Kasia Boddy investigates the history of the Great Book
This is the story of great books; not just any great books, mind you, but the 54 volumes launched in Chicago in 1952 as the Great Books of the Western World. In the course of just over 200 brisk pages, Alex Beam explains how, and why, such an entity came into being.
The story reveals a lot, not only about the cultural aspirations and anxieties of Fifties America, but also about our desire to identify and preserve cultural value. Last month, The Bookseller reported that, against the general half-year trend, sales of the publisher CRW’s Collector’s Library – hard-backed classic novels with sewn cloth bindings and ribbon markers – were up 47 per cent. When times are hard, customers want ‘‘the quality of a bygone era’’.
Beam locates the origin of the Great Books project in two late-19th-century developments: middle-class anxiety about what the newly literate working classes were reading, and the introduction of specialisation in the university curriculum. At the very moment that Charles Eliot was transforming Harvard from a gentleman’s college into a modern university, he launched Harvard Classics, a popular version of the broad education he had argued was obsolete.
In the universities, a different role was envisaged for the Great Books – as specialisation increased, so did nostalgia for the time when students shared a common intellectual ‘‘core’’. In 1920, Columbia University instituted a foundation course which, renamed and reshaped, continues to this day. The form of the class was as important as the content.
In 1929, Mortimer J Adler left Columbia to set up a similar system at the University of Chicago, invited by its new president, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Beam presents them as a comic duo – an ‘‘intellectual Mutt ’n’ Jeff’’. Chicago quickly gained a reputation as an ‘‘eccentric’’ place, ‘‘where they talked about Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas day and night’’.
It took many years for Hutchins and Adler to turn their beloved syllabus into a rival to the Harvard Classics. Chicago’s 54 volumes boasted two important differences. First, and important to Adler, Harvard’s set lined up at 60 inches, Chicago’s – ‘‘32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type’’ – was 62. Secondly, while Harvard Classics promised social mobility, Chicago promised deliverance. ‘‘I am not saying that reading and discussing the Great Books will save humanity from itself,’’ said Hutchins, ‘‘but I don’t know anything else that will.’’
Hutchins said the choice of what to include was ‘‘almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it’’. What was offered was the Western World’s ‘‘Great Conversation’’, as it developed from Homer to Freud, via another 72 dead white men. No contextualising introductions or explanatory footnotes were provided. If the work could not speak for itself, and for ever, it was not a Great Book. Nevertheless, two of the 54 volumes were taken up by the Syntopicon, a glorified index of 102 Great Ideas, assembled by college graduates, directing readers to the best sources on Good or Evil, Necessity or Contingency, Pleasure or Pain. Debates like these, the editors believed, would ward off ‘‘one of the greatest threats to democracy’’: the ‘‘reduction of the reader to an object of propaganda’’. Great Books, in other words, were promoted as part of the Cold War defence against totalitarianism.
During the Fifties, a growing middle class embraced Great Books alongside other commodities, like the Reader’s Digest condensed novels and the Book of the Month club. Dwight Macdonald mocked the ‘‘book of the millennium club’’ as fetishism, but the fetish sold a million copies.
In the wake of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements of the Sixties and Seventies, the Great Books idea increasingly came to be seen as wrong-headed.
The Chicago Great Book sets no longer sell, (Editor – yes they do – on Amazon new $1000) but our desire to identify, preserve and, above all, to talk about the best in literature and thought remains strong. But who shall tell us what that is? In 2001 Jonathan Franzen complained when the Oprah Book Club stuck its glitzy label on his novel; The Corrections, he said, was ‘‘in the high-art literary tradition’’. Three years later, Oprah championed Anna Karenina and a million copies were sold.