Originally published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952, Great Books of the Western World offered a selection of core texts representing the highest achievements of European and North American culture. That was the ambition. But today the set is perhaps best remembered as a peculiar episode in the history of furniture.
Many an American living room displayed its 54 volumes -- “monuments of unageing intellect,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats. (The poet himself, alas, did not make the grade as Great.) When it first appeared, the set cost $249.50, the equivalent of about $2,200 today. It was a shrewd investment in cultural capital, or at it least it could be, since the dividends came only from reading the books. Mortimer Adler – the philosopher and cultural impresario who envisioned the series in the early 1940s and led it through publication and beyond, into a host of spinoff projects – saw the Great Books authors as engaged in a Great Conversation across the centuries, enriching the meaning of each work and making it “endlessly rereadable.”
Adler's vision must have sounded enticing when explained by the Britannica salesman during a house call. Also enticing: the package deal, with Bible and specially designed bookcase, all for $10 down and $10 per month. But with some texts the accent was on endless more than rereadable (the fruits of ancient biological and medical research, for example, are dry and stony) and it is a good bet that many Great Books remained all but untouched by human hands.
Well, that’s one way to tell the Great Books story: High culture meets commodity fetishism amidst Cold War anxiety over the state of American education. But Tim Lacy gives a far more generous and considerably more complex analysis of the phenomenon in The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, just published by Palgrave Macmillan . The book provides many unflattering details about how Adler’s pedagogical ambitions were packaged and marketed, including practices shady enough to have drawn Federal Trade Commission censure in the 1970s. (These included bogus contests, luring people into "advertising research analysis surveys" that turned into sales presentations, and misleading "bundling" of additional Great Books-related products without making clear the additional expense.) At the same time, it makes clear that Adler had more in mind than providing a codified and “branded” set of masterpieces that the reader should passively absorb (or trudge through, as the case may be).
The Dream of a Democratic Culture started life as a dissertation at Loyola University in Chicago, where Lacy is currently an academic adviser at the university’s Stritch School of Medicine. In its final pages, he describes the life-changing impact on him, some 20 years ago, of studying Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), a longtime bestseller. He owns and is reading his way through the Great Books set, and his study reflects close attention to Adler’s own writings and the various supplementary Great Books projects. But in analyzing the life and work of “the Great Bookie,” as one of Adler’s friends dubbed him, Lacy is never merely celebratory. In the final dozen years or so before his death in 2001, Adler became one of the more splenetic culture warriors – saying, for example, that the reason no black authors appeared in the expanded 1990 edition of the Great Books was because they “didn’t write any good books.”
Other such late pronouncements have been all too memorable -- but Lacy, without excusing them, makes a case that they ought not to be treated as Adler’s definitive statements. On the contrary, they seem to betray principles expressed earlier in his career. Lacy stops short of diagnosing the aging philosopher’s bigoted remarks as evidence of declining mental powers, though it is surely a tempting explanation. Then again, working at a medical school would probably leave a non-doctor chary about that sort of thing.
I found The Dream of a Democratic Culture absorbing and was glad to be able to interview the author about it by email; the transcript follows. Between questions, I looked around a used-books website to check out the market in secondhand copies of Great Books of the Western World is like. One listing for the original 1952 edition is especially appealing, and not just because of its price (under $250, in today’s currency). “The whole set is in very good condition,” the bookseller writes, “i.e., not read at all.”
Q: How did your personal encounter with the Great Books turn into a scholarly project?
A: I started my graduate studies in history, at Loyola University Chicago, during the 1997-98 academic year. My initial plan was to work on U.S. cultural history, with a plan to zoom in on either urban environmental history or intellectual history in an urban context. I was going to earn an M.A. and then see about my possibilities for a Ph.D. program.
By the end of 1998 the only thing that had become clear to me was that I was confused. I had accumulated some debt and a little bit of coursework, but I needed a break rethink my options. I took a leave of absence for the 1999 calendar year. During that period I decided three things: (1) I wanted to stay at Loyola for my Ph.D. work; (2) Environmental history was not going to work for me there; (3) Cultural and intellectual history would work for me, but I would need to choose my M.A. thesis carefully to make it work for doctoral studies.
Alongside this intense re-education in the discipline of history I had maintained, all through the 1997 to 1999 period, my reading of the Britannica's Great Books set. I had also accumulated more books on Adler, including his two autobiographies, during stress-relief forays into Chicago's most excellent used bookstore scene. Given Adler's Chicago connections, one almost always saw his two or three of his works in the philosophy sections of these stores.
During a cold December day in 1999, while sitting in a Rogers Park coffee shop near Loyola, this all came together in a sudden caffeine-laced epiphany: Why not propose the Great Books themselves as the big project for my graduate study? I sat on the idea for a few days, both thinking about all the directions I could take for research and pounding myself on the head for not having thought of the project sooner. I knew at this point that Adler hadn't been studied much, and I had a sense that this could be a career's worth of work.
The project was going to bring together professional and personal interests in a way that I had not imagined possible when thinking about graduate school.
Q: Did you meet any resistance to working on Adler and the Great Books? They aren’t exactly held in the highest academic esteem.
A: The first resistance came late in graduate school, and after, when I began sending papers, based on my work, out to journals for potential publication. There I ran into some surprising resistance, in two ways. First, I noticed a strong reluctance toward acknowledging Adler's contributions to American intellectual life. As is evident in my work and in the writings of others (notably Joan Shelley Rubin and Lawrence Levine, but more recently in Alex Beam), Adler had made a number of enemies in the academy, especially in philosophy. But I had expected some resistance there. I know Adler was brusque, and had written negatively about the increasing specialization of the academy (especially in philosophy but also in the social sciences) over the course of the 20th century.
The second line of resistance, which was somewhat more surprising, came because I took a revisionist, positive outlook on the real and potential contributions of the great books idea. Of course this resistance linked back to Adler, who late in his life — in concert with conservative culture warriors --- declared that the canon was set and not revisable. Some of the biggest promoters of the great books idea had, ironically, made it unpalatable to a great number of intellectuals. I hadn't anticipated the fact that Adler and the Great Books were so tightly intertwined, synonymous even, in the minds of many academics.
Q: Selecting a core set of texts was only part of Adler's pedagogical program. Your account shows that it encompassed a range of forms of instruction, in various venues (on television and in newspapers as well as in classrooms and people’s homes). The teaching was, or is, pitched at people of diverse age groups, social backgrounds, and so on -- with an understanding that there are numerous ways of engaging with the material. Would you say something about that?
A: The great books idea in education --- whether higher, secondary, or even primary --- was seen by its promoters as intellectually romantic, adventurous even. It involved adults and younger students tackling primary texts instead of textbooks. As conceived by Adler and Hutchins, the great books idea focused people on lively discussion rather than boring Ben Stein-style droning lectures, or PowerPoints, or uninspiring, lowest-common-denominator student-led group work.
One can of course pick up bits of E.D. Hirsch-style "cultural literacy" (e.g., important places, names, dates, references, and trivia) through reading great books, or even acquire deeper notes of cultural capital as described in John Guillory's excellent but complex work, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993). But the deepest goal of Adler's model of close reading was to lead everyday people into the high stakes world of ideas. This was no mere transaction in a "marketplace of ideas," but a full-fledged dialogue wherein one brought all her or his intellectual tools to the workbench.
Adler, Hutchins, John Erskine, Jacques Barzun, and Clifton Fadiman prided themselves being good discussion leaders, but most promoters also believed that this kind of leadership could be passed to others. Indeed, the Great Books Foundation trained (and still trains) people to lead seminars in a way that would've pleased Erskine and Adler. Education credentials matter to institutions, but the Foundation was willing train people off the street to lead great books reading groups.
This points to the fact that the excellent books by famous authors promoted by the great books movement, and the romance inherent in the world of ideas, mattered more than the personality or skill of any one discussion moderator. All could access an engagement with excellence, and that excellence could manifest in texts from a diverse array of authors.
Q: It seems like the tragedy of Adler is that he had this generous, capacious notion that could be called the Great Books as a sort of shorthand – but what he's remembered for is just the most tangible and commodified element of it. A victim of his own commercial success?
A: Your take on the tragedy of Adler is pretty much mine. Given his lifelong association with the great books project, his late-life failings almost guaranteed that the larger great books idea would be lost in the mess of both his temporary racism  and promotion of Britannica's cultural commodity. The idea came to be seen as a mere byproduct of his promotional ability. The more admirable, important, and flexible project of close readings, critical thinking, and good citizenship devolved into a sad Culture Wars spectacle of sniping about race, class, and gender. This is why I tried, in my "Coda and Conclusion" to end on a more upbeat note by discussing the excellent work of Earl Shorris and my own positive adventures with great books and Adler's work.
Q: Was it obvious to you from the start that writing about Adler would entail a sort of prehistory of the culture wars, or did that realization come later?
A: At first I thought I would be exploring Adler's early work on the great books during my graduate studies. I saw myself intensely studying the 1920s-1950s period. Indeed, that's all I covered for my master's project which was completed in 2002.
However, I began to see the Culture Wars more clearly as I began to think in more detail about the dissertation. It was right around this time that I wrote a short, exploratory paper on Adler's 1980s-era Paideia Project . When I mapped Paideia in relation to "A Nation at Risk" and William Bennett, I began to see that my project would have to cover Bloom, the Stanford Affair, and the 1990 release of the second edition of Britannica's set. Around the same time I also wrote a paper on Adler's late 1960s books. When I noticed the correlation between his reactions to "The Sixties" and those of conservative culture warriors, it was plain to me that I would have to explore Adler as the culture warrior.
So even though I never set out to write about the Culture Wars, I got excited when I realized how little had been done on the topic, and that the historiography was thin. My focus would limit my exploration (unlike Andrew Hartman's forthcoming study), but I was pleased to know that I might be hanging around with a vanguard of scholars doing recent history on the Culture Wars.
Q: While Adler’s response to the upheaval of the 1960s was not enthusiastic, he was also quite contemptuous of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. How aware of Bloom's book and its aftermath were you when you bought and started reading the Great Books?
A: Honestly, I had little knowledge of Allan Bloom nor his ubiquitous The Closing of the American Mind until the mid-1990s. This requires a little background explanation. I started college in 1989 and finished in 1994. As a small-town Midwestern teenager and late-1980s high schooler, I was something of a rube when I started college. I was only vaguely aware, in 1989, that there was even a culture war ongoing out there (except in relation to HIV and AIDS).
I'm ashamed to admit, now, how unaware I was of the cultural scene generally. Moreover, I was insulated from some of it, and its intensity, during my early college years when it was at its height because I began college as an engineering student. Not only was my area of study far outside the humanities, the intensity of coursework in engineering sheltered me from all news beyond sports (my news reading outlet at the time). Even when I began to see that engineering wasn't for me, around 1992, my (then) vocational view of college caused me to move to chemistry rather than a humanities subject.
My own rudimentary philosophy of education kept me from thinking more about the Culture Wars until my last few years as a college student. It was then that I first heard about Bloom and his book. Even so, I only read passages in it, through the work of others, until I bought a copy of the book around 2000. I didn't read The Closing of the American Mind, word-for-word, until around 2003-04 while dissertating.
Q: There was no love lost between Adler and Bloom – you make that clear!
A: In my book you can see that Adler really wanted it known that he believed Leo Strauss and all his disciples, especially Bloom, were elitists. Adler believed that the knowledge (philosophy, history, theology, psychology, etc.) contained in great books were accessible to all. While scholarship and the knowledge of elites could add to what one gained from reading great books, there was a great deal in those works that was accessible to the common man and hence available to make better citizens.
So while Adler was sort of a comic-book character, you might say he was a clown for democratic citizenship -- a deceptively smart clown champion for democratizing knowledge and for raising the bar on intelligent discourse. This analogy is faulty, however, because of the intensity and seriousness with which he approached his intellectual endeavors. He loved debate with those who were sincerely engaged in his favorite topics (political philosophy, education, common sense philosophy, etc.).
I see only advantages in the fact that I was not personally or consistently engaged in the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has given me an objective distance, emotionally and intellectually, that I never believed possible for someone working on a topic that had occurred in her/his lifetime. Even though I started graduate school as something of a cultural and religious conservative (this is another story), I never felt invested in making my developing story into something that affirmed my beliefs about religious, culture, and America in general.
A belief that tradition and history had something to offer people today led me to the great books, but that did not confine me into a specific belief about what great books could, or should, offer people today. I was into great books for the intellectual challenge and personal development as a thinker, not for what great books could tell me about today's political, social, cultural, and intellectual scene.
Q: You defend Adler and the Great Books without being defensive, and I take it that you hope your book might help undo some of the damage to the reputation of each -- damage done by Adler himself, arguably, as much as by those who denounced him. But is that really possible, at this late a date? Won’t it take a generation or two? Or is there something about Adler's work that can be revived sooner, or even now?
A: Thank you very much for the compliment in your distinction about defending and being defensive. I did indeed seek to revise the way in which Adler is covered in the historiography. Because most other accounts about him have been, in the main, mocking and condescending, any revisionary project like mine would necessarily have to be more positive -- to inhabit his projects and work, which could result in something that might appear defensive. I think my mentor, Lewis Erenberg, and others will confirm that I did not always strike the right tone in my early work. It was a phase I had to work through to arrive at a mature, professional take on the whole of Adler's life and the Great Books Movement.
As for salvaging Adler's work as a whole, I don't know if that's possible. Some of it is dated and highly contextual. But there is much worth reviewing and studying in his corpus. My historical biography, focused on the great books in the United States, makes some headway in that area.
Some of Adler's other thinking about great books on the international scene will make it into a manuscript, on which I'm currently working, about the transnational history of the great books idea. If all goes well (fingers crossed), that piece will be paired with another by a philosopher and published as "The Great Books Controversy" in a series edited by Jonathan Zimmerman and Randall Curren.
I think a larger book on Adler's work in philosophy is needed, especially his work in his own Institute for Philosophical Research. I don't know if my current professional situation will give me the time and resources to accomplish much more on Adler. And even if my work situation evolves, I do have interests in other historical areas (anti-intellectualism, Chicago's intellectual history, a Jacques Maritain-in-America project). Finally, I also need keep up my hobby of reading more great books!