A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
In 1952, an aspiring American intellectual looking to fill his home library with expert-approved literature had several options. He could join the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, a mail-order arrangement armed with the prestige of Columbia University professors Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun. The more ambitious or well-heeled might have opted for a set of Harvard Classics, a sturdy 51-volume anthology of classic literature, known also as “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf” for the width of the set. But for those consumers looking for the latest, greatest model, there was the Great Books of the Western World—a collection containing canonical texts from Homer to Dante to Freud—which measured just slightly longer than five feet on the shelf and contained 54 volumes, eking past the Harvard Classics in a likely bit of gamesmanship.
It is strange to think of a literary arms race taking place in the American consumer market, but that’s just what happened. Door-to-door salesmen peddled more than a million sets of Great Books during the ’50s and ’60s, according to Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books. In his brisk survey of the collection and the curious brain trust behind it, Beam suggests that the public did not so much crave the wisdom of Aristotle, Locke, or Marx, but rather succumbed to a fad akin to “drive-ins, hula hoops, and Mexican jumping beans.”
Yet this was a decidedly odd fad. Instead of dropping $250 on, say, a 17-inch GE black and white television, people bought hefty tomes of unabridged texts in small type. They put down the Saturday Evening Post in favor of complex philosophical treatises and often outdated scientific theories from such forgotten luminaries as Apollonius of Perga. Aside from a brief nod to the cultural atmosphere—marked by an exploding postwar middle class with newfound money and free time—Beam treats the popularity of the Great Books like any other fad, produced by an insidious marketing campaign by the collection’s publisher, Encyclopedia Britannica.
The creators spent more than eight years and two million dollars on the project and needed to recoup expenses. They identified target consumers as those eager “to become more attractive to the opposite sex,” to impress people, or to get promoted. They were looking for everymen, not eggheads. Beam dusts off advertising copy that Britannica used to emphasize the books’ practical application: “A problem? Consult this evening with the greatest minds of the Western world.” It is indeed hard to imagine anyone using Plato’s Republic to save his marriage or beat a tax audit.
But the product itself never deceived anyone; it contained thousands of pages of difficult reading, just as advertised. So why did so many people buy it? Beam doesn’t offer much of an answer. He’s satisfied to point out that anyone who thought these books could help them get the girl or land that big promotion was swindled, stupid, or both.
Beam covers a lot of ground in a small space, devoting much of the book to minor biographies of the middling men behind the Great Books. The two principal architects showed a combination of antiquated intellectual principles and modern business acumen, all centered on a fierce devotion to the idea they learned as undergraduates at Columbia University: That the great books of the western tradition emit timeless themes on some level to any reader. Robert Hutchins, who Beam describes as a kind of campus heartthrob, provided the institutional muscle for the Great Books collection as president of the University of Chicago. Mortimer Adler, a sometime law professor and constant intellectual huckster, was the true believer; his Great Books discussion groups inspired the publishing of the set. Beam saves special derision for Adler, whom he calls Hutchins’s “Hobbit-like sidekick” and “an unholy pain in the neck.” The third player was William Benton, who supplied the money. Benton bought the failing Encyclopedia Britannica and orchestrated the door-to-door sales plan that made the Great Books profitable.
These men seem harmless enough, perhaps too harmless to generate any real drama. Thus Beam strains to hold our attention, relying too often on a folksy bemusement about his subject that quickly becomes grating. He explains his project as an attempt to create a “book as different from the ponderous and forbidding Great Books as it could possibly be.” From the start he dubs the Great Books “icons of unreadability” and writes that the indexing of ideas had a “distinct odor of flummery.” He botches his attempts at humor with self-conscious adverbs such as “mercifully,” “conveniently,” or “hilariously,” as in “Hilariously, Harvard started marketing ‘The Indexicon’…” If it really is hilarious, the reader should get the joke without Beam’s help.
Beam does reveal several odd or ridiculous aspects of the Great Books: That the books only featured the writing of dead, white men; that the editors failed to include footnotes or offer any extra-textual context; and that Adler’s Syntopicon—an index of “102 Great Ideas” found within the books—was pure folly. But these are editorial rather than moral failings, and are already well-documented in Dwight MacDonald’s scathing review of the Great Books: “The Book of the Millennium Club” from 1952. While Beam convinces that the project was unorthodox and its backers were driven by money as much as by intellectual virtue, he never justifies his sarcastic, disdainful prose. Though the Great Books ideology rests on contestable ground, the venture made money and introduced thousands to literature they may have never read, a fact Beam readily admits. Surely such a result is not that bad. And based on the improbability of generating wide interest in major literature, it might even be great.
Crouch is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker's Book Bench blog and lives in New York.