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

3.24 of 5 stars 3.24  ·  rating details  ·  181 ratings  ·  68 reviews
Today the classics of the western canon, written by the proverbial "dead white men," are cannon fodder in the culture wars. But in the 1950s and 1960s, they were a pop culture phenomenon. The Great Books of Western Civilization, fifty-four volumes chosen
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Published November 4th 2008 by PublicAffairs (first published November 3rd 2008)
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You don't have to like a subject to write about it. Heck, there are plenty of subjects that are deserving of ridicule and condemnation. And the "Great Books" movement (I almost put scare-quotes around "movement") has some serious flaws. But this book just exposes the author as narrow-minded while leaving you wishing he did a lot more research into his subject.

What has Alex Beam done? He learned a bit about the origins of "Great Books" courses like Columbia's Literature-Humanities sequence and t
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 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 came away from the book with a feeling that he never developed a fundamental understanding of the importance of the Great Books. Whether the canon should be l ...more
Sep 24, 2011 Lobstergirl rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Perle Mesta
Shelves: books-on-books
This is a light, frothy, humorous account of the Great Books program, with its founders, University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins and his friend and fellow academic Mortimer Adler, cast respectively as the tall, charismatic, Waspy golden boy ("[he] made homosexuals of us all," said an admiring colleague), and the short, gnomelike, Semitic, annoying sidekick. Adler was "a troll next to the godlike Hutchins," Alex Beam informs us.

By "great books" Beam means several things. The main
I am really enjoying this book. The author treats the principle characters, Hutchins and Adler, with respect but a lot of irony. I had a set - which remained mostly unread but a great source of quotations - and their tiny print and double-column layout of 443 all-white-male works reinforced one quip: "The Great Books were icons of unreadability."

Nevertheless, over a million sets were sold for hundreds of dollars each, at a time when hundreds of dollars was a lot more than today. By the seventies
Bill Hall
Recent decades have seen a vigorous debate in academic circles and society at-large over the relevance of the Western Canon and the "dead white males" who dominated it. In "A Great Idea at the Time," Alex Beam takes us back to an era when the value of the great books was unquestioned. In fact, in post-World War II America, they became a popular phenomenon for a while when a group of scholars at the University of Chicago selected works for a 54-volume Great Books set published and marketed by Enc ...more
Todd Nemet
This is a strange and mean little book, not that I mind all that much.

Mr. Beam isn't writing directly about the Great Books. Instead he is writing about the Great Books movement, a sort of fetishistic devotion to the Great Books.

The book follows the lives and careers of the two main people whose love of the Great Books took corporeal form with their publication in 100 pounds and 60 shelf-inches of book-mass by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. And then again in 1990.

Along the way Mr. Beam touches
Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Great Books of the Western World are ridiculed, dismissed and loved. Those who crack the spine of any volume, and see the crammed text, and absurdly small font, usually quickly slide it back into place and leave the other 60 plus volumes uncracked. It’s subject to attack for which volumes are included, which are excluded, what translations are chosen, how they were compiled and who the authors were. Beam’s book gives a journalistic expose to the entire process of how th ...more
Margaret McCamant
I never read any of the Great Books collection. My childhood home had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, but not the Great Books. I think I was aware of groups meeting in libraries and even some aimed at children.

I never thought a book about these sets of books marketed to would-be intellectuals would be so amusing, but it is, largely because of the writing style of Alex Beam and his insights into the kooky personalities of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler and their antics at the University of
A short, mostly entertaining history of the "Great Books" as an educational and popular culture phenomenon in 20th Century America. The author's wry observations about business and academic hubris are interspersed with unconvincing criticisms of the value of studying the Western Canon. The faults of various mid-Century marketing programs do not provide a sound starting point to examine the continued relevance of reading primary texts. Overall, a good story but not a serious analysis of the tradi ...more
Beam discusses the history of the Great Books idea from its start in the early 20th century in the form of "Great Book societies to a full fledged commercial campaign led by three men through Britannica corporation.

The author is pretty critical of the layout of the books and their release in the early 50s and I can attest that they were thick double columned books with small type. In 1997, I stayed in a room, in Shin Chon, Seoul and there was the set of great books. The ajima, I think probably
Although this book lacks depth (it reads like a long magazine article), it's an extremely entertaining account of the great books phenomenon. As a junior high and high school student, I was somewhat enthralled by these books; I even got pretty far through Euclid. Yet, I never did understand why the Syntopticon (an index of great ideas the irrelevance of which is underscored by my spell checker's rejection) was useful, nor why anyone other than a science historian would want to read some of the s ...more
"The half-century-long attack on the American attention span began sometime after 1950, social historian Joan Shelley Rubin wrote: "The rise of television heightened American's preoccupation with celebrity and further devalued the idea that acquiring knowledge required patient, disciplined training." In short order the Great Books became the "colorful furniture" that the acerbic [Robert Maynard] Hutchins feared they might. He had always had his doubts. "A classic," he liked to say, "is by defini ...more
Christopher Rush
The following review is not meant to be a libelous assault on Mr. Beam, the PublicAffairs publishing people, or people in Mr. Beam's family; simply it is an honest appraisal of his work, doing to him what he felt compelled to do to people in his book. Before the reader gets half-way through page 2 of A Great Idea at the Time, the reader has grasped on key point: the narrator of the book is a bit of a jerk. Beam takes advantage of every opportunity (even when not pertinent) to malign and defame M ...more
I added a bunch of "books about books" to my reading list recently (after Rereadings by Anne Fadiman, I think), and this was one of those. Maybe because I'm young enough that I missed the Great Books craze, I didn't really understand that the Great Books in the title were the Encyclopedia Brittanica Great Books of the Western World, not just some great books in general. (That does explain how the book is so short, though!) This book tells the history of the Great Books, their selection, and the ...more
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 expla
GIT is about the Great Books series from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Great Books were a series of leather bound books sold by Britannica that carried a work or works from Western literature (you can usually find them at yard sales or your grandparent’s house). At the time that your grandparents were buying them, the 1940s, people thought that if you read great selections from the canon and talked about them critically with others, you became more intelligent or a better human being (there i ...more
I happened across this book, deeply discounted, at the Trident Café on Newbury Street (surely one of the last great Indie bookstores in our area). The combination of subject (the "Great Books®" movement) and author (Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist whom I used to read regularly) intrigued me, the opening paragraph was good, and, since I was feeling flush (it was my birthday) I bought it.
I quickly found that the book was a revelation of sorts, a key that unlocked many hitherto mysterious phe
Tommy V
In 1952, Encyclopedia Britannica published a 54-volume set of faux leather bound hardback books that purported to be the be all and end all of classic works covering topics from philosophy and literature to political science and mathematics. The set was entitled Great Books of the Western World. Over the next twenty years, more than one million of these sets, at a sticker price of several hundred dollars, were purchased by Americans, either for home use or as donations to schools and public libr ...more
Anyone remember the Great Books of Western Civilization? This was a collection of the 'best' written works of all time, published in matching hardcover copies and nearly illegible fonts. Despite the density of the works they became a minor phenomenon in popular culture prompting reading groups and discussion circles in middle-class American homes. Yet despite their apparent thrust towards putting a classical education in the hands of the common person, the books were soon to be despised as an ex ...more
Lance Cahill
An okay-ish book. The book was an easy and breezy read - something good for an airplane ride. But, I found the coverage of the book's topic disappointing. A lot of disparate facts were presented but not many conclusions were drawn from them - read similar to a short magazine piece you might find in the Weekly Standard, especially the write-up of the author's experiences in going to a college campus dedicated to the Great Books and his personal experience going to a few Great Books seminars.

A fe
Martin Good
My review from the Star Tribune:

In "A Great Idea at the Time," Alex Beam breezily tells the story of the Great Books of the Western World, which once promised everyone, from Joe Sixpack to the chairman of the board, the education of a lifetime. Published in 1952 by the Encyclopedia Britannica in cooperation with the University of Chicago, the Great Books series premiered with Hollywood glamour and ivy-covered prestige.

It seems unlikely now that a repackaged set of classic -- and by that you shou
Kristen Northrup
I picked this up in part because I thought I owned (but had never read) the full set of Great Books, but it turns out I have the competition (Harvard shelf) instead. But the reasons people both create and buy these sorts of definitive collections remained interesting. There is certainly the risk in the quote included from James Payn: "Here are the most admirable and varied materials for the creation of a prig." Although the book could get snide, it didn't seem to do so any more than contemporary ...more
I tried reading the Hegel volume of my grandparents' set of Great Books when I was in high school and found it utterly impenetrable. But that impenetrability made me even more interested in philosophy, given my perverse interest in things esoteric.

This book reads like a secret history of the U of C (and, even more interesting, St. John's).

Interesting details: At one point, Hutchins proposed that metaphysics should be "the true subject of undergraduate education" (p.43).

Susan Sontag is reporte
Beam's definition of the Great Books unfortunately only includes books included in the Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World set(s) and as a Johnnie (a student of St. John's which is mentioned several times throughout the book but only given one chapter), I'm well aware that there's more to the Great Books than that. However, this is an interesting history of the Britannica set.
The snarkiness of the middle section of this book is really offputting and distracting, and undermines the author's credibility. Mortimer Adler may have been a difficult case, but I started to sympathize with him simply in response to the unrelenting cattiness of the author. The tone of the book changes from an intellectual study, to snarky gossip, to sentimental reflection. But ultimately, it's a very interesting story.
Brian Weisz
I don't think he really told us what was wrong with the Great Books movement. He exposed some flaws in the founders, but they were only human like the rest of us. The salesmen used to sketchy tactics to sell the books, but again, still not the fault of the Great Books.
Jun 30, 2012 Alex rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  (Review from the author)  ·  review of another edition
After all, I wrote the book. I visited this site for the first time and just wanted to say, Thank You to the many thoughtful commenters. It's hard not to see the occasional vituperative attack, but I feel I wrote this book in good faith. And yes, it's more about the commercial/cultural movement than the books themselves. I had never heard of the GBs, honestly, so these were 3-4 wonderful years of my life. Perhaps I was a little hard on Adler (tho not half as hard as Joseph Epstein, who knew A. q ...more
The high points are twofold: I feel notably more capable of conversation about the Greats now, perhaps even a tad more intelligent for having read this little volume. Also, the author is humanly and bluntly opinionated, much like my husband. If you are interested in literature I suggest the short time it takes to absorb this one.
In 1952 the University of Chicago and Encyclopedia Britannica launched Great Books of the Western World, published in fifty-four volumes of dense type that ran two columns per page. This breezy and flip account provides the back story about how various dead white men, from St. Augustine to Freud, came to take up residence in so many libraries and middle-class living rooms. GBWW, sold door-to-door by EB salesmen, were both revered and reviled in educational circles. But they have endured, are sti ...more
A fascinating history of the Great Books of Western Civilization movement started at the University of Chicago and broadened to commercial ends when the university joined forces with the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Beam focuses on two strong personalities to give the book a human face, former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and his sidekick Mortimer Adler. The writing is swift and compelling. It's a very quick read. Beam analyzes both the positive and the negative of the movement wh ...more
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I'm a columnist for the Boston Globe. Before that I worked as a business reporter in Los Angeles and Moscow. I've lived in Boston since 1984, and written for the newspaper since 1987. I'm working on my next book, about the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. I wish I still resembled that handsome photo, taken about a decade ago. UPDATE: Finished the Joseph Smith book (obviously) and have started turning
More about Alex Beam...
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