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Originally published Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"A Great Idea at the Time": Molding the middle-class mind

"A Great Idea at the Time" is Alex Beam's rueful, witty look at the story of the Great Books, 54 fake-leather, eye-straining volumes by Western writers that made their way into millions of 1950s middle-class homes, and whose influence endures in surprising ways.

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books"

by Alex Beam

Public Affairs, 228 pp., $24.95

"A Great Idea at the Time" is the story of how, more than a half-century ago, two men set out on a Quixote-like mission to rescue the American public from its intellectual ignorance and — amazingly — made a dent.

Alex Beam's witty and useful account of the rise of the Great Books program starts in an era when television was anything but high-definition, the G.I. Bill had made college accessible to the masses and the Book-of-the-Month Club was an example of how consumers fed their appetites for culture. Against this backdrop, the Great Books of the Western World seemed like an idea whose time had come: 54 fake-leather, eye-straining volumes containing the works of Homer, Shakespeare and 72 other men (at a time before Dead White Males became part of the lexicon). The bonus was something called the Synopticon, a topical index that allowed readers to look up subjects (love, war, family) by author in order to see what he had to say about it.

Beam's trick with his book is to tread lightly and brightly over this mass of fine-print type and put his focus on the concept's creators. So if you haven't read Epictetus, much less heard of him, not to worry: The more important figures in this book are the patrician "Golden Boy" Robert Hutchins and his "low-born" sidekick, the gnomelike prodigy Mortimer Adler.

Both were eggheads of the first order. But where Hutchins is depicted as a wounded idealist with a Wilsonian commitment to world government, Adler comes off as a pompous toad. Puffed up by his own indigestible writing and a sense of self-importance, he continued to evangelize for the Great Books until his death in the 2001.

The two men linked arms after Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago in 1929. Disdaining a rah-rah atmosphere at his school — Hutchins banned intercollegiate athletics to prove his point — he enlisted Adler to develop a seminar based on the writers whose ideas formed the scientific and philosophical backbone of Western thought. By the 1940s, the seminar had jumped its bounds to a lay audience. Conservative magazine magnate Henry Luce gave the venture more good press than it probably deserved, and advertising man William Benton talked Hutchins into putting the seminar's concept into encyclopedia form.

The Great Books were launched with well-bred hoopla at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1952. There was just one problem: Hardly anyone seemed to notice. Where were the 5 million Americans that Hutchins expected to join study groups built around his heady concept?

To avert financial disaster, a door-to-door sales force was recruited. Over two decades, this aggressive bunch managed to move 1 million sets, but in a style that the brilliant and uncompromising Hutchins must have found abhorrent.

For all his acerbic wit, Beam judges the project by its original intent, not the hucksterism to which its salesmen resorted. He points out that reading from the Western tradition remains an essential feature at Chicago, Columbia University and especially St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M. Meanwhile, outfits as varied as the Teaching Company and the Chautauqua Institution perpetuate the idea that the classics matter — especially when defined more broadly to include some women and people of color.

"Have you ever had that experience, when you learn someone's name, and suddenly you start seeing it all the time?" Beam writes, explaining how, with his ears finely tuned, he now hears references to Great Books such as "Gilgamesh" and Dickens' "Little Dorrit" pop up where he'd least expect them.

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's new book, written with Margo Hammond, is "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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