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.