Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Great Books Series

Ah, yes- the Great Books series! My grandparents actually owned the set, as well as the Yale Library. They were well-built, aesthetically pleasing, and authoritative. Also, they were relatively cheap. The idea was that you'd buy the Great Books and have the equivalent of a higher arts degree by the time you were done reading them. For people like my grandparents, who started their lives together after WWII with less than a few dollars and never went to college, the chance to become culturally literate was a godsend.

I don't know how many of the books they actually read, but I've read about 3/4ths of the titles, mostly checked out from the library. Whenever I was at their house, I'd be too busy reading their old National Geographics to crack open their Great Books. I've since inherited many of their originals and I quite like them. I prefer the Penguin Classics, which are more complete. But I like the everyman quality of the Great Books series- they're not pretentious, but they're also not dumbed down. They suggest that anyone can be well-educated, but you'll have to work for it. That was pretty much the sense that my grandparents passed on to me. These were the sorts of books you had an obligation to read. Forget about pleasure! That could come later.

Reading W.A.Pannapacker's article, it's amazing to hear that the literati once mocked the Great Books series. What they wouldn't give today to have suburbanites striving to read hard books! Pannapacker connects this with the old modernist gripes about "middlebrows". "For Woolf and her heirs, middlebrows are inauthentic, meretricious bounders, slaves to fashion and propriety, aping a culture they cannot understand... Of course, the only acceptable lowbrows are the ones who know their place, who have noaspirations to anything better..." He's a bit hard on Virginia Woolf, but it's a bit amazing how the old snobbery about "middlebrows" seems to have vanished in the modern era. People still make fun of intellectuals, of course, and ridicule lowbrows in the Homer Simpson mode. But, when was the last time you heard someone mocked for being a Babbitt?

"(The Great Books) represented an old American belief—now endangered—that "anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself."
"What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our
ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm."
No comment. But I will say that it's easy to mock the idea that there is a single definitive Western Canon, not to mention the desire to be told what books you have to read; and even if they represented bourgeois meretricious striving, the idea behind the Great Books must have had an effect: my grandparents' kids all went to college, and my sister and I eventually went to grad school. And I think we've never entirely lost the sense of obligation.

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