Runner,you may never go back to the modern novel.
  • Argumentum ad Hominem

    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

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