A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

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by Alex Beam
     
 

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By the author of the Boston Globe #1 bestseller Gracefully Insane: A wry, witty history of an unlikely literary fad, and of American pop culture in the 1950s and early 1960s.See more details below

Overview

By the author of the Boston Globe #1 bestseller Gracefully Insane: A wry, witty history of an unlikely literary fad, and of American pop culture in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Before the dawn of the television age, in an ambitious effort to enlighten the masses via door-to-door sales, Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Chicago launched the Great Books of Western Civilization, "all fifty-four volumes of them... purporting to encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud." Led by the "intellectual Mutt 'n' Jeff act" of former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and his sidekick Mortimer Adler, the Great Books briefly, and improbably, caught the nation's imagination. In his discussion, Boston Globe columnist Beam looks at how and why this multi-year project took shape, what it managed to accomplish (or not), and the lasting effects it had on college curricula (in the familiar form of Dead White Males). Beam (Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital) describes meetings endured by the selection committee, and countless debates over Euripedes, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens and Whitman ("When it comes to Great Books, no one is without an opinion."), but tells it like it is regarding the Syntopicon they devised-at "3,000 subtopics and 163,000 separate entries, not exactly a user-friendly compendium"-and the resulting volumes, labeling them "icons of unreadability-32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type." By lauding the intent and intelligently critiquing the outcome, Beam offers an insightful, accessible and fair narrative on the Great Books, its time, and its surprisingly significant legacy.
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Library Journal

Novelist and Boston Globe columnist Beam presents an intriguing look at the marketing phenomenon and cultural-icon status of the Great Books of Western Civilization, a 54-volume collection compiled by university-affiliated academics. In the beginning, the Great Books were used for education or in college classes. When they started to become popular, the Great Books Foundation was formed; four years later, several thousand book discussion groups all over the country were using the collection. Their popularity, which reached its peak at the end of the 1940s yet remained strong into the early 1960s, was attributed to the larger number of Americans with higher education after World War II and to the rise of the middle class. The official launch of the Great Books occurred in 1952 at the University of Chicago, nine years after the project began. The books feature 443 works by 74 authors. By the time their popularity ceased, over one million households had purchased them from traveling salesmen. Beam's book will have readers looking at volumes in the series from a whole new perspective owing to its witty handling of popular culture. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Susan McClellan

From the Publisher

Britannica Blog, December 9, 2008
“Marvelously entertaining”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786726981
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
11/04/2008
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
360
File size:
1 MB

Meet the Author

Alex Beam is an award-winning columnist for the Boston Globe. His writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, the New York Times and many other magazines. The author of Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital, and of two novels, he lives in Boston.

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