Bill Hall's Reviews > A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

A Great Idea at the Time by Alex Beam
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's review
Mar 29, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, literature
Read in September, 2008

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 Encyclopedia Britannica. Great Books discussion groups sprang up from coast to coast. It seemed as if the United States was on the verge of a new era of enlightenment.

Not quite. In this lively, breezy account, Bream introduces us to some of the dominant personalities behind the Great Books phenomenon, including U of C President Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, the everyman's philosopher. We learn that the two-volume "syntopicon" (an index of 102 "great ideas" examined in the works), Adler's brainchild, proved to be so labor-intensive and expensive to produce it almost bankrupted the project. Beam also recounts the failure of the initial marketing efforts, revealing that the Great Books only took off when Britannica's door-to-door salesmen resorted to deceptive practices that twice brought the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission down on the Britannica organization. Beam explores the decline of the Great Books phenomenon as well, and takes us to places where their influence remains: St. John's College in Annapolis, where the books make up the entire four-year curriculum; and to the dwindling remnants of the Great Books discussion groups, where (mostly) aging enthusiasts still seek enlightenment in these ancient pages. Beam's narrative, while witty and engaging, is buttressed by solid reporting and research. Recommended.
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