Monthly Archives: November 2014

A Great Idea At The Time (Book Review)

Beam, Alex. (2008). A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books.  New York: Public Affairs
In this post I will detour slightly from my exploration of the Great Books to discuss a book about the Great Books.  More specifically, Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (2008) is the story of the “Great Books Movement” which started as a teaching fad in the 1920’s and grew to become a pop culture phenomenon in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, housed in their specially made bookcase, was a fixture in our house when I was a child.  Yesterday I visited my father for Thanksgiving and noticed that it still occupies a prominent place along one wall of his guest bedroom.  As a youngster I took its presence for granted.  Except for one abortive attempt to read the Iliad when I was twelve, I don’t think I ever opened them.  Much later I learned that my father had bought the set second hand before I was born.  For him I believe the books were a symbol that even though he had not been able to finish college he has never stopped working to educate himself.  In this respect, I think he is like most people who ever bought the set.  They were always marketed as a way for middle class Americans, denied the sort of liberal education available to their social “betters”, to improve themselves.

The books in the Britannica set were nearly unreadable–heavy hard backs set in a tiny font with no footnotes.  Most of the translations are dreadful.  To make matters worse, because they were so expensive, no one felt like it was OK to underline in them or take notes in the margins.  A paperback Penguin edition of a classic was almost always the way to go, if you were actually going to read and study it.

Beam’s book tells the story of how the set came to be, and why there are still so many copies around.  With humor and insight he takes us from the first Great Books courses at Columbia and Chicago, through the genesis of the idea to sell a single collection that would encapsulate the entire western cannon, through the hard-sell door-to-door marketing of the 1960’s, and finally to the state of the Great Books movement today.  I found the book delightfully readable.

A Great Idea at the Time mostly avoids bias, except in one area.  It is clear from the first page that while Beam acknowledges Mortimer Adler’s brilliance, he truly doesn’t care for Adler, as a person.  The book is sprinkled with comments such as “…to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake.” (p. 5) He paints a picture of Adler as a hilariously pompous, egomaniacal huckster.  I myself have read enough of Adler’s writing and seen enough of his videos to conclude that he probably was rather full of himself.  Certainly, Beams ability to describe such a powerful character lends strength and color to his story.  Still, once must be aware that his opinion of one of the main personalities in the story has clearly slanted the narrative.

Mortimer Adler (Center for the Study of the Great Ideas via WikiMedia)

Mortimer Adler (Center for the Study of the Great Ideas via Wikimedia)

Reading this book as made me more aware of the ways in which my own relationship to the Great Books differs from that of Mortimer Adler, his mentor Robert Hutchins, or their many disciples.  Their interest started as an attempt to shore up a higher education system which they saw as fragmenting into overspecialization.  The Great Books were seen as a vehicle to teach reading and critical thinking to undergraduates.  I myself, as a teaching assistant, worked for two professors who successfully incorporated great books into their respective undergraduate business courses.  These days, however, I am no longer involved in post secondary education.

Over time, the Great Books project became a business venture for Encyclopaedia Britannica and an exercise in platform building for Adler, yet I don’t see any way that I will personally make money by studying the Great Books, or even by blogging about them.

The customers who bought the books mostly did so out of an appeal to their own insecurity and feeling of educational inadequacy.  As a published academic author with a terminal professional degree, it is hard for me to seriously claim that I feel inadequate.  There are still plenty of things which I would like to learn about, but that isn’t the same thing.

So if none of the motivations which have driven other people to embrace the Great Books affect me, then why am I doing it?

It’s because I am a writer, and a writer functions by inputting a large amount of other people’s writing, filtering and processing it through a mind shaped by his own life experience, and then outputting a relatively small amount of his own writing.  If I had to guess, I would say that I probably read at least 500,000 words for every 1,000 words of finished prose I write.  For me reading The Great Books, or at least good books, is a way to ensure a higher quality of inputs to the system which will, hopefully, lead to a higher quality of output.  Any further posts I write about the Great Books will be written, and should be read, with that in mind.

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The Iliad

Last week I blogged about how I was planning to work my way through the reading list from Adler’s and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. I just finished the first work on the list, Homer’s Iliad, and I thought I would share some of my reactions.

Before talking about Homer, we must place him in history. Scholars think that the Iliad and Odyssey were probably composed around 750 BCE. No one knows for sure if Homer was a single poet, a group of poets, or the name of a literary style–nor does it really matter. Personally, I have a feeling that there was an original single author, though his work has obviously been edited and transmitted by many others.

The eight century was the middle of Hellenic society’s Dark Age. The warlike but relatively stable Mycenaean society of the Late Greek Bronze Age had collapsed in flaming ruin around 1200 BCE, brought down by some combination of outside invasion, internal wars, or cultural stagnation. The triumphs and learning of classical Greece were hundreds of years in the future. Even the ancient Olympic Games, held in 776 BCE, were a relatively recent phenomenon.

As in every Dark Age in history, I’m sure that normal people spend most of their time keeping their heads down and trying to make a living while staying out of the way of whatever local boss-man was nominally in charge.

Some of the greatest literature comes out of dark ages, when authors try to channel the supposed glories of a past Golden Age. The Homeric works remind me the Arthurian legends and similar epics which came out of our own civilization’s Dark Age. They are just as focused on the deeds of heroes. They convey the same sense of a time when men where greater and more noble, and war was more stylized, yet somehow more meaningful. Likewise, you see the same historical inaccuracies. To a Dark Age poet it is inconceivable that the technology of the Golden Age was inferior to his own. Ironically, military technology in particular advances very rapidly in times of uncertainty. But still we read about the Knights of the Round Table using (who, if they existed, would have lived in the 6th century) wearing 12th century armor as they sat their heavy war horses in stirrups. Homer’s Bronze Age heroes wield iron arms, fight in phalanx formations, and conduct rituals that did not become widespread until centuries later.

At the same time, an incredible level of simple barbarity comes through in the Iliad, reflecting the sort of war Homer would have heard about in his own time. His heroes are happy enough to throw rocks at each other when they run out of spears. Every death is described in gruesome, explicit detail. They also spend an inordinate amount of their time fighting over who gets to loot which bodies and who gets to rape which women. It isn’t surprising that it took Agamemnon ten years to take the city, considering how woefully undisciplined his troops were. The Iliad is a peculiar mash-up–thuggish brigands from Greece’s dark ages playing out a story from a heroic age that never really was.

Achilles Killing a Prisoner

Achilles Killing a Prisoner (Wikimedia Commons)

And yet, a nobler moral message shines through. The characters of the Iliad are human. They have flaws, quirks, and failings. Above all else, they are conscious of their own mortality. Even the two greatest warriors, Achilles and Hector, accept from the start that they will not survive the war. We are reminded repeatedly, usually in the scenes of dialogue between the gods, how fleeting human life is. The few characters of mature years, such as Nestor and Priam, dwell repeatedly on how weak old age has made them. Death and mortality run through the poem. For an epic hero, the only possible response is courage. Courage to stand and fight, to keep their loyalty and honor their oaths, even though they know it will result in hideous death. Only through courage can a hero achieve lasting fame (κλέος), which is the only true immortality.

Sometimes, their courage fails. Paris, for instance, finds excuses to avoid combat and, when he does fight, tends to lurk on the sidelines with a bow. He is universally hated and derided by both sides. Occasionally men are taken captive and shamefully beg for their lives, causing their captors to slaughter them out of hand. Even brave Hector’s resolve fails him at one point. He stands in front of the walls, knowing Achilles is coming for him for the final showdown, and his nerve breaks. Achilles literally chases him three times around the walls of Troy. But Hector is redeemed when he gets hold of himself and stands to fight and die, thus proving that he is a true epic hero.

Achilles Slays Hector (Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Achilles Slays Hector (Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


A Note on Translations

Few of us read Homeric Greek, so we must read the Iliad and Odyssey in translation. Dozens of English translations exist, many of which are available to download from Project Gutenberg. I personally like Alexander Pope’s version, which is one of the finest examples of epic poetry in English literature. Even in his own time, Pope was criticized for paraphrasing too much, and many other translations are truer to the Greek original. Personally, though, I see Pope as a link in the continuity of the tradition which is Homer and his interpretations and additions as no less valid than say, they person who first committed the oral original to paper, or Zenodotus and Aristarchus, librarians of Alexandria, who first collected and edited the various versions. In the same way that no discussion of the Bible is complete without mentioning the King James Version, no discussion of the Homeric tradition is complete without mentioning Pope.

Reading Widely vs. Reading Well

I’m pretty impoverished these days—a predictable consequence of my decision to stay home and focus on my writing full time. For the most part I have adapted well; my personal needs have always been pretty modest. The one thing I really miss, though, is being able to buy books any time I want. Back when I was still suckling the financial aid teat I got used to being able to browse over to Amazon and download the latest installment of whatever Sci-Fi epic I was working through, or order a used copy of some nonfiction book that caught my eye. Those days are over.

True, there’s always the public library, but they don’t always buy the books I’m interested in, and sometimes it takes a couple weeks for my holds to come in.

There are a couple of benefits to my newly constrained access to books, though. One has been that I have a renewed and deepened respect for Project Gutenberg. If you are not familiar with them, they are an organization dedicated to scanning and proofreading public domain books and making them available for free. I’ve actually known about PG since the 1990’s. As an undergraduate I figured out how to download the complete works of Jules Verne to my graphing calculator—an action that was instrumental in my having to repeat freshman calculus.

Now, without the ability to buy any book I want, I find myself downloading a lot of works from PG that I just wouldn’t have gotten around to before. True, some of these are obscure, and some of them aren’t even that good. However, many of them–even most of them, are what are often referred to as “Great” books. Would I have gotten around to reading Spinoza if the other choice had been a pulp mystery? I like to think so, but I doubt it. When I was TA for a Business Ethics course I actually taught Aristotle, yet I never read the Nicomachean Ethics all the way through until just recently.

This brings me to the second benefit I have experienced: being led to consider the difference between reading widely and reading well. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren dwell on this point at some length in How to Read a Book. They point out that while “the great writers have also been great readers”, many of them actually had access to and read relatively few books. Quality of the books and the effort to study them are the important factors. According to them, a person who had read many books but understood them poorly was known to the ancients as a “sophomore”. In another passage, they warn that someone who reads widely but not well is in danger of becoming an idiot savant.

As I read books, I like to add them to the “books” section of my Facebook profile. I think it expresses some sort of primitive hording impulse, like a squirrel with nuts. Right now I have 905 of them there, which is a few more than most of my friends. I scrolled through the list after reading How to Read a Book. I can’t deny that the collection, taken as a whole, does look distinctly sophomoric. While it is true that there are plenty of serious books on the list, over half of it is straight-up pulp brain candy. Does Norman’s Slave Girl of Gor really belong between Hamilton’s The Greek Way and Miyamoto’s Book of Five Rings?   Am I actually proud that I have actually made my way through that many novels by Piers Anthony or Robert Asprin or that I can analyze major plot arcs and thematic elements across dozens Star Trek novels?   Actually, I am a bit proud of that last accomplishment but clearly, idiot savantism is a real possibility.

So what should I be reading? Well, Adler and Van Doren don’t leave us hanging. Appendix A of How to Read a Book contains a list of books by 147 authors which “would be worth your while to read.” These, they say, are “hard books” which will force one to think and improve his reading skills. In the introduction to the list, they also mention that, since the main list does not include any lyric poetry, one might want to read The Oxford Book of English Verse, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and Rodman’s One Hundred Modern Poems, which round the list out to 150 items.

Adler and Van Doren say that you are doing fine if you make it through three or four great books in a year, but I bet that I could average an author a month and still get quite a bit out of it. I can make it through the whole list in 12 1/2 years. Every work listed is available either from Project Gutenberg or my public library. Who wants to do it with me?

Ok, I probably won’t end up reading every book on the list, and I certainly won’t finish an author a month. I still think that the list is important. If I want to improve my output as a writer and editor, I need to insure that the quality of input is high. These are the sort of books that I should be reading, and I really am going to try to pick books off this list as much as possible.

First up on the list is Homer’s Iliad. I’ll let you know how it goes.