three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
By: 
Alex Beam
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-A Great Idea at the TimeAlex Beam’s twice-weekly column has been running in the Boston Globe since 1987. He is the author of two previous novels and a work of nonfiction.

The Topic: In the decade following World War II, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler launched a plan to save the American mind by turning it back toward discussion of the classics. Part of that plan involved reforming curricula at institutions of higher education—most notably Hutchins’s University of Chicago. But Adler and Hutchins’s more novel strategy was the publication of the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World, which for a time were as essential to middle-class intellectual pretensions as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Beam tries to answer the question of why the Great Books sold so well among the postwar generation before experiencing a precipitous decline in the 1980s; he also examines the canon’s smaller, but no less devoted, following in the 21st century.
PublicAffairs. 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1586484877

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he author makes sure readers will have a fine time with his witty, thoroughly enjoyable text that cogently explores the mystery of how the publisher managed to get one million sets priced at several hundred dollars into the homes of Americans who probably were unaware they yearned to read Aristotle and Saint Augustine. … Yet Beam’s post-mortem evinces considerable affection for the Great Books ideal, and in his final chapters he touchingly portrays his encounters with those keeping the flame alive today in online discussion forums and weekend retreats." Wendy Smith

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"For all of Beam’s cracking wise over Adler and Hutchins’ folly—a Boston Globe columnist, Beam has a light, journalistic touch—he ends up having a pretty good time, and relishes the kind of discussions he hasn’t had since college. The great books, it turns out, are huckster-resistant. They’re always there when we need them." Peter Terzian

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"For all his acerbic wit, Beam judges the project by its original intent, not the hucksterism to which its salesmen resorted. … Probing one small chapter of our intellectual history, A Great Idea ends up making a modest claim: The legacy of the Great Books, which captured a certain zeitgeist, is that the life of the mind still matters. Not a radical idea, just a great one." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"So what happened to the Great Books? TV, of course. But the books live, Beam suggests as he closes his witty, wry history, and not only in the few remaining Great Books reading groups, but in the spirit of such ventures as ‘One Day University,’ and even on syllabi in universities of the four-year nature." Michael Washburn

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Beam] captures the ironic—even ludicrous—contours of the great book’s rocky path to commercial success and eventual obscurity: The pompous launch. … Beam’s text is commendably concise, but I do wish he had devoted more space to pondering—instead of merely raising—important questions about the great books themselves." Josh Burek

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Hoping to offer the reader what many of the Great Books fail to provide—entertainment—Beam falls over himself in the effort to be breezy and upbeat. … If not a great book, A Great Idea at the Time acts as a good guide to the rise and fall of the project." James Campbell

Critical Summary

Alex Beam clearly has an eye for definitive and damning details: nearly every reviewer repeated his observations about the Great Books of the Western World being printed in faux leather and in nearly unreadable type, as well as his characterization of Mortimer Adler as a "Hobbit." Reviewers also contrasted (and commended) A Great Idea’s readability with the thick tomes it addresses. But several reviewers also turned Beam’s wit on its head, noting that while A Great Idea is a good book, it is not a great one. Some reviewers found fault with the author’s occasional tendency to sound too folksy. Others didn’t know whether to treat the Great Books phenomenon as an effort to save civilization or middlebrow hucksterism—or both. So do you want to read great books, or just read about them as a phenomenon? We’ll take the former.