Another Look at This Set Has Me Thinking

A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great BooksA Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book about a set of books sold by an encyclopedia company might not have a ton of resonance with everyone, but this book has a special appeal for me.

[Here is the short version of this review: Overall, I am glad I read this book, because it has made me think about what a Great Book is and how I should approach them. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history and reading the great book. It offers both caution and encouragement for the reader. But if you want a long explanation of how I got to that conclusion, read on.]

When I was about to graduate high school I received a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World set from the school district’s library system. At the time, there was a chance that I would attend St. John’s College, where these books form the majority of the curriculum.

I never went to St. John’s, and the set sat mostly unused on my shelves in two-plus decades since. After making it through undergrad, graduate school, a few jobs, and a bout of unemployment, I decided I should actually try to read these books if I was going to own them and drag them around from apartment to apartment.

I happened upon this book as I am on my second year of trying to make it through the first year of the readings laid out in the first volume of the set. This book describes how the set was put together and sold, sometimes, unscrupulously, and how the set fit into popular culture.

Beam describes how the set came together under the direction of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. He also shows how it became, in the words of Hutchins “colorful furniture.”

This is an interesting book for someone like me to read as I stuggle through the set. One of the problems with it, as I have mentioned in my blog , is the design of the books themselves, which Beam describes as “32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type.” I have occasionally grabbed other versions of the books off my shelf as I made my way through the list just to spare my eyes. It feels a little like cheating, but then you realize, after reading this book, that there was a bit of cheating going on by the creators of the set.

The creators tried to keep the costs down by capping the number of volumes, borrowing from existing works, and using old translations. Let’s face it, by puting the works in that type and iin double columns they probably saved themselves some money, but they gave the rest of us a lot of eye strain.

The other interesting thing that I learned from this book is that the approach the creators took to the set was that they should be read and taught in such a way that “[o]nly the text on the table is allowed to speak.” This means that outside material should not be brought in and the text is the only thing that the reader should bring to the table. along with his own thoughts. I think reader response is a fine approach to literature in some respects, but for that to work, the readers either need to have sufficient context from their own lives — as when discussing a modern novel, or the work has to address sufficiently universal themes — as I think Plato and Aristotle do most of the time.

I am struggling with Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel right now. After reading this book. I may cut my losses on it. I get the sense that there are things going on in the book that may be important and that may even be funny, but I have just a hazy enough notion to know that they are there. In talking with people who have studied literature for far longe rand in much more depth thatn I have, I have been told that I was right about the idea that this was a reaction to an intellectual trend in the world, but I was wrong about which one.

One other idea in this book had great interest to me in light of my project. The book talks about the inclusion of scientific texts from history iin the Britannica set. As Beam points out, science has advanced on these ideas and some of them are irrelevant now. Without some kind of context, it may not make sense to read them. I have not run acorss any of them on the reading list yet, but I can see where it would be a problem. I think it is important to study math and science, so at first I thought the inclusion of these texts was a great idea, but now I am reconsidering it.

Overall, I am glad I read this book, because it has made me think about what a Great Book is and how I should approach them. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history and reading the great book. It offers both caution and encouragement for the reader.

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