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Alex Beam

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

New York: Public Affairs, 2008.

I’m afraid that I did not wholly enjoy this one.  Too much snark by far.  Curiously, David Denby, whose Great Books I simply loved, has written a book called Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining our Conversation.  I’m with Denby.  It ruined the book.

Alex Beam has a hate on for Mortimer Adler, one of the founders of The Great Books Foundation: 

to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still trying to awake. (5)

Who knows, maybe I would hate him too after watching hours of him on television by way of research for my book.  Unfortunately, Beam’s snide remarks about Adler just intrude too much into his own project, effectively kidnapping his book from him.   I found myself waiting for (and dreading) the next attack on Adler as I read rather than being able to focus on the history that Beam writes. 

It’s a shame, really, because the history of the great books is a fascinating one, and I am grateful for what I gleaned from Beam’s book between the jabs at his subjects.

There is wonderful material here about the evolution of post-secondary education in America, about the astounding financial success of the Encyclopedia Britannica set of The Great Books of the Western World, about how that financial success turned eggheads into media stars and Time magazine cover material, about the equally astounding plummet in sales, about the personalities involved in shaping what America read, both in university and at home.  Those personalities include Mark Van Doren, his son, Charles Van Doren (who famously cheated on the quiz show Twenty-One), Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Orson Welles, Gertrude Stein, Kay Graham, Susan Sontag and Clifton Fadiman, father of Anne Fadiman, patron saint (as declared by me) of books about books. 

Chapters include the history of groundswell of the Great Books movement, both in colleges and adult education programmes, the printing of the great books as a set, and the sales strategy of the Encyclopedia Britannica team. 

In the 1930s Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, hired Mortimer Adler away from Columbia, in New York, where he taught the core curriculum both at the college and to the general public,  in order to help him establish a similar program at the University of Chicago.  They founded The Great Books Foundation, and at The University of Chicago, The Great Books of the Western World seminar team taught by Hutchins and Adler, was immediately and immensely popular. 

Chicago suddenly became the most talked-about university in America.  In 1935, Time magazine splashed Hutchins’s face on its cover and spared no horses hailing the “golden boy of U.S. education. …Time-Life founder Henry Luce was a college classmate of the “prodigious Yaleman Hutchins,” as Time called him.  Luce’s stable of magazines, Time, Life, and Fortune, would churn our generally uncritical agitprop on Hutchins and Adler and the Great Books for decades. (49-50)

Their seminars became spectacle, and “Hollywood bigs like Orson Welles, Ethel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish found their way to the Hyde Park seminar room” (53).

In the age before mass market paperbacks, the Great Books movement gathered momentum before the books became widely and cheaply available.  The Great Books groups needed, well, books.  Adler and Hutchins collaborated with William Benton to publish the books with Encyclopedia Britannica, but sales were initially slow.  Hutchins had been reluctant to use Encyclopedia Britannica because he feared that the books would become merely “colorful furniture.”  Once they gave in to using the sales model of the foot-in-the-door salesmen, however, sales skyrocketed.  As Beam points out, stellar sales were not always because of what was between the covers:

The Federal Trade Commission busted Britannica not once, but twice, for deceptive sales practices.  The salesmen used a variety of tricks—among them, trying to pass themselves off as assistant professors from the University of Chicago. … In one version of the charade, the salesmen would claim to be contacting potential scholarship students on behalf of the university. (107)

Even with the troubles with the law, the 1960s was the decade of the Great Books’s ascendency, but its legacy is still tainted:

Over time, the Great Books made plenty of money for the University of Chicago, just as Benton had promised.  Britannica, the business Benton had begged the U. of C. trustees to invest in, eventually returned $60 million to Chicago, almost doubling founder John D. Rockerfeller’s $34 million worth of donations.

The university’s official history has this to say about “Benton’s folly”:  “The Great Books of the Western World was a financial disaster, until it was sold as Hutchins feared it would be—by door-to-door salesmen touting ‘culture’ to an insecure American middle class.”  (114-115)

The Great Books never seem to have overcome that taint of the middlebrow:

the Great Books became the “colorful furniture” that the acerbic Hutchins feared they might.  He had always had his doubts.  “A classic,” he liked to say, “is by definition a book no one reads.” (192)

Beam provides evidence to the contrary.  One of my favourite chapters is “The People of the Book” in which Beam profiles a handful of ordinary people whose lives were transformed by their reading of the Great Books, including one Thomas Hyland, who gives us all license to buy more books:

When he died in 2003, Hyland had amassed a library of 63,000 books.  In his will, he asked for them to be redistributed in a three-day estate sale, with paperbacks priced at ten cents and hardcovers at three dollars.  Maybe news was slow on the weekend of January 31, 2004, but five Denver television stations covered the sale, broadcasting pictures of hundreds of buyers lined up outside of Hyland’s split-level home to carry off bagfuls and, in some cases, rolling containers full of books.  (145-146)

My other favourite chapter is the chapter on St. John’s College, a four-year undergraduate college with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the curriculum is all Great Books all the time.  It’s my favourite chapter because Beam so clearly enjoyed his time there; indeed, he declares his pleasure in writing about it.

The college’s famous, two-hour-long evening seminars often repair to the coffee shop afterward, and then spill into the dormitory corridors.  “We talk about our souls,” sophomore Clint Richardson told me amidst the clattering of the college’s only dining hall….  In our conversation, Richardson, a graduate of Michigan’s East Lansing High School, used the adverb eidetically  in the presence of three classmates.  It was obvious that I was the only person at the table who would be heading for the dictionary, to learn that eidetically means something like “visually.”  Welcome to the republic of learning.  (167)

Now, what does this say about me as a reader?  Am I a flake who only wants to read love-ins?  Far from it.  I loved Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book for how she wrestles with falling out of love with her childhood idol, C. S. Lewis, and there are places where she skewers him.  I simply do not want to trip over passages of mean-spirited caricature with quite so much regularity as Beam provides.

I do recommend this book as a history of the great books; just be warned that you will have to walk around unrelenting attacks on Adler and many muddy puddles of snark.

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