Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Great *are* Great Books?

NOT LONG AGO, I was at the dentist's office, getting my teach cleaned, when the technician asked my profession. When I told her I was an English professor, she asked, "So, have you read the great books?" I wasn't really sure what she meant, but I had an idea. "Well, sort of," I said.

"Really," she said back to me, pointy curved utensil inches from my mouth, "All of them?"

This led to a long, involved conversation about the canon, multiculturalism, and who decides what is "great." Turns out she had just seen an ad in a magazine where just anyone off the street could actually own all of the great books, and she thought this was just . . . great.

For better or worse, when we were done with my cleaning, she had rethought her determination to buy all of "the great books," since I had convinced her there were no the great books but rather, some important books.

Her question was a good one, and it leads to others. What happens when high culture goes mass market? To what degree are great books actually great? Are the so-called great books actually great for all Americans to read?

James Campbell poses these and other questions in his review of Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books in Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Among the many things Beam examines is just how successful the great books project is and was.

Let's be honest--the notion of the great books was perhaps the best literary marketing project since the Book-of-the-Month club.

Leave it to stuffy academics to be the arbiters of greatness.

As Beam notes, the great book project was an attempt to canonize those central literary works that embody the "best" of Western writing and thought. Of course, that meant what well-heeled, well-educated white men thought the "best" was. And, not surprisingly, the great books were used less as tools to help people navigate the murky waters of existence and deployed more as a kind of punch card into the upper-middle class.

The greatness of the great books, according to folks like Mortimer Adler (in the photo above) was in their ability to codify those texts that have shaped what has been taught (and therefore what has been valued) at America's elite institutions. Want to know what those things were? Just take a look at the photo. See Adler in black tie, drab suit, cocked head, and, best of all, cradling a pipe. See Adler surrounded by big, heady tomes. See Adler at Wal-Mart? See Adler watch American Idol? See Adler eat a hot dog? I don't think so.

Is this why the great books don't seem so great?

The arrival and implementation of multiculturalism was the death knell to centrality, except that now there is a new centrality. So, maybe the fact that the great books are in hospice is really a testament to the incredulity toward that which is fixed--the finality of values.

So, what is the prognosis for the great books? Greatness gained, is rarely greatness lost, but greatness that is exclusionary will always lose out to greatness that is inclusive.


  1. 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

  2. Brilliant post sir! A punch card into the upper middle-classes? Genius. And, true.