Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
In association with the The Adler-Aquinas Institute and Aquinas School of Leadership
A Founding Member of the Alliance for Liberal Learning

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Great Idea at the Time

Via Apocaloopsis, the publisher's notice of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam
The Great Books of Western Civilization [sic], 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?


  1. Argumentum ad Hominem

    The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

    Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

    As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

    If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

    Max Weismann,
    President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
    Chairman, The Great Books Academy

  2. 1.0 out of 5 stars A gossipy, uninteresting book., November 14, 2008
    By Paul A. Baier (Wellesley, MA United States) - See all my reviews
    Beam wrote a book about the history of the Great Books concept and specifically the set of Great Books promoted by Hutchins and Alder from the University of Chicago. I found the book unimpressive.

    What is Beam's point in this meandering book? Is it a history of the Great Books or a critical commentary on the idea and movement?

    Beam establishes no credibility with the reader, yet offers childish critiques and name calling, particularly of Adler: "brilliant, Hobbit-like sidekick, Mortimer Alder" (2); "William Benton, ad man and hustler extraordinaire" (2); "watching his [Adler's] endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare for which I am trying to awake" (5); "low-born Adler"; "Adler, a troll next to the godlike Hutchins" (25). Is there a hidden fight between Beam and Adler? What is the point of this silliness?

    Are readers to be impressed with anecdotes and gossip uncovered in working papers and interviews? Do they help the argument or discussion at all? Adler called Aspen Institute attendees business "bozos" (132). "A notorious philanderer, he [Adler] divorced his first wife" (32) . Later, Beam writes about an incident where someone recalled that "Adler was hitting on my mother" (142).

    Yes, the sales methods of the Great Books were misplaced (selling culture books like crest toothpaste with door-to-door reps who deployed sleazy sales methods, receiving a reprimanded by the FTC). Beam and all of us can feel good, I guess, that these highly educated men from University of Chicago made this mistake.

    What about people who said books had a big impact on their lives? He mentions numerous people including actor Julie Adams (67), Pilot Thomas Hyand (143), plumber David Call (146), Professor Montas (162), and Eva Braum. What is Beam's view here? Are these people blind worshipers in the cult of GB? Is their praise of the GB genuine and well placed? Beam gives us no answer (but thankfully he has fortunately dropped the snide personal commentary by this point in the book).

    Stunningly, despite his obvious contempt for Adler and the Great Books, Beam admits that he got some enjoyment from the books. "Reading them [set of readings] en group turned out to be fun, and also hard (183). "How was this intellectual experience? - fantastic" [Beam ponders after attending a seminar] (185) . He writes "My first Great Books experience turns out to be one of my best" (185), and he enjoyed Epictetus's Handbook --"I fell in love with the gnarly-legged Stoic" (196).

    Beam redeems himself a bit when he leaves his mindless commentary aside and reports historical facts from St. John's, University of Chicago, and seminars. (At least he attended a St. John class, a GB seminar and a GB weekend retreats, before writing the book.)

    But, in the end, what IS his point? Does Beam even have a point of view? Does he agree or disagree with the educational premise? Is this a history book or commentary? Were the GB a good idea that was poorly packaged, marketed and sold; or are the GB a bad idea whose converts should be scorned? The sarcastic Beam does not share any view on this, presumably because he is unable to define and defend his point of view.

    No one will ever mistake this book for a great, good, or even mildly interesting book.

  3. I'm surprised at how much traction this "story" (i.e., reviews and commentary on Beam's book) has. Here's a clip from a Boston t.v. show if you're interested: