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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 by intellectuals at the University of Chicago, began as an educational movement, and evolved into a successful marketing idea. Why did a million American households buy books by Hippocrates and Nicomachus from door-to-door salesmen? And how and why did the great books fall out of fashion?

In A Great Idea at the Time Alex Beam explores the Great Books mania, in an entertaining and strangely poignant portrait of American popular culture on the threshold of the television age. Populated with memorable characters, A Great Idea at the Time will leave readers asking themselves: Have I read Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura lately? If not, why not?

Topics: Writing, American History, Consumerism, Social Studies, Cultural Heritage, Contemplative, Informative, Wry, and Writers

Published: PublicAffairs on
ISBN: 9780786726981
List price: $13.95
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Superb ! Regrettably missing from today's higher education in US.more
A surprisingly engrossing and enjoyable book. Adler and Hutchins were quite the oddballs but fascinating characters with some very intriguing ideas about education.more
A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books is the perfect read for LTers. For those unfamiliar with the concept (as I was), in the 1950's Encyclopedia Brittanica took an idea from a course at the University of Chicago to educate the american public with "Great Books of the Western World". 68 volumes of double column, 9 point text of classic works including scientific texts (can you say Ptolemy's The Almagest?) sold in faux leather bindings along with a Syntopicon - a cross referencing guide of all of the great ideas and which authors commented on them - for the price of $250 (this was 1952 remember) sold by door to door salesman.Admittedly, reading about the series I felt a little uneducated at times - some of the authors included in the Great Books were completely new to me (and I went to a liberal arts college) - as Beam points out, the works' obscurity and irrelevancy were part of the problem. The initial launch included NO female authors. But the idea behind the series and the business attached to it were fascinating. This book was well written, with a fair amount of humor, at no point talking down to the reader (he doesn't expect anyone to have read, or understood, Nichomachus of Gerasa's Introduction to Arithmetic (Great Books, volume 12)) and he pokes gentle fun at an interesting concept and the people and events surrounding it. Highly recommendedmore
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 style seems to require (which does drive me crazy but that's an entirely separate issue and that's why David Denby has a new book). In fact, Beam also demonstrated a lot of both affection and admiration for the parties. I would have liked to read a lot more about the customers, however. Both the people buying the set at the time and the ones who have stuck with it. Overall, the writing and topic were interesting enough at the time, but I only gave 3 stars because -- a week after finishing -- I already remember very little. And my own reading interests haven't changed a bit.more
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Reviews

Superb ! Regrettably missing from today's higher education in US.more
A surprisingly engrossing and enjoyable book. Adler and Hutchins were quite the oddballs but fascinating characters with some very intriguing ideas about education.more
A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books is the perfect read for LTers. For those unfamiliar with the concept (as I was), in the 1950's Encyclopedia Brittanica took an idea from a course at the University of Chicago to educate the american public with "Great Books of the Western World". 68 volumes of double column, 9 point text of classic works including scientific texts (can you say Ptolemy's The Almagest?) sold in faux leather bindings along with a Syntopicon - a cross referencing guide of all of the great ideas and which authors commented on them - for the price of $250 (this was 1952 remember) sold by door to door salesman.Admittedly, reading about the series I felt a little uneducated at times - some of the authors included in the Great Books were completely new to me (and I went to a liberal arts college) - as Beam points out, the works' obscurity and irrelevancy were part of the problem. The initial launch included NO female authors. But the idea behind the series and the business attached to it were fascinating. This book was well written, with a fair amount of humor, at no point talking down to the reader (he doesn't expect anyone to have read, or understood, Nichomachus of Gerasa's Introduction to Arithmetic (Great Books, volume 12)) and he pokes gentle fun at an interesting concept and the people and events surrounding it. Highly recommendedmore
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 style seems to require (which does drive me crazy but that's an entirely separate issue and that's why David Denby has a new book). In fact, Beam also demonstrated a lot of both affection and admiration for the parties. I would have liked to read a lot more about the customers, however. Both the people buying the set at the time and the ones who have stuck with it. Overall, the writing and topic were interesting enough at the time, but I only gave 3 stars because -- a week after finishing -- I already remember very little. And my own reading interests haven't changed a bit.more
Alex Beam writes an exploration of how the "Great Books" came into being. The Great Books mean many things: the series, published by University of Chicago; the open to the public and literary salons in the 1940s onward, as well as the university cirriculum (which was spearheaded at Columbia).How and why did this idea begin, take off, and then fade into oblivion?more
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 limited or not is not the most important question, rather the question is what value there is in recognizing, reading and developing an understanding, however limited, of the works of the greatest minds of the world. Reading and studying and discussing the Great Books and the ideas encompassed in them provides an education that cannot be obtained any other way. Most importantly it provides a base for continuing to grow and flourish as a human being. The author spends much of the book discussing attempts, some misguided and some not, to encourage and spread the reading of Great Books. Whether any of these attempts succeeded depended not so much on the value of the books themselves, which I believe cannot be doubted, but on the methods used by the purveyors of the Great Book experience. I can only look back on and continue my own experience which I have found invaluable in my own life. The Great Books are very much alive for me and many others. While the author discusses finding himself "occasionally succumbing to creeping great-bookism", I would suggest that thoughtful human beings would be better off by incorporating the lessons of the Great Books into to their lives.more
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