"A Great Idea at the Time" by Alex Beam

As you can probably tell from my right sidebar, I am a fan of the Great Books movement, so there was no question of me reading A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam. Alas, the humorous title is followed by chapter after derisive chapter portraying the architects of the movement as wackos and its followers as weirdos. It seems to be assumed that books by “dead white males” (a phrase repeated countless times in this book) couldn’t possibly contain any worthwhile or relevant content (mainly because they were written by dead white males), and therefore anyone championing them is by definition quixotic (apologies for the dead white male book reference).

Beam puts the magnifying glass on the movement’s missteps: user-unfriendly book design (Great Books of the Western World), overzealous door-to-door salesmen, horse-trading over the canon, and public bickering over pedagogical philosophies. It’s a bit like reality TV in book form: show all the exciting conflict and scandal, and cut out the boring 95% where things go well and people are happy. No doubt it sells but it does a disservice to the books in question and those who appreciate them.

What makes the whole thing perverse is that in the last chapter Beam sheepishly admits that he actually likes the great books, that they are indeed better than other books, that they are the foundation of our culture, and that they are still very much alive and all around us if we have the eyes to see them. Why couldn’t he start out that way? Is it so uncool these days to value and appreciate things that have real human meaning? Beam does suggest that youngsters who are interested in the classics are unmitigated nerds. He is also a journalist and it seems he couldn’t shake the obligatory mood of cynicism and nihilism that pervades the news media today.

Beam does seem to genuinely appreciate the classics to some extent, but they get no substantial mention in the course of the book. They only seem to be taken seriously in the appendix, a list of the works in the Great Books of the Western World annotated by Beam. Although the annotations are extremely short, mostly phrases or short quotations, it is the only place in the book where the content of these books is given any real attention. But it is probably too little too late for any reader who is not already a confirmed “great bookie.” Those for whom “dead white male” is a red flag will come away with the notion that those who like the great books are just as comical and irrelevant as the old men in togas who wrote them so long ago. Too bad.

For a more dispassionate review of this book, visit So Many Books.

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7 comments on “"A Great Idea at the Time" by Alex Beam

  1. Stefanie says:

    I would have been very surprised if you had liked the book because there is the definite undertone of making fun of the whole thing. Beam seemed to think it incredible that the kids at St Johns or anyone else who had experienced the Great Books curriculum could love it as much as they did. Did you catch his hint that the penchant for partying hard at St Johns was because of all the reading? He obviously isn't around college kids much. In spite of all its faults, when he stuck to historical reporting I enjoyed it.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Yes, he did keep harping on how much the Johnnies party, and also about their lack of athletic outlet, as though rowing and fencing are not demanding sports (and a quick look at their website shows they have a much more diverse athletics program than Beam suggests). I guess anything other than football is effeminate in his mind. It's a good thing Adler and Hutchins were emphatically heterosexual or he could have written the whole thing off with a juvenile epithet.

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting. It's too bad the book couldn't be more balanced and fair. I love great books but also think there's a valid critique of the whole “great books” idea to be made — BUT anybody who's stupidly dismissive of classics isn't going to get me on their side!

  4. Sylvia says:

    He was mostly dismissive of anyone encouraging ordinary people to read the classics and of classics-based liberal arts education. He seemed firmly ensconced in the common view that the classics are only for the elites and that they don't teach anything useful. Mortimer Adler felt that the classics could be accessed by anyone, with appropriate guidance and methods, and that they teach one how to be human, something far more vital than marketable skills. But that debate wasn't even entertained, it was just assumed that Adler and his kind were wrong. The failure of the Great Books movement to take over the world is emphasized as if to prove the point, but I think that is too simplistic. You don't have to read the classics to know that popularity, or lack thereof, means very little.

  5. ぶっくり says:

    Hey! Dickens is dead, white, and male… and I like his works… but then many might classify me as dead, white, and male. 😉

  6. Max Weismann says:

    Argumentum ad Hominem

    The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

    Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

    As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

    If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

    Max Weismann,
    President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
    Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000+ students)

  7. I’m beginning to read Alex Beam’s “A Great Idea at a Time,” though not in a conventional way. I’m jumping from one chapter to another (started reading the introduction, jumped to the chapter about St. John’s College (which I enjoyed), and then read the last chapter).

    I discovered Mortimer Adler’s “How To Read a Book” in my teens, which in turn introduced me to the Great Books. It was my uncle’s college textbook in literature. I came across it while rummaging through his old books. Read and re-read it many, many times, (and still planning to re-read it!) and it’s one of my all-time favorites. Aside from teaching me how to get the most out of my reading, it taught me, among other things, how to think critically.

    It’s just a pity that Alex Beam’s book, it seems to me, starts out by making fun of the whole thing. But it the end it’s quite surprising that he admits that he likes reading the Great Books! Also, you’re right, he makes these snarky statements, especially about Mortimer Adler, which I don’t really like. His book would have been more enjoyable if from the start he came out clean. I would have appreciated a more fair and balanced treatment…

    ~Matt

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