Home » Uncategorized » A Great Idea at the Time: the Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam – book review – By Kasia Boddy – 20 Feb 2009

A Great Idea at the Time: the Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam – book review – By Kasia Boddy – 20 Feb 2009

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.

Great Books


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.’’

Booik page

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.

Great Books 2

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.




4 thoughts on “A Great Idea at the Time: the Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam – book review – By Kasia Boddy – 20 Feb 2009

  1. A comment from Goodreads
    You don’t have to like a subject to write about it. Heck, there are plenty of subjects that are deserving of ridicule and condemnation. And the “Great Books” movement (I almost put scare-quotes around “movement”) has some serious flaws. But this book just exposes the author as narrow-minded while leaving you wishing he did a lot more research into his subject.

    What has Alex Beam done? He learned a bit about the origins of “Great Books” courses like Columbia’s Literature-Humanities sequence and the St. John’s College curriculum. He even sat in on a few St. John’s classes and spoke to a few people involved.

    He gives us a sense of the personalities of the people involved, particularly Mortimer Adler. He tells a story, though it’s not much of a story. (There were these guys, and they were really into books, and they thought people should read them. They had some influence at a few colleges and they launched some publishing ventures and book clubs and stuff.) Beam’s principal bugaboos are: (1) it’s ridiculous to learn science from the original scientific works — why read Euclid or Newton when you can read a textbook?; (2) translations matter; and (3) a lot of great books aren’t that great, and it’s hard to know what makes a book great, but he’s glad that he’s been turned onto writers like Epictetus.

    That’s about it. This book should have been half as long or four times as long. And it should have been written by someone else. Someone who knows a lot about higher education, particularly literature and philosophy. Or by someone who doesn’t care much about that stuff but who knows a lot about 20th century America. Or by someone with a really good sense of humor. Or by someone with no sense of humor at all BUT who is self-aware on that matter.

    I teach literature and philosophy and I’ll be the first to say that such an education isn’t for everyone. Reading good books doesn’t solve social problems and it doesn’t make you a better person. (It can help, but it can hurt as well.) It helps to know about historical and cultural context when you read a book, but if a book is any good, it can’t be reduced to the particulars of its time and place and even its author. Because yes, it’s possible for a book to be good, even if you don’t like it.

    What Mr. Beam shows and doesn’t quite say is that Great Books people tend to be enthusiasts. They are amateurs in the old-fashioned sense. They love things and they want other people to love them, too. This means that it’s easy to laugh at them or say they’re wasting their (and everyone else’s) time. Mr. Beam writes as if he doesn’t love anything, or rather, as if whatever he loves doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than himself. So you can skip this one. If you’re interested in the ways that reading books might be a waste of time that ruins people’s lives, Cervantes wrote a really good book on that subject

  2. A post from Goodreads from the Author of the Book reviewed Alex Beam: “After all, I wrote the book. I visited this site for the first time and just wanted to say, Thank You to the many thoughtful commenters. It’s hard not to see the occasional vituperative attack, but I feel I wrote this book in good faith. And yes, it’s more about the commercial/cultural movement than the books themselves. I had never heard of the GBs, honestly, so these were 3-4 wonderful years of my life. Perhaps I was a little hard on Adler (tho not half as hard as Joseph Epstein, who knew A. quite well; and come to think of it, not as hard on him as his own son, or his colleagues .. oh, never mind) but take heart — a university press will soon be publishing a more respectful treatment of A’s life and works.” 20 June 2012

  3. This is a strange and mean little book, not that I mind all that much.

    Mr. Beam isn’t writing directly about the Great Books. Instead he is writing about the Great Books movement, a sort of fetishistic devotion to the Great Books.

    The book follows the lives and careers of the two main people whose love of the Great Books took corporeal form with their publication in 100 pounds and 60 shelf-inches of book-mass by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. And then again in 1990.

    Along the way Mr. Beam touches on some genuinely fascinating and important topics like
    -the commoditization of culture,
    -whether a college education is to prepare for work or for life,
    -culture as a status marker,
    -the general purpose of education,
    -the relevance of Western culture in American life,
    -the culture wars of the 90s,
    -the adoption of “the Canon” by conservative thinkers.

    Sadly, he decides to only touch them and not explore any further. Instead the author focuses on personalities and personal failings of the people who brought out these books. We learn that Dr. Adler had extramarital affairs and had a hard-to-please father. Another character had a hard-to-please mother. Dr. Hutchins glides through a life of unfulfilled potential only to say at the end of it that he probably should have died at 35.

    [[[Aside: I think that far too many journalists are writing books these days. Like that long tail guy and Malcolm Gladwell and the author of this book. I think there is a tendency of journalist-authors to skim the surface and focus instead on personalities and proof-by-anecdote. At best books like these provide tantalizing glimpses of the truth and at worst they substitute actual expertise in a field with a “telling” detail or clever adjective about someone who actually is an expert in a field.]]]

    Along the way Mr. Beam charmingly defends the Great Books themselves by explaining how reading them has affected him. He sits in on some Great Books discussions that sound like they were very funny.

    I am now on the look out at the used bookstores that I haunt for The Great Books as published by EB. They sound truly horrible with their 10 point, double column type, no footnotes or introductory notes. I have to see them for myself.

    Also, I am interested in checking out the scientific works that they published. In contradiction to what most people think, I find reading old science texts kind of interesting (in small amounts I should add). It’s sort of like looking at a score for a symphony that one is already familiar with.

    For a review of the EB’s Great Books, check out this excellent review from The New Yorker (1952):


    One laugh out loud moment: There is a passage where someone at Columbia who mentions how the athletes were terrible at the Great Books discussions. Then she follows up with “and the engineering students were worse.”

  4. Although I enjoyed reading Beam’s snarky little book, I remain unconvinced that Hutchins and Adler were primarily motivated by money. Yes: after the books were published, hucksters carried the volumes from door to door around the country and often lied to clients in order to make a sale. But Hutchins and Adler were deeply committed to the study of the classics (which they taught both in college classrooms and in the community) from long before the idea of the published series arose.

    Beam frequently laughs at people who still seem devoted to these works or even believe that someone would read them. But he also makes it clear that many of these people are quite genuine in their commitments. In fact, Beam gets bitten by the classics-reading bug himself.

    This is not a book that requires a lot from the reader, nor is it particularly thoughtful. Beam did not help me come to terms with my own desire to read canonical classics, nor does he help me comprehend my deep hesitations about the project. But the history of the publication of this series is an interesting one.

    My vote: Skim the library’s copy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s