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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Today the classics of the western canon, written by the proverbial “dead white men,” are cannon fodder in the culture wars. But in the 1950s and 1960s, they were a pop culture phenomenon. The Great Books of Western Civilization, fifty-four volumes chosen by intellectuals at the University of Chicago, began as an educational movement, and evolved into a

Overview


Today the classics of the western canon, written by the proverbial “dead white men,” are cannon fodder in the culture wars. But in the 1950s and 1960s, they were a pop culture phenomenon. The Great Books of Western Civilization, fifty-four volumes chosen by intellectuals at the University of Chicago, began as an educational movement, and evolved into a successful marketing idea. Why did a million American households buy books by Hippocrates and Nicomachus from door-to-door salesmen? And how and why did the great books fall out of fashion?

In A Great Idea at the Time Alex Beam explores the Great Books mania, in an entertaining and strangely poignant portrait of American popular culture on the threshold of the television age. Populated with memorable characters, A Great Idea at the Time will leave readers asking themselves: Have I read Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura lately? If not, why not?

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781586487768
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
10/13/2009
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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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Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Leftyreader More than 1 year ago
As a recently returned veteran in the spring of 1971 I was desperate to make some money. So I took a job with Britannica selling "Great Books of the Western World" door to door. I lasted about two weeks. One guy I talked with didn't want to buy the set because the books didn't include pictures. Another woman, however, who seemed very interested in the content of the books, backed off because she didn't like the small print. She also had some things to say about the translation being used in the sample book in my presentation. I quit Great Books and got a job driving an ice cream truck that summer - made a lot more money.

Some years later, now an educator myself, I was in a used book store and saw a set of Great Books, along with 21 yearbooks and a set of introductory lesson plans for the bargain price of $150. I bought them and much to my wife's horror unpacked them in our small study and put them up on our bookshelves. About a year later she made me take them to work, where they adorn my office. I've read a couple of the volumes cover to cover, browsed through many others. But that woman in 1971 was right; some of the translations are terrible, and now at age 60, I agree with her that the print is too small.

Alex Beam's book "A Great Idea at the Time" took me on a nice whirlwind tour of the making and marketing of the GBWW. The story includes dynamic characters like Robert Hutchins, boy wonder/genius who as President of the University of Chicago made the 'great books' curriculum a national phenomenon. Hutchins had a populist approach to education and brought in top notch minds to teach the great works to America's future. Along with Hutchins is Mortimer Adler - another brilliant young mind who co-taught the great books courses. Adler wrote more than 60 books, including one called "Aristotle for Everybody." Anyone who truly believes that "everybody' should read Aristotle has to be a populist thinker.

Beam doesn't try (thankfully) to get too philosophical about the campaign to popularize some of the western world's most difficult philosophical, political, and historical writings (ever try to read Hegel? Gibbon? never mind the works of Lavoisier). He states the obvious - there are many works in the original 54 volune set that are unreadable/shouldn't be read, and Adler & Co. used antiquated translations of other works to avoid paying out commissions to translators. I have read several translations of Aeschylus's Oresteia Trilogy (I have taught it to high school kids in Boston) and G.M. Cookson's has to be the the least readable. Beam merely acknowledges this weakness (Achilles Heel perhaps?) of the GBWW.

In today's dumbed down culture, writing any kind of a book about the so-called "Great Books" is a step forward. Beam may poke a bit of fun at the presumptuousness and the snake oil aspects of the marketing of the books, but there is no question where his sympathies lie with regard to the importance of treating education as a lifelong pursuit.

Toward the end of the book, Beam lists off some people and programs that take some form of 'great books' approach to education. While the Britannica set itself doesn't sell much anymore, the idea still flourishes. As for me, I now work in an educational program for veterans, and in one writing class our students (ages range from early 20s to late 60s) read and write about many of the classics.
Everyman More than 1 year ago
It would have been nice if Mr. Beam had given some evidence that he had actually read any of the Great Books. Not merely thumbed through the pages, but actually read them.

In the Introduction he calls his work "A book as different from the ponderous and forbidding Great Books as it could possibly be."

It is indeed totally different from the Great Books. They are fascinating, insightful, wise. Beam is none of these.

Nobody who had actually read the Iliad could call it forbidding. Nobody who had actually read Sophocles's Antigone could call it ponderous. Anybody who would call Austen's Emma, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Montaigne's Essays, Plato's Symposium, "ponderous and forbidding" either has not read them, or has no sense of what reading a book means.

The Great Books set that Mr. Bean purchased on EBay may well never have been opened or read. For all the benefit Mr. Bean may have gotten from leafing through the books they might as well have stayed that way. But for engaged and intelligent readers, the books are well worn and have provided hundreds if not thousands of hours of engrossing and rewarding reading and (note, Mr. Bean, some people actually do this) thinking.
Max72 More than 1 year ago
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
DC_Reader More than 1 year ago
Alex Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe, found himself intrigued by something new and did something many of us wish we could do: he researched the subject and wrote a book about it. As any reader of his newspaper columns knows, the author is (all at the same time) erudite, opinionated, occasionally scathing, and often laugh-out-loud funny. In ¿A Great Idea at the Time,¿ Beam gives all of these qualities a good workout.

Many of the Great Books that were promoted as essential reading (for everyone from Joe the Plumber to students at the University of Chicago) are tough sledding, to say the least. By contrast, Beam (as he states in his Introduction) set out to write ¿a brief, engaging, and undidactic history of the Great Books. A book as different from the ponderous and forbidding Great Books as it could possibly be.¿ In this, he has certainly succeeded. In an era of dinosaur-sized tomes about pretty much everything, Beam has the wit to say his piece in 200 pages. He seems to have done the heavy lifting of reading countless letters, biographies, etc., so that we don¿t have to ¿ and the result is the more compelling and intimate for it.

I¿ll admit that I was a bit hesitant about the subject matter. After all, the curriculum of ¿dead white males¿ has, mostly, fallen out of fashion; therefore, why read about the efforts of other (now-) dead white males to promote it? The answer, of course, is that the journey is more important than the destination. Think books like Simon Winchester¿s ¿The Professor and the Madman¿ ¿ you may not have been desperate to learn about Victorian loony bins or big dictionaries with eye-ruining small type; but once you bought the ticket, you really enjoyed the ride. Here, the same rule applies. Beam¿s eye for the telling detail, his schizophrenic habit of laying bare the foibles of his subjects while never losing his affection for them, and his don¿t-blink-or-you¿ll-miss-it verbal acuity guarantee a great read.

(And don¿t skip the annotated list of Great Books at the end of the text ¿ it would be like walking out of ¿There¿s Something About Mary¿ before the credits come on.)

Reluctantly, I have to comment on other reviews that have been posted. One gentleman (who actually appears in the book) is unhappy because the author was ¿smart-alecky and snide.¿ Well, as noted, Beam writes with attitude ¿ which makes ¿A Great Idea at the Time¿ fun to read and not just a dry recitation of facts. Grinding an axe is not the same as reviewing a book.

Another reviewer falls into the ¿Great Books are great and not to be criticized by the likes of you¿ camp. Ironically, in accusing Beam of not reading the Great Books, the reviewer shows he or she probably has not read THIS book! Beam describes participating joyfully in Great Books gatherings. After spending a weekend with ¿Oedipus Rex,¿ he hated a novel he¿d grabbed off the paperback rack at the airport. Lesson learned: ¿a taste for good books chased out a taste for the bad.¿ (Beam puckishly adds, ¿Curse you, Sophocles!¿) More axe grinding¿

In his Introduction, Beam tells us in plain English the questions he set out to answer: ¿Who did read these books? Who chose them anyway? Who bought them? Why did the Great Books die? Or did they? Who is still reading them?¿ Judged on its own terms and not those imagined by certain reviewers, the book is a great success: a concise, interesting, witty, even charming look at a largely-forgotten part of our recent past. Enjoy the
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
&star<_>~ The Rising <br> &starf&starf<_>~ Amythest's Wish <p> "No, it belongs to no one." Growled Viper to the shecat. <br> "Well, I wish the cats of all twelve hunting grounds would form a big group... or at least twelve... we could call them...-" <br> "Clans!" Viper bursted out. The shecat laughed and released him, purring. <br> "I'm Amythest. Who are you?" <br> "How do I know you're not gonna kill me?" Viper meowed sarcastically, laughing nervously. <br> "Because I don't want to kill you anymore." She meowed, purring with amusement. <br> "Oh. I see." He smiled, blushing. <br> "Let's go hunt in the caves!" She yelled, running to the hole in the fifth territory. <br> "I'm not good at hunting moles and rats." But she was already gone, into the darkness of the giant cave, her purpley sparkling eyes gone into the darkness of that black void. <p> *She wishes that all cats lived together, what a strang thought.* Viper thought to himself. He began padding back to his mate, when he heard the growls and snarls of four cats fighting...
Guest More than 1 year ago
The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge UpAlthough 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 IdeasChairman, The Great Books Academy
Vermeil More than 1 year ago
During the 1950s, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and philosopher Mortimer Adler tried but failed to inveigle the public into laying out serious money for an editorially feckless, unreadable, shelf-warping set of Great Books, plus an unusable two-volume index, The Syntopicon, listing snippets wherein canonical authors pronounced themselves on exactly102 Great Ideas, each introduced by Adler in a breezy Thomistic overview.
Hutchins and Adler also founded The Great Books Foundation to promote the Great Set (or partial reprints) for use in reading groups, schools, and colleges. Over time, the Foundation and its founders parted company on key issues. Until the second edition (1994), for example, Adler had famously refused to include works by women or persons of color, long a part of the Foundation¿s expanded canon. Also in dispute was method, with socratic questioning, reshaped by the Foundation as ¿shared inquiry¿, supplanting the Adler¿s heavy-handed didacticism and Hutchins¿s tetchy one-upmanship.
All of this could have made for fascinating reportage, but poorly grounded, loosely structured, and chock-a-block with red herrings, straw men, and ad hominem attacks on the protagonists, this tome rests on at least three doubtful presumptions: 1. If packaging and marketing are suspect, the product can¿t be worth a thing. (More broadly, the author seems cynical about western, or any other, culture which he razzes whenever he can find an excuse.) 2: Careful construction, analysis, and critique of arguments about so-called masterpieces of human achievement (as well as the controversies surrounding their interpretation) simply waste energy. And most importantly: 3. A Great Idea at the Time is exempt from generally accepted standards of reasoning, evidence, and rhetoric.
Thompino More than 1 year ago
Alex Beam has written a wonderful book that describes one of the most amazing literary stories in US history. Unlike some of the 'great books' he describes, his story is witty, charming, erudite, and, very readable! He makes the case for everyone to read good/great books, even though the argument of whick books are, in fact, great, is a moving target. He brings to life the facinating lives of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, who in very different ways, helped create an appreciation for great books, and what they can teach us. This appreciation continues to live today, a bit less strongly, but with fervor and enthusiasiam, in places where one might never believe. An accurate historical record, and an almost unbelievable sequence of events, proves again, that truth is stranger that fiction. Book-lovers everywhere will cherish this great book!
Musings More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Who would ever consider the possibility of a book that describes the rise and fall of the Great Books of the western world that is both intelligent and entertaining? Alex Beam is an author with talent, intelligence and curiosity to come up with this gem. His research examines the lives, in particular, of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins who fought for and defended their choices of books which ended up in the collections. I recommend it for anyone who wants a basic grasp of the possibilities that a liberal arts education can provide. As a parent, a former teacher of teachers and curriculum developer, I believe it is a valuable reference about the teaching and learning of life values before, without thinking, we encourage our children to pursue any form of higher education.

It¿s good read.