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A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

3.5 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1586484873
ISBN-10: 1586484877
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Before the dawn of the television age, in an ambitious effort to enlighten the masses via door-to-door sales, Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Chicago launched the Great Books of Western Civilization, "all fifty-four volumes of them... purporting to encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud." Led by the "intellectual Mutt 'n' Jeff act" of former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and his sidekick Mortimer Adler, the Great Books briefly, and improbably, caught the nation's imagination. In his discussion, Boston Globe columnist Beam looks at how and why this multi-year project took shape, what it managed to accomplish (or not), and the lasting effects it had on college curricula (in the familiar form of Dead White Males). Beam (Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital) describes meetings endured by the selection committee, and countless debates over Euripedes, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens and Whitman ("When it comes to Great Books, no one is without an opinion."), but tells it like it is regarding the Syntopicon they devised-at "3,000 subtopics and 163,000 separate entries, not exactly a user-friendly compendium"-and the resulting volumes, labeling them "icons of unreadability-32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type." By lauding the intent and intelligently critiquing the outcome, Beam offers an insightful, accessible and fair narrative on the Great Books, its time, and its surprisingly significant legacy.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Alex Beam clearly has an eye for definitive and damning details: nearly every reviewer repeated his observations about the Great Books of the Western World being printed in faux leather and in nearly unreadable type, as well as his characterization of Mortimer Adler as a "Hobbit." Reviewers also contrasted (and commended) A Great Idea's readability with the thick tomes it addresses. But several reviewers also turned Beam's wit on its head, noting that while A Great Idea is a good book, it is not a great one. Some reviewers found fault with the author's occasional tendency to sound too folksy. Others didn't know whether to treat the Great Books phenomenon as an effort to save civilization or middlebrow hucksterism—or both. So do you want to read great books, or just read about them as a phenomenon? We'll take the former.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (November 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586484877
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586484873
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #552,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Barry Brodsky on November 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover
As a recently returned veteran in the spring of 1971 I was desperate to make some money. So I took a job with Britannica selling "Great Books of the Western World" door to door. I lasted about two weeks. One guy I talked with didn't want to buy the set because the books didn't include pictures. An older gentleman with every encyclopedia ever printed on his shelves balked at the set's colors. Another woman, however, who seemed very interested in the content of the books, backed off because she didn't like the small print. She also had some things to say about the translation being used in the sample book in my presentation. I quit Great Books and got a job driving an ice cream truck that summer - made a lot more money.

Some years later, now an educator myself, I was in a used book store and saw a set of Great Books, along with 21 yearbooks and a set of introductory lesson plans for the bargain price of $150. I bought them and much to my wife's horror unpacked them in our small study and put them up on our bookshelves. About a year later she made me take them to work, where they adorn my office. I've read a couple of the volumes cover to cover, browsed through many others. But that woman in 1971 was right; some of the translations are terrible, and now at age 60, I agree with her that the print is too small.

Alex Beam's book "A Great Idea at the Time" took me on a nice whirlwind tour of the making and marketing of the GBWW. The story includes dynamic characters like Robert Hutchins, boy wonder/genius who as President of the University of Chicago made the 'great books' curriculum a national phenomenon. Hutchins had a populist approach to education and brought in top notch minds to teach the great works to America's future.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a journalist's report on the follies of the Great Books idea. The two main characters in this tale turn out to be villains -- Mortimer Adler (New York Jew turned Chicago Episcopalian), and Robert M. Hutchins (Yale dean turned Chicago academic huckster). Beam's indictment is entertaining, judicious, and effective.

But alas, the book is not fully satisfactory. As it happens, the Great Book idea had been analyzed and criticized by the towering American philosopher John Dewey, and also by his student Sydney Hook. I suspected that something was amiss when I failed to find Hook's name in the index. That suspicion grew stronger when I read Beam's guileless description of his background in Dewey: "My knowledge of John Dewey comes from Jay Martin's ... 'The Education of John Dewey,' and from ... Menand's "The Metaphysical Club.'" In short, Beam has read about Dewey but not the important books and articles by Dewey. So it is not surprising to find that he lacks anything but a superficial background in the scholarly discussions of educational policy; we never learn in this book (more than superficially) just why Dewey and Hook, and others, sounded the early alarms against Great Books.

On the other hand, Beam is very good in some of his on-the-ground reporting. His visit to St. John's college (chapter Ten) and his attendance at a Great Books weekend (chapter Eleven) are both excellently reported and add substantially to our understanding of what remains of the Great Book movement.

The quality of the black-and-white photos is atrocious. The fault for this, obviously, lies with the publisher rather than with the author.
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Format: Hardcover
Beam wrote a book about the history of the Great Books concept and specifically the set of Great Books promoted by Hutchins and Alder from the University of Chicago. I found the book unimpressive.

What is Beam's point in this meandering book? Is it a history of the Great Books or a critical commentary on the idea and movement?

Beam establishes no credibility with the reader, yet offers childish critiques and name calling, particularly of Adler: "brilliant, Hobbit-like sidekick, Mortimer Alder" (2); "William Benton, ad man and hustler extraordinaire" (2); "watching his [Adler's] endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare for which I am trying to awake" (5); "low-born Adler"; "Adler, a troll next to the godlike Hutchins" (25). Is there a hidden fight between Beam and Adler? What is the point of this silliness?

Are readers to be impressed with anecdotes and gossip uncovered in working papers and interviews? Do they help the argument or discussion at all? Adler called Aspen Institute attendees business "bozos" (132). "A notorious philanderer, he [Adler] divorced his first wife" (32) . Later, Beam writes about an incident where someone recalled that "Adler was hitting on my mother" (142).

Yes, the sales methods of the Great Books were misplaced (selling culture books like crest toothpaste with door-to-door reps who deployed sleazy sales methods, receiving a reprimanded by the FTC). Beam and all of us can feel good, I guess, that these highly educated men from University of Chicago made this mistake.

What about people who said books had a big impact on their lives? He mentions numerous people including actor Julie Adams (67), Pilot Thomas Hyand (143), plumber David Call (146), Professor Montas (162), and Eva Braum.
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