Boston Globe columnist Beam (Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital, 2001, etc.) takes a witty look at the publishing program that aimed to bring high culture to the masses…or at least the aspiring middle class.
Launched with great fanfare in 1952, the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World, a joint project of the University of Chicago and Encyclopedia Britannica, enjoyed a decade-plus of popularity, then slowly declined in sales through the ’70s and ’80s. A disastrous relaunch in 1990 left Britannica with unsold inventory it now makes little attempt to peddle. Beam begins by sketching the origins of the core-curriculum movement, describing Great Books precursor Harvard Classics and tracking the careers and unlikely alliance of the program’s Founding Fathers: Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, a tall, handsome, compelling personality; and Mortimer Adler, a short, combative, off-putting pedant who was the Great Books’ most tireless advocate. It was wealthy ad man William Benton, Hutchins’s friend, who actually had the idea to publish the Great Books in a uniform edition, Beam notes, although later both Hutchins and Adler claimed credit. The author takes us through the fundraising, the knotty debates about which texts to include, the advertising, the launch, the disappointing first few years and the revisions of the marketing strategy that eventually led to total sales of a million sets. He notes that the page design (double columns of tiny type) made the books unreadable, the failure to include footnotes and annotations made them difficult to comprehend and at $250 per set in 1952 they weren’t exactly cheap. But for a while the Great Books sagged bookshelves in homes across the land, before television and multiculturalism, among other factors, did them in. Today, they claim a cult following. As part of his research, Beam visited college campuses where the Great Books retain their prominence, and attended weekend retreats of Great Books groupies.
An engaging personal examination of a phenomenon that merits more scholarly attention.