A Great Idea
As newspapers eschew paper, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam investigates the mid-20th-century "Great Books" movement and why millions of Americans bought in.
Columnist Alex Beam is another reason to brave the tactile smudginess of the Globe. Beam, among other things, regularly directs elegant strokesor, if you will, lashes of iconoclasmat the World’s Greatest University and other ripe veins of pretense and pomposity. Beam (Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital) has a new book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (Public Affairs), which examines the so-called Great Books movement that arose in the late ‘40s and its two main proselytes, University of Chicago wunderkind president Robert Hutchins and mad-dog public intellectual-qua-philosopher Mortimer Adler.
It is indeed a lucid trip in the Wayback Machine through some of the fundamental issues regarding the nature of a liberal arts education. The creation of a Great Books canon was Hutchins’s and Adler’s answerwhich in the status conscious society of mid-20th-century America became a commodity sold door to door (or as the publisher asks, Why did a million American households buy books by Hippocrates and Nicomachus from door-to-door salesmen?"). Among the other benefits of this smart and well-conceived intellectual excursion is a sensibility that holds librarians as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. A good fulcrum upon which to balance a worldview.