Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Great Books

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.


Paul Gowder said...

In my experience, sneering at the books on soneone's bookshelf -- with the exception of total horrors like a shelf containing only Ayn Rand -- is a sign of an utterly intolerable person. It's strongly correlated with extreme snottiness in many other domains.

David Watkins said...

That's a good post. As someone who grew up in circles very very far from academia/highbrow (and before the internet), I can only imagine how access to the great books volumes might have substantially aided my intellectual development. I spent a lot of time as a kid reading a Rand-Mcnally Atlas and the World Book encyclopedia, because I wanted very badly to learn things about the world but outside my corner of it, and in my household, that was all I had available.

X.Trapnel said...

Paul, are you seriously claiming that you don't judge people for their bookshelves? I call shenanigans.

The problem here is, if anything, the idea of judgment not being taken seriously *enough*. The highbrow is--cynically, corrosively--mocking the idea of *sincerely* striving for excellence through books. He's reversed things entirely: the ideal bookshelf, for him, is the one that demonstrates its owner is above *taking books seriously.*


Todd Seavey said...

I think a deeper problem is that intellectuals, who don't grasp trade-offs in the economy, don't grasp that trade-offs apply to intellectual activity itself. There are things you lose in turning a whole philosophy into a bumper sticker and a whole lot that you gain by doing so (saved time, increased popular appeal), which academics tend to deny, despite generally behaving almost as if they are paid by the word. Likewise, popularization serves a purpose, just as TV broadcasts that are shallow but reach 12 million people can do things that in-depth essays reaching only 40,000 people cannot.

P.S. From X. Trapnel's bookshelf, democratically opened up for the picking as he was departing for Germany (unless I was duped by people encouraging theft), I recently acquired David Friedman's _Hidden Order_, one copy (of two there) of Aristotle's _Politics_, and a massive volume containing the first half of the Lensmen saga, by the way.

Will Roberts said...

I think the deeper problem is that Jacob, having toted Marx and Smith to school in adorable nerd fashion, braving what I can only imagine was incmprehenson from his peers, grew up and ... chose the wrong one!

Jacob T. Levy said...

Paul: What X said, to (as it were) the letter.

Todd: Your continued descent into Beck-is-as-good-as-Burke philistinism is duly noted, and appalling. But it seems to have impaired your once-impressive reading comprehension. Why do you think that your point is somehow a deeper amplification of anything I've said? It's a direct *attack* on Hutchins' project, and on my admiration of it. You seem to think that any complaint about "highbrows" just does dovetail with a complaint about "intellectuals," but it doesn't.

Will. Heh. And: no.

Todd Seavey said...

Presumably the implied objection to the Great Books collection was that they are, absent far more context, themselves bumper-sticker-like -- as though one cannot read them by themselves and gain a great deal, absent courses and supplemental readings that the bourgeois are presumed to lack. Like you, I think that's unfair to the Great Books, which may not be equivalent to a lifetime of in-depth courses on those topics but (like a well-written bumper sticker) can be a lot better than _nothing_.

If you're suggesting that this is, in a roundabout way, equivalent to an argument for including Glenn Beck in the canon, we can take that option up in discussion separately, though I think it's too soon to judge Beck that influential.

(Then again, Hutchins was from the University of Chicago, and I heard a story once about a guy from that place getting nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after only two weeks of continuing George Bush's foreign policies, so anything's possible at that place.)

I increasingly suspect I appall _exactly_ the right people, by the way, so keep up the attacks, egghead.