Some 64 years ago, on April 15, 1952, the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica formally launched the Great Books of the Western World. I cameacross a book from a decade ago that explores how the collection came to be and what became of it, A Great Idea At The Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam.
Beam writes: “There sat a freshly minted set of the deluxe, faux-leather Great Books, all fifty-four volumes of them, nine years in the making, stuffed with 443 works by seventy four white male authors, purporting to encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud. The Great Books of the Western World were in fact icons of unreadability-32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type. There were no concessions to contemporary taste, or even pleasure. The translations of the great works were not particularly modern. There were no footnotes to mitigate the reader’s ignorance, or gratify his curiosity.”
But these books fell short in certain ways. Beam writes: “Only two nominal twentieth-century writers, William James and Sigmund Freud, made the cut. No Romantic poets, no Mark Twain, and no Jane Austen. Yet backed by advertising hype and by unscrupulous, foot-in-the-door salesmen, Britannica would eventually sell 1 million sets, each costing several hundred dollars each. Against all odds, the Great Books joined the roster of postwar fads like drive-ins, hula hoops, and Mexican jumping beans. Tens of thousands of Americans rushed to join Great Books discussion groups, prompting Time magazine to print the hilarious claim that “Great Books has switched many Americans-at least temporarily-from the works of Spillane those of Spinoza and St. Augustine.””
And then these books sputtered in sales during the 1960s and flat-lined in the 1970s. they fell off a cliff in the 1980s and have not been heard from since.
“Among major universities, only Columbia, where the whole idea began, still force-feeds a much-abbreviated version of the Great Books curriculum to its undergraduates,” says Beam.
So what criteria was used to determine inclusion into the series of ‘great books’? Beam uncovered notes from the initial meeting of a committee gathering in December 1943 that said each book chosen should:
1. Be important in itself and without reference to any other, that is, it must be seminal and radical in its treatment of basic ideas or problems;
2. Obviously belong to the tradition in that it is intelligible by other great books, as well as increasing their intelligibility;
3. Have an immediate intelligibility for the ordinary reader even though this may be superficial;
4. Have many levels of intelligibility for diverse grades of readers or for a single reader rereading it many times; and
5. Be indefinitely rereadable…It should not be the sort of book that can ever be finally mastered or finished by any reader.
Interestingly, there were some authors whose works were agreed upon as destined for inclusion without debate. They, alongside The Bible, included:
“The culture wars of the 1980s effectively buried the Great Books in a blizzard of anti-Establishment, multicultural rhetoric,” says Beam. “The academy turned against the dead white males whose busts adorned the friezes atop university libraries.”
There still exists The Great Books Foundation and sets of these books could be found on ebay for several hundred dollars. Many of the books in the series still hold appeal and value, but collectively, The Great Books is now just a great footnote to attempts at creating the ultimate reading list.
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at email@example.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2016 ©.
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