From the Chronicle, an essay by W.A. Pannapacker called "Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor," parts of which strike home for me.
In my early 20s, when I was starting out as a graduate student in the humanities, I hosted a small gathering at my apartment. It didn't take long for my guests to begin scrutinizing my bookshelves. (I do the same thing now, of course, whenever I am at a party.) I remember that there were numerous battered anthologies, at least a hundred paperback classics, the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (acquired as a Book-of-the-Month Club premium), probably six copies of PMLA, and several shelves of books that I had retained from childhood, including the Time-Life Library of Art and the Old West Time-Life Series in "hand-tooled Naugahyde leather."
Perhaps the most revered set of volumes from my childhood—proudly displayed—was Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes. I remember I bought them all at once for $10 at a church sale when I was about 13; it took me two trips to carry them home in plastic grocery bags.
"Your clay feet are showing," said one of my guests, another graduate student, as she removed Volume 1 of the Great Books from my shelves. I caught the biblical allusion, but it took me a couple of years to realize the implication of the remark: My background was lacking. If graduate school was a quiz show, then I was Herbert Stempel trying to make it in the world of Charles Van Doren.[...]
The Great Books were expressions of hope for many people who had historically not had access to higher education.
There was something awe-inspiring about that series for me, even if I acquired it a generation late. The Great Books seemed so serious. They had small type printed in two columns; there were no annotations, no concessions to the beginner.[...]
there was a reason that you could buy the Great Books for $10 by that time. The whole notion of a stable canon of books had gone out of fashion, and not even recently: Writers such as Dwight MacDonald had been mocking the Great Books since they first appeared. As Beam observes, "The Great Books were synonymous with boosterism, Babbittry, and H.L. Mencken's benighted boobocracy." Display them in your living room, and you might as well put plastic covers on the colonial couch beneath your reproduction Grandma Moses with the copy of The Power of Positive Thinking on your coffee table. Great Books, Beam writes, "were everything that was wrong, unchic and middlebrow about middle America."
As Paul Fussell wrote in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, "It is in the middle-class dwelling that you're likely to spot the 54-volume set of the Great Books, together with the half-witted two-volume Syntopicon, because the middles, the great audience for how-to books, believe in authorities."
I'm about the same age as Pannapacker, and like him, was not to the academic or highbrow manner born. I read my first Marx, Smith, Mill, Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Plato in that Great Books set. In sixth grade I carried the Marx and Smith volumes by turn into school with me and read them during reading time-- and if I didn't understand much, I also didn't understand nothing, when I worked at it.
And, like Pannapacker, I've received the occasional smirk or snarky comment about them, in my life as it is now.
Of course, lots of the substantive criticisms are right-- the two-volume Synopticon is bizarre. And the books themselves as physical objects, which once impressed me, now don't. I don't read from them anymore. The paper on which they're printed is unbelievably thin and fragile, the print ridiculously small. Even before all those public-domain works went online, it was easier to get a cheap Penguin or Dover paperback of whatever I wanted to read than to try to do serious scholarly reading out of those volumes. But they're still on the top shelf of the bookcases in my living room, and I'm still grateful to them-- and to Mortimer Adler's democratizing middlebrowness.