Great Shams of the Western World

How two academics and an ad man crafted a series of unreadable but profitable classics

Great Shams of the Western World

The Great Books of the Western World were ostentatiously launched on April 15, 1952, at a glittering black-tie affair in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. On a raised dais of honour sat the 54 volumes, a joint publishing venture of the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica: 443 works by 74 writers ranging from Homer to Freud. The audience was equally star-studded, featuring a large swath of old American money (Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and the like), prominent critics, and the British consul general, there to pick up a set for his young Queen, only two months on the throne. From a half-century’s perspective, the moment stands outs as a high point in high culture, when academic and social elites could confidently identify the building blocks of the Western mind. And be heard: a million sets, each costing several hundred dollars, were sold over the next decade.

It was also a hollow triumph, even on its own terms, as Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam makes clear in A Great Idea At The Time (Public Affairs), his hilarious dissection of the Great Books phenomenon. The set’s three godfathers—self-absorbed academics Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, and William Benton, an adman turned publisher—had brought such a mix of motives and stubborn eccentricity to the project that for all their professed love of books, the end result was a collection of virtual anti-books.

The Great Books are, as Beam justifiably calls them, “icons of unreadability.” There are classics that ordinary readers have loved for centuries, from The Iliad to Don Quixote, made forbidding by cheap translations printed in double columns of tiny, eye-glazing text. There is no expert commentary, always a help with such familiar material as Thomas Aquinas’s inquiry into “Whether we should distinguish Irascible and Concupiscible Parts in the Superior Appetite.” Worse even than commentary-free medieval theology are the scientific texts: Johannes Kepler’s Harmonies of the Worlds, which ponders “which planet sings soprano, which alto,” is a landmark text in the history of astronomy, but is no longer readable. No wonder that when Beam bought his set on eBay, the seller enthused: “I doubt these have ever been opened.”

There are two backstories to this pretty pass. One of them is noble: the English-speaking world has a long history of self-education that arose from Bible-study-inspired mass literacy. Carnegie libraries and workingmen’s clubs where Plato and Locke were studied were part of that tradition, and Benton sensed a market for a must-read series of classics. Hutchins, an old pal from Yale, was complaining, along with Adler, about what would now be called the “dumbing down” of higher education. An unholy alliance was born.

Sometimes commerce and pedagogy were perfectly aligned. Adler, according to a colleague, “did not suffer subtlety gladly”; he was adamant that Everyman, his ideal reader, needed no guiding hand to come to grips with the West’s intellectual titans. Benton, looking to cut costs, was happy to concur. All three agreed too that they needed a gimmick. Benton thought an “ideas index,” something to let readers cheat, so to speak, would be just the thing. Adler, who wanted to demonstrate how the classics “speak” to one another, agreed. His grandly named “Syntopicon” would proclaim Western culture had precisely 102 Great Ideas, ranging from Angel to World.

To prepare the index, Adler hired grad students to comb the sacred 443 texts for references. Indexer Saul Bellow, sitting on a park bench reading Shakespeare for $2 an hour, thought it a “whopper of a job.” But Benton, the adman, was appalled at what Adler seemed to think could be sold. “Angel?” he blurted out when he saw the list, “Where’s Adultery?” Even Hutchins complained. “Most of my friends are interested in money, fame, power and sex—where are they?” he asked.

But once it all came to press, and Benton unleashed his encyclopedia salesmen, the money rolled in. In a society where the phrase “middle-brow” had just been coined, his sales pitches played on middle-class aspirations and insecurities. “The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success,” ran one national ad. “Doors open to the man who possesses this talent.” Benton was soon selling 35,000 sets a year, peaking at 50,000 in 1961. And then, almost overnight, nothing. The 1960s had arrived, and the voice of authority wasn’t as authoritative anymore. The Great Books’ time had come and gone, even as the great books still endure.