The Magazine

When Books Were Great

Furrowing the American middlebrow.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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Some of the best parts of A Great Idea at the Time are Beam's descriptions of Great Books' supporters' attempts to define just what was, in fact, a Great Book. The committee convened to decide which books should be included in Britannica's Great Books of the Western World soon found that identifying greatness was a little like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: They knew it when they saw it, but they didn't always agree on what it was. Beam describes amusing scenes of tweedy tension as the likes of Adler, Erskine, Hutchins, and Mark Van Doren haggled over which eminences of the Western canon should stay and which should go. "Molière will go out only over my bruised body!" Van Doren declared at one point.

As Beam notes, in an understatement, "When it comes to Great Books, no one is without an opinion."

The men behind the Great Books movement nurtured an ideal of these texts as a democratizing force; Adler once spoke of "universalizing liberal education for adults" through the reading of the canon and, indeed, his own lifelong passion for Great Books was fueled by his own reading of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography as a young man. But the Noble Savage myth embraced by advocates was just that--a myth. Most Great Books devotees were not lonely plumbers longing to read Plutarch but older educated women, the wives of white-collar men.

The forces behind the movement, particularly Hutchins and Adler, failed to retain the influence they wielded in the era of the middlebrow. Adler continued to make a living lecturing about the Great Books and running seminars for corporate leaders (whom he called "bozos" behind their backs) at the Aspen Institute, which was founded by Great Books enthusiast and Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke. At the height of the Culture Wars debate about the canon on college campuses in the 1990s, Adler made one doomed attempt to revive the Great Books. As Beam devastatingly puts it, "From the culture's point of view, Adler was a dead white male who had the bad luck to still be alive."

Hutchins exchanged his midwestern tweeds for Hawaiian-print shirts, and left the University of Chicago for the Santa Barbara-based Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions--"housed in a phony Greek temple overlooking the Pacific Ocean"--where he hosted gabfests of would-be world affairs worthies in what he envisioned as a recreation of Plato's Academy. But he died feeling that his life's work as an educator and promoter of the Great Books had largely been a failure.

So what did kill the Great Books movement? Beam identifies three culprits: the overzealous salesmanship of Adler and his devotees, which appalled cultural elites; the rise of television; and the battles over the canon that dominated the academic culture wars of the 1980s and '90s. But the Great Books movement was not completely extinguished. The "curious afterlife" Beam notes in his subtitle is captured best in his tour of St. John's College in Annapolis, where the curriculum consists entirely of great texts, and where students still learn Greek and Latin. Beam finds much to admire in the school's rigorous approach, but he also sounds some warnings, not the least of which is the challenge of reading texts without considering context. St. John's orthodox approach to the Great Books often leaves students ignorant of the history of the times in which they were written.

"He persecuted and tortured the heretics," one incredulous student tells a bemused Beam about Saint Augustine.

Beam also spends weekends with the remnant of Great Books devotees who still meet annually to discuss texts. He gained a grudging admiration for their engagement with the classics, although he found them "earnest to a fault" in their sensibility. "Many men and women who love the Great Books love them too well," Beam concludes. Like Casaubon's in Middlemarch, their intellectual curiosity too often mutates into pedantry, leaching the life and humor out of the very thing they claim to enjoy.

What is the future of the Great Books? Why hasn't a tech-savvy, second coming of Adler brought us The Great Books 2.0? Beam properly chides the current Great Books Foundation for its snobbishness about Oprah Winfrey's book club, but he acknowledges that the authority upon which middlebrow culture rested is gone, replaced by celebrity. Criticism, once a profession with gatekeepers, is now the enthusiastic avocation of anyone with an Internet connection, and authority is bestowed by sales figures, not deans of culture.