A Great Idea at the Time

The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

by Alex Beam

Public Affairs, 256 pp., $24.95

The death of reading has been much in the news lately, and so Alex Beam's new book, a rollicking tour of the Great Books movement that flourished in the United States in the 1940s and '50s, is timely indeed. Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe, is a beguiling guide. With fluid prose and (thank goodness) a sense of humor about the terrifying earnestness that often permeated the Great Books enterprise, he gives the movement the respect it deserves but does not avoid pointing out its excesses and missteps.

We meet people like John Erskine, the grandfather of the Great Books movement and a "gentleman of the old school," as Beam describes him. Erskine believed a great book was one that "has meaning, and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time," and he was responsible for creating Columbia's core curriculum program in the 1910s, which introduced students to Thucydides, Herodotus, and Montaigne, among others, and a version of which is still part of the university's requirement for undergraduates.

Beam also offers an intriguing portrait of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the debonair Yale Law School dean who, after becoming president of the University of Chicago, introduced a Great Books seminar in the 1930s. The seminar, which eventually drew students such as future Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and future critic Susan Sontag, engaged students in Socratic-style questioning about Plato, Aristotle, and other great authors of the Western canon, and drew nationwide attention for its novel approach to classic texts.

Hutchins also brought his "Hobbit-like sidekick," Mortimer Adler, with him to Chicago. Adler, whose abrasiveness was matched only by his overweening ego--Beam calls him an "unholy pain in the neck"--was the Great Books program's slightly wacky, energetic force of intellectual hucksterism. Forever annoying his colleagues (when he was a graduate student at Columbia he once so infuriated John Dewey with his intemperate remarks that the normally mild-mannered Dewey stomped out of the room), he pursued the Great Books project with vaudevillian zeal for the rest of his life.

As Beam describes, the Great Books movement was part of a broader flowering of middlebrow culture in the 1950s, which included new popular literary magazines, the wildly successful Book-of-the-Month Club, and the sprawling, popular histories of Will and Ariel Durant. With the help and business acumen of advertising mogul William Benton---who bears the ignominious distinction of crafting slogans such as "Colgate toothpaste freshens your mouth!"--Hutchins and Adler convinced the University of Chicago and the financially ailing Encyclopedia Britannica to publish the massive Great Books of the Western World.

By the 1950s, approximately 3,000 Great Books discussion groups were meeting regularly throughout the country, prompting the Ladies' Home Journal to declare that the movement was "spreading faster than Alcoholics Anonymous." The University of Chicago and Britannica hosted a gala launch of a "buckram-bound Founders' Edition" of the Great Books at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1952, and supporters did not stint in their praise of the achievement.

One speaker declared the project "the most significant publishing event since Dr. Johnson's dictionary."

As Beam notes, much of the success of the Great Books in the 1950s was the result not only of a flourishing middlebrow culture but also Britannica's frenzied advertising and sales campaign, a campaign that tacitly endorsed unscrupulous techniques by its own door-to-door salesmen. These peddlers of Plato often conned families into buying the behemoth set of Great Books with promises of school scholarships and free vacations. Britannica also "carpet-bombed magazines and newspapers" with ads that played on readers' intellectual insecurities.

"The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent," reads a typical bit of copy.

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.

Today we suffer from our own peculiar forms of cultural Babbitry. Technology has trumped teleology, and when we feel the need to assuage our feelings of cultural inferiority, we don't buy 50 feet of books. We buy an iPod. We are keen to signal our mastery of information, which has replaced knowledge as our cultural currency, and the idea of mastering the Western canon seems quaint in an age that publishes books with titles such as How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

In this climate, A Great Idea at the Time is a useful reminder that things haven't always been this way. Perhaps they might not be in the future either.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center.

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