Wednesday, January 07, 2009


The Great Books

Having been a student of the "Great Books" for more than twenty years I came to this book with a certain bias in favor of them. I found that, in A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam has written an interesting exploration of some aspects of the Great Books phenomenon in American culture.
I say some aspects because, while I do not disagree with many of his observations, I do find his perspective flawed and came away from the book with the conclusion that he never developed a fundamental understanding of the importance of the Great Books. Whether the canon should be limited or not is not the most important question, rather the question is what value there is in recognizing, reading and developing an understanding, however limited, of the works of the greatest minds of the world. Reading and studying and discussing the Great Books and the ideas encompassed in them provides an education that cannot be obtained any other way. Most importantly it provides a base for continuing to grow and flourish as a human being.
The author spends much of the book discussing attempts, some misguided and some not, to encourage and spread the reading of Great Books. Whether any of these attempts succeeded depended not so much on the value of the books themselves, which I believe cannot be doubted, but on the methods used by the purveyors of the Great Book experience. Certainly I would expect the author to be fair and comprehensive in his discussion of the Great Books movement, but instead there are serious gaps in his story including some of the good work being done by the Great Books Foundation in schools across the country as reported in Julia Keller's Lit Life column in the Sunday Chicago Tribune.
This is disappointing to say the least; but I can only look back on and continue my own experience which I have found invaluable in my own life. The Great Books are very much alive for me and many others. While the author discusses finding himself "occasionally succumbing to creeping great-bookism", I would suggest that thoughtful human beings would be both better critical thinkers and good citizens by incorporating the lessons of the Great Books into to their lives.


A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam. Public Affairs, New York. 2008.

4 comments:

Max Weismann said...

Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I share your concern and updated the commentary with a reference to the work of the Foundation.

Murr said...

James, I completely agree with what you say in your review of this book. Unfortunately nowadays in the Age of Twilight in which we live, projects such as The Great Books are seen as elitist. The author of the book under review probably finds it easier to smirk at attempts to widen access to great minds than it is to engage with great minds. God forbid we should ever encounter anything to lift us up out of the materialistic, easily-fed, MTV-advertising-induced torpor of contemporary culture.
All honour to Weismann and Adler for conceiving and implementing this great idea.

James said...

Murr, Thanks for your observation on the direction of our culture. The continuing existence of interest in great books is a positive sign.