Were ‘Great Books’ a great idea?

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?

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