Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Britannica Great Books reviewed

According to, Mark Twain did say that a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read. As far as it goes it captures the feeling of many of us: we have the certainty down there that if somehow we read the classics our lives & understanding would be enriched. Unfortunately the second part is also very true: not only most of us haven't in reality read those books, but in cases we have actively avoided them. Don't know the reason and don't care much for it. What I did care for is that I did not want to be lumped with the rest, so I decided to actually read the books and be the one who could, admittedly selfishly, raise his hand and say: I have.

Now, Twain's definition doesn't address actual titles, but there is no shortage of lists on what one should read. I decided early on on the Britannica Great Books because I happened to have a set handy.

The Britannica Great Books is a set of the greatest works of literature, philosophy, science, politics and religion in the western world as considered by the editors. There have been two editions of the set. The 1952 edition has 54 tomes and goes from Homer to William James and Freud while the 1990 edition does some reshuffling and expands the selection to include 20th century authors in six extra tomes. I'll center what follows on the 1980 reissue of the first edition.

The volumes themselves are all hardcover and standardized in height and length. For the more voluminous authors (Aristotle, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Gibbon) their works are divided in two volumes. The longest volume is around 800 pages.  The spines are color-coded according to the nature of the works, such as red for philosophy & religion or green for science. This is a deluxe set and quite handsome as an object. Unlike others in the category, the covers and spines can withstand regular use without turning unsightly.

The pages on all volumes is pleasant cream-colored. Most of text is densely arranged in two columns, though there are some exceptions (eg Paradise Lost). In the case of Chaucer the Middle-English original text is presented on the even pages (left side) and in modern English on the odd pages, in Loeb classical library fashion, for easy comparison. The margins are slim which forestall any but the most concise, in-page  reader annotations (not that I'd recommend you doing that).

All authors have a brief biographical overview. All volumes have table of contents as well.

Most of the volumes are devoid of footnotes, endnotes or clarifying explanations. Those that do have, such as Aquinas and Gibbon are more focused on references for research purposes than on clarification. Part of the philosophy of this set, traced back to John Erskine, is that all the works were originally intended for the layperson; thus, they are accessible to modern audiences.

The other important aspect of the set's philosophy, put forth in the first volume, The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins, is that each new author is acquainted with the previous ones and builds upon their themes, ideas and viewpoints in an evolving conversation through time.  In the preface to this volume he makes an apology in the name of the editors as to why for the existence of the set, the general guidelines of construction and title inclusion.  He readily acknowledges that list of works might not include everyone's favorite books.  Not all the works of a given author are included. For instance, just by looking there's no way for Freud's complete works to be fitted into one or two volumes, or have Dostoyevsky collection of novels gathered and still keep a manageable set. Hutchins also goes on to say that some long dry passages within the works are present: better that than risking editorializing with scissors at hand. The rest of the volume is an exposition of liberal education and how it is needed for the democratic ideal. This part reflect the Cold War period in which it was written, but even if the circumstances are no longer what they used to, the underlying aspirations still ring true. Reading now, decades into the future, one gets a sense of shame for the Editors' ideal having not yet been realized. If anything, the challenge is even more daunting than when the set was conceived considering the current state of education.

On brighter notes the Great Conversation aspect becomes clear in the second & third volumes: the Syntopicon. These contain a collection of the 102 most important ideas present in the Conversation according to the editors. Each idea is presented with an essay by philosopher Mortimer J Adler. These essays are just a bit steep, but give the lay of the land for the idea and  once one has put his or her mind to it are gems in themselves.  After each essay, the idea is minutely dissected into its different relevant topics (actually the topics form the idea, not the other way around). Finally, each of these topics are referenced to all its occurrences within the set, making the Conversation palpable. Nowadays you can get the works that comprise that Great Books separately one way or another, but not the Syntopicon, which thus makes it the most valuable piece of the set. It is an unparalleled tool for research!

Now, this is not the only set with similar aims. The Harvard Classics (HC) predate the Great Books by some forty years and came into being when its editor, Dr Eliot, was asked to make good on his assertion that a liberal education could be obtained by a 3-5 foot shelf of (well-chosen) books.  To bring forth more of the characteristics of The Great Books, it warrants a brief comparison with the HC set. In size, quite coincidentally it seems, the Great Books match Eliot's estimate of five feet. However, the pages of the HC are not as densely packed, resulting in less of the total works being included. Notable examples are just the first part of Don Quixote and only a few of Plutarch's Lives. The inclusion of a wider selection of material and categories in some degree offsets the partial works; though, with the benefit of hindsight the selection of the HC feels more idiosyncratic than that of the Great Books. There is substantial poetry and even travels, which the Great Books ignores. The HC has no qualms about including some Eastern works like and authors like the Thousand And One Nights and Confucius, as it is not  guided (or burdened if you will) by the Great Conversation concept. It's philosophy is just to give a chance for anyone to get 'cultivated'. It also has a disproportionate weighting of English and American writers as English language readers are its target audience. While Adler, on the side of the Great Books, makes no secret that proper great book reading is a difficult undertaking, the HC open themselves to any taker with no dire warnings about difficulty. In fact, a reading plan for children 12-18 is offered in the index tome. Some explanatory footnotes are offered here and there. In How to Read a Book, Adler doesn't resist the temptation to take a jab at the HC by pointing out their frequent un-greatness, fragmentary nature and unsystematicty.

Regarding systematicity, the editors of the Great Books offer an interesting 10 year reading plan. The set looks daunting, but having it broken down to such a long period makes it not only  achievable in its reading but exciting. For my part I've not resisted to get right into some texts and, while still striving for completion, have not followed any preset plan. The editors also agree with such course.

With only the raw texts and the barest sliver of commentary, are the Great Books readable? For the most part they are. However, a quiet place to read and concentration are even more of a prerequisite than for everyday novels; once one has gained traction, it is often the case that ease and comprehension set in.  One must be aware that there is a difference between taking the trouble to read them in the first place and really reading them in Adler mode (more on that on the next post). And it doesn't stop there; in The Great Ideas and probably elsewhere, Adler suggests that a round of discussion with other readers to top it off. I'm still dubious about the lack of explanatory comments. Some tomes, particularly those of ancient times, could profit from some guidance on obscure passages or persons. In the Letter to the Reader in the first volume, Hutchins asserts that the works become easier to read as one pushes forward. I can attest that at least for me it is the case: concepts become clearer, the themes more readily identifiable, the way of the Great Conversation brighter and, if one gives it an honest sustained effort, each new work easier to sort out (more on this on a future installment). Some of the texts will stay steep however, particularly the scientific ones, although I'm not really qualified to talk about those as of now, as I have not gotten into those yet (the one on conics by Apollonius of Perga looks really interesting though!). I suspect that is quite useless to read a couple few of these, such as Copernicus' Revolutions (The Book Nobody Read): they have a place in the set because they made an impact, but not because one can profit from them now. (Hutchins sternly warns against this viewpoint). For the rest of the tomes, in many cases, the most foreboding aspect is the double column layout.

In the end, I would recommend anyone who wants to align herself with the democratic ideal of the founding fathers and is really willing to get into them.

5 stars


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