Sunday, November 16, 2008

Just a mortal with the potential of a superman

My grandparents were people who believed in the ''Great Books'' program, and they were constantly encouraging us to read their handsome, leather bound, editions of the ''Great Ideas of the West'' or ''The World of Plato'', or their vintage National Geographics. I guess it must have taken- last night, I sat up reading Flaubert and Hesiod.

In a new book, Alex Beam looks at the Great Books movement and historicizes it. Wendy Smith reviews

''The postwar boom in higher education fueled by the GI Bill and the rise of a broad middle class with money to spend and pretensions to justify had something to do with it. Ads playing on their insecurities definitely helped: "The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent." Quote Plato and impress your boss!

''The program had a good run before sales "fell off the cliff" in the 1980s. Beam marvels that Britannica and Adler, the only surviving member of the triumvirate, decided to relaunch the Great Books in 1990, "the very moment that the Western canon and 'dead white males' in particular were under siege."

It didn't go well. You have to wonder what happened here. I've always seen the 'dead white males' argument as something of a cop out, and besides, it came of age in the early 90s, after the fall from the cliff. I suspect that people used it to justify the fact that they weren't reading anyway. Is it possible, though, that the Great Books movement was tied to an older conception of work, and that, once that was gone, it no longer seemed worth the bother to read them? Was anyone really reading them in the first place?

And yet, hard to believe, but people are still reading them. The main assumption of the Great Books movement is that the best things written, said, or thought should not be off-limits for any person, and this argument is still suited to a populist society. There are still schools that teach on this assumption, people who track down the great books, and networks of fans. I am currently TAing for a course that teaches the great books from around the world. Hesiod still has something to say to me, at least.

And, ultimately, there's really not much to replace them out there. There are some great contemporary writers, but not enough to fill your reading schedule with; television is still formulaic and repetitive; looking for good material on the Internet is like diving for a pearl necklace in an Olympic size swimming pool of merde. This will become increasingly tiresome. I think these things go in cycles. There's no reason to believe that the people who are keeping the torch alive in the digital dark ages aren't doing exactly the right thing.

No comments: