Saturday, December 20, 2008

Traveling in Place

'Writing is traveling, even if you never leave your room.'
--Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, in the acknowledgements section of his new book, A Great Idea at the Time--The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books.


At 10:17 AM, Blogger Max Weismann said...

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

At 10:26 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting. Thanks for adding your perspective, Max. I know Beam has a well-earned reputation for being something of a junk yard dog. Readers will have to decide whether that makes his writing more or less interesting and/or credible.

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Max Weismann said...

Thank you, John

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I've always liked the idea behind the Great Books. (David Denby's book from the mid-90s, "Great Books," about his experience of reading the classics is pertinent here, I think.) But I've often thought there were real problems with the books as issued. Some of the translations are, well, they could have been better.

I appreciate the populist sentiment behind the series. Sometimes, though, I think populist sentiments water things down so much that they become bland and dull, and don't hold the attention.

I think every reader creates their own unique shelf of great books. (Or shelves.) The difficulty with publishing such a set is partly editorial—who gets to choose? I doubt I'd agree with Harold Bloom, for example, on many choices—and partly conceptual: it's too big a project to ever really succeed. A valiant attempt at a project so grandiose that it's almost certainly doomed to failure.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Never knew about the Denby book, Art, so I'll have to look that up and give it at least a scan. He's a good writer. This conversation is making me think of a similarly ambitious project, the Library of America series, an attempt to capture all of the greatest works in the American canon into one series (it's an ongoing attempt). I think it's been a huge success thus far, and has benefitted from its understanding of how so many people have been turned off by the lack of diversity in the older classics. Anyway, give it a look online if you have a moment. I'll be curious about anyone's thoughts on this project.

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler.

We have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

At 1:29 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I know the Great Books are also taught in grade schools, Max, which I admit surprised me initially. A friend of mine has been teaching them in a Catholic grade school for some time. This string will prompt me to ask him more about that experience.

At 1:36 PM, Blogger Max Weismann said...

There are many colleges too and my own Great Books Academy has over 3,000 students

Just go to Google and enter great books schools--I just did and got 18 million references.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I wonder how the GB movement deals with the perception (at least in some quarters) that it's a bit fuddy duddy, and centered mostly around books by dead white males. Have the list of books used since Adler originated it been updated?

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Max Weismann said...

>I wonder how the GB movement deals with the perception that it's a bit fuddy duddy, and centered mostly around books by dead white males.

Your key phrase is (at least in some quarters) the great books have never been more popular than now.

>Have the list of books used since Adler originated it been updated?

Yes, in 1990. Remember, there are the great books and there is the Britannica version that most people talk about.

At 2:06 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for enlightening us, Max. I've just emailed Alex Beam and invited him to add his perspective as well. Hope he'll choose to do so.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Max Weismann said...

I doubt that he will, but we'll see.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

The issue with the Library of America is again editorial choice. I think some authors have been picked because they're famous and fashionable, not because their works are permanent and enduring. (I'm not unfamiliar with the program, although I claim no expertise.) I heartily support Raymond Chandler's inclusion, but Nabokov? I think he was a great writer, but was he really an American writer? You see what I mean. Where do you draw those lines?

Do I claim my knowledge and taste are superior to someone else's? No. But that's the entire issue behind choosing and enshrining a Canon. (Denby gets into this somewhat in his book, BTW.) Somebody makes those decisions, and they're always going to be somewhat problematic.

Again, I support lifelong learning, and the concept behind all these things. I just have to wonder sometimes about choices. This is, after all, about Western Civilization. Where does one draw the line, again, about what to include and what to leave out?

One thing I continue to notice is that even many enlightened and wise Americans remain somewhat blind about cultures alien to their own. But that's an issue for another occasion, of course.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Max Weismann said...

The very best I can tell you, is to go to our site:

And read "The Great Conversation"

At 5:04 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've picked two interesting authors to make the point, Art. A few surprising choices such as Chandler, who might be dismissed by blue nose critics but is embraced by readers, convinced me that LOA was trying hard to strike a balance between enduring quality and wide popularity. Ditto Carl Sandburg. But it is kind of odd that Nabokov got included.

At 1:13 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, one response is that it's a case in point about how often the blue nose critics are wrong. (Frankly, I think Harold Bloom's frequent attempts to create and defend a Canon puts him at the top of that list.) Again, I have nothing against Nabokov as a writer, but I think his inclusion was about fashion and blue nose critique, not about *American* great books, which the LOA is supposed to be about. I also happen to think Ashbery's inclusion is also about current fashion. But then, I've certainly come under fire before for my opinion that Ashbery is overrated.

I went to the Great Books site and read through a lot of essays and items there. Oddly, it took me a lot of work to find a simmple index of great books, a list of titles and authors. That could have been clearer. Again, I think the basic ideas about lifelong learning, etc., are all good ideas. I did read "The Great Conversation." There is some merit in those rationales used therein.

But there are also lacunae, and that's my point. Choices. Choices that seem to reflect values, because some things are left out; so, whose paradigm am I being given, based on the selections?

Freud but no Jung?
Some of Nietzsche, but not certain key works?
Marx but no Bakunin?
Orwell's fiction but not the essays?

And so on. There are a lot more lacunae I could name, but I'll let it go. I do question where some lines have been drawn. (Availability of key works is no longer an issue, in the wake of Project Gutenberg.)

Well, I'm beating a dead horse, so I'll stop now. But perhaps you do see my point, finally. People make these decisions, and establishing a Canon like this is fraught with problems whenever it purports to be essential but is in fact incomplete. My definition of essential might not be someone else's, and vice versa.

BTW, I can honestly say that I have read a significant percentage of these works, on my own, over time, by choice. Not all of them. But well over 50 percent. And I've also read a whole lot more. And I have a personal library that includes a fair percentage of these books, along with a whole lot more. So I'm not an ignorant anti-intellectual making these criticisms. Consider it a lover's quarrel, if you will.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

A lover's quarrel indeed. I also had trouble finding a simple list of works on that site, so I sympathize. And when it comes to Orwell, it would probably be better just to include everything the damn guy ever wrote. Almost no 20th century writer will hold up over time like him.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

On a perhaps related note, this past autumn Jay Parini published a book about 13 books that changed America: "Promised Land." It's interesting to me where his list of books overlaps with these others of discussion, and also interesting where they don't.

One pertinent discussion with links:

At 10:19 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Parini's always worth reading. Thanks for adding that thought, Art.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The author under discussion, Alex Beam, responded to my email today with the following reply, which he has graciously permitted me to post on his behalf:

Right, Max has that "argumentum" comment on his Save/Get key, you can find it all over the web, including on Amazon and
He's right that I treat him quite fairly in my book; it would never have occurred to me to do otherwise. If you want to link to reviews of my book in The WSJ, NYT, ChiTrib, CSM or anywhere else for that matter, please do. None of those reviews was writen by friends of mine, so maybe their opinions carry more weight than my own. Thanks for posting on my book, John.

Alex Beam


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