Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Me and the Great Books

with 10 comments

It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the most exciting moments of my life occurred at a church book sale in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, when I bought a set of the Great Books of the Western World for only thirty-five dollars. At the age of seventeen, I’d long been fascinated by the Great Books set in my high school library, with their uniform spines and the names of their authors enticingly lettered in gold: Homer, Lucretius, Plotinus, Augustine, not to mention Fourier, Faraday and two volumes of Gibbon. (Later, upon reviewing my own set, I noticed that the volumes for Darwin and Marx were missing, an omission that I note here without comment.) I’d always been a sucker for canons and reading lists, so I rashly vowed, in a column published in my high school newspaper, to read all fifty-four volumes in the two years before graduation. And indeed, for a while, I may have been the only high school junior in the country who was furtively reading Gibbon behind a textbook in calculus class.

More recently, it has become fashionable, in such books as Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time, to dismiss the Great Books project as an inexplicable manifestation of mid-fifties middlebrow Americana. Certainly the set, with its rather prissy air of righteousness, is easy to mock, and there’s no denying the various ways in which it falls short: the complete lack of women; the poor translations of such authors as Virgil and Goethe, chosen mostly because they were in the public domain; the omission of such obvious choices as Martin Luther or Voltaire; the somewhat uninviting format, with its small type and double columns. (“It’s like reading the Bible!” one of my high school friends exclaimed.) There’s the curious Syntopicon, a compendium of what co-editor Mortimer J. Adler deemed to be the greatest ideas in history, from Angel to World, with its comically exhaustive subsections and page references to each of the set’s authors. And there’s the unfortunate fact, over which the editors had little control, that the sets were mostly hawked by traveling encyclopedia salesmen to families that probably never had much of an inclination to read Epictetus or Huygens.

All of these criticisms are fair enough. Yet when I look at my own set of the Great Books, which I recently had shipped from my parents’ garage to my new house in Oak Park, I’m struck above all else by the grandeur of the enterprise. Perhaps it’s because the idea of a publisher printing any set of fifty-four hardcover books, much less a collection like this, seems increasingly laughable these days. Or because the books themselves, now that the political and social circumstances of their origins have fallen away, seem nothing less than beautiful. Speaking from my own experience, I can say what while these books, in practice, may have seemed daunting to a casual reader, this is less important than what they promised to me in high school, and what they still promise today: a gateway into a world of ideas accessible to anyone with the patience to enter. It’s true that in many homes and libraries, these books may have been nothing but furniture, but for all their flaws, it’s hard for me to see them as anything less than what their editors meant them to be: a treasure hoard for the serious reader.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up reading all fifty-four volumes in the two years before I graduated. But over time, the Great Books, in their supposedly unreadable volumes, provided me with my first—and in some cases only—encounters with books and authors like Dante, Sophocles, Herodotus, Marcus Aurelius, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Gilbert’s On the Loadstone, William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and Moby-Dick. (I still haven’t read all of Gibbon.) More importantly, the books set me on a path that eventually led to a summer program at St. John’s College, one of the few liberal arts institutions that still put the great books at the core of their curriculum, and ultimately to majoring in Classics. My experience has taught me that while the great books, in any form, have their limitations as the heart of one’s education, I haven’t found anything better. And now that these books are back in my life, I’m looking forward to discovering their riches again—as soon as I find Darwin and Marx.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2012 at 10:42 am

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I see nothing wrong with The Great Books. They sound like they actually had some solid pieces of writing in there.


    January 20, 2012 at 10:51 am

  2. And how!


    January 20, 2012 at 10:54 am

  3. I do hope you find a replacement Darwin. It’s actually pretty engaging (seems as though all I read are Victorians these days, due to their e-books being free…).

    My problem with Great Books collections is the typeface is so small and uninviting that the books are just hard to read. I’m not sure if that’s seen as a defect or a feature by most of the target consumers. The one author for whom it works well is Shakespeare, because you can sometimes see almost an entire act on a few pages, so you get a better feel for where the play is going (and I have to squint and re-read the text anyway because there are so many words I don’t know).


    January 20, 2012 at 11:46 am

  4. I actually read The Origin of Species a few years ago, so I’m looking for Darwin mostly to fix that unsightly gap on my shelves. Das Kapital, on the other hand…

    And I agree that the type in these books could be larger. I will go on record, however, as saying that the pages smell great.


    January 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm

  5. Great post…is your goal still to finish all 54 volumes?


    January 23, 2012 at 11:58 am

  6. I hope so! Except maybe for Apollonius’ Conics.


    January 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

  7. I can confim that the pages do indeed smell great!


    March 26, 2014 at 6:40 am

  8. Glad to know that it isn’t just my set!


    March 26, 2014 at 12:23 pm

  9. I wonder, did the 1990 edition switch to single-column pages? I think that’s what’s holding me back from ordering a set. Your eyes just fall down the page instead of comprehending what you’re reading. Otherwise I love the content they packed in here. More than Modern Library, Classics Club, Harvard Classics, etc.


    August 10, 2022 at 8:39 am

  10. As far as I know, the format never changed! I agree that some of the volumes aren’t the easiest to read, although that didn’t stop me from plowing through Herodotus, Boswell, and more.


    August 10, 2022 at 9:23 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: