Belly of the Whale: The Great Books
A blogumn by Howard Leder
To continue where I left off with my last post and my dread over losing touch with the written word: with my usual manic fervor, I launched myself on an ambitious new reading program.
Now don’t laugh: I’m reading the Great Books. Literally, the Great Books. The Great Books of the Western World were a series put together by American philosopher & pedagogue Mortimer Adler in the mid-1940’s, an encyclopedic survey of the bedrock of Western thought from Homer to Freud that was published by the Encyclopedia Britannica. I first learned about the Great Books when I was a senior in high school from watching a documentary about Adler on PBS. In the documentary Adler & a group of students were discussing some idea or other (Justice? Liberty? Freedom?) in the most brilliant way imaginable, like a modern day Socrates & his disciples in that market at Athens. For me, it was a seductive image.
Now, this was back in the late 80’s, and the idea of the Great Books was very much under attack, particularly at my college Oberlin. The notion of “Great Books” was seen as little more than a trophy case for dead white guy writers. But still they kept luring me back, always with a certain guilt & fascination. “I am! I am reading Toni Morrison,” I would say by day, while secretly longing for Herodotus at night. (And while Morrison has not cracked the Great Books glass ceiling in the most recent edition, they did add Virginia Woolf & Willa Cather…)
Mostly, it was the idea of The Set, the set itself of the Great Books that always exerted this strange pull on me. On one level, it’s just a list or syllabus. You could easily pick up copies of the books individually. Yet whenever I saw a complete set in a book store, I would linger near it, like a junior high kid repeatedly walking by the house of his crush.
Finally, I gave in. I bought a set in mint condition on ebay for $125. They are sitting in a giant gilt (guilt?) bound pile next to my TV stand. During Project Runway, I’m forced to look around them to see the TV. I need new bookshelves in my apartment just to hold them all (they take up four linear feet of shelf space!). I’m currently midway through reading Volume 4: Homer.
I have more books in my house currently than I will ever read in a lifetime. I am a slow, methodical reader. I don’t tend to read books so much as memorize them. And my mind tends to wander. A lot. So why more? And why this giant relic of a library, like a bunch of bric a brac you find stuffed in a hat box at the back of your dead aunt’s closet?
So as I wind my way through the 54 volumes, I’ll let you know what answers emerge. I will either come out exceedingly wise or end up back on the road of foolishness. Leafing through them as I unpacked them, I had the distinct sense they had never been read before. Someone must have bought them thirty, forty years ago, and then…they…sat. On a shelf. Unread. The description on ebay said “picked up at an estate sale,” so it may be that in another forty years, they’ll be back on ebay, their spines still barely cracked, their pages unmarked & unloved. I’ll keep you posted.