A Great Idea at the Time
The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
PublicAffairs, $24.95, 256 pp.
When Henry James wrote, “It’s a complex fate, being an American,” he must have had the subject of Alex Beam’s book in mind. James would have savored its opening scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where on April 15, 1952, a dinner was held by the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica to launch “The Great Books of the Western World.” Though Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and other celebrities were present, the star of the show was a group of fifty-four books resting on a dais. Referring to them from his podium, a speaker proclaimed, “Here are the sources of our being.”
What was in this collection of books? “Nine years in the making,” Alex Beam explains, and “stuffed with 443 works by seventy-four white male authors,” it was designed to “encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud.” The publishers hoped for a wide audience, and while there is nothing outlandish about a waitress, truck driver, or even college student reading Plato, it is fantastic to imagine anyone reading, or even opening one of these books. Anyone who has seen them can vouch for Beam’s assertion that “The Great Books of the Western World were in fact icons of unreadability—32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type.” Against all odds (though thanks in part to “unscrupulous, foot-in-the-door salesmen”), the set eventually...