A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME
The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
By Alex Beam
Illustrated. 245 pp. PublicAffairs. $24.95
da BBC Brasil
A cidade de Hamelin, no norte da Alemanha, poderá precisar novamente dos serviços do lendário flautista para afastar uma nova infestação de ratos.
O problema agora se concentra em um lote de terra abandonado nos limites da cidade que se transformou no foco da infestação, com ratos passeando por alimentos jogados fora e pelo lixo que está no local.
Ao invés de atrair os ratos para o rio da cidade com música, como o flautista teria feito segundo a lenda, as autoridades municipais pretendem colocar armadilhas em volta do lote abandonado.
Segundo a lenda, em 1284 a cidade de Hamelin foi invadida por ratos, mas um flautista os atraiu com sua música para o rio. O flautista também teria atraído para o rio as crianças da cidade, pois a cidade não pagou pelo serviço.
Em 2009 a cidade planeja marcar o 725º aniversário da lenda do flautista de Hamelin com vários eventos, incluindo um grande desfile de crianças pelas ruas da cidade.
Um porta-voz das autoridades municipais de Hamelin, Thomas Wahmes, afirmou que o problema ainda é restrito aos limites da cidade, mas existe a ameaça de que os ratos possam invadir um conjunto habitacional vizinho.
Segundo Wahmes a população de ratos "explodiu" no terreno, mas a prefeitura não pôde exterminar os roedores, pois ainda não se sabe quem é o dono do local e as autoridades não podem invadir uma propriedade particular.
"Precisamos enfrentar os ratos diretamente no local", disse Wahmes à BBC na quarta-feira. O porta-voz afirmou que a área infestada é do tamanho de um campo de futebol.
A história da "nova" infestação de ratos em Hamelin foi muito divulgada pela imprensa alemã e as ofertas de ajuda à cidade vieram de todo o país.
"Não existe um problema com ratos no centro da cidade e esperamos que dentro de algumas semanas tenhamos removido esta ameaça", afirmou Wahmes.
A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME
The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
By Alex Beam
Illustrated. 245 pp. PublicAffairs. $24.95
The humble book has survived many attacks on its integrity over the centuries, whether from tyrannical clerics or fearful governments or the new electronic wizard that promises a peculiarly modern “pleasure of the text” via limitless accessibility. Nevertheless, publishers continue to produce books, while countless numbers of people read them and — a word that crops up frequently in relation to books — love them.
In the middle of the last century, a committee of commercially minded academics came up with its own strategy to undermine the enjoyment of reading. With the backing of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler and a few others whittled the literary, scientific and philosophical canon down to 443 exemplary works. They had them bound in 54 black leatherette volumes, with the overall designation Great Books of the Western World, then hired genial salesmen to knock on suburban doors and make promises of fulfilment through knowledge. In a postwar world in which educational self-improvement seemed within everyone’s reach, the Great Books could be presented as an item of intellectual furniture, rather like their prototype, the Encyclopedia Britannica (which also backed the project). Whereas the Britannica justified its hulking presence in the home as a reference tool, however, the Great Books made a more strident demand — they wanted to be read. Unfortunately, once opened, the volumes were forbidding. Each was a small library in its own right, with slabs of text arranged in monumental double columns. The Great Books of the Western World were what books should not be: an antidote to pleasure.
The great minds behind the Great Books were Hutchins and Adler. Hutchins was a precocious academic administrator — dean of Yale Law School at age 28, president of the University of Chicago at 30 — Adler a philosopher of ideas, author of works like “How to Read a Book” and a man who, in the words of Joseph Epstein, a colleague in the 1960s, “did not suffer subtlety gladly.” The Great Books project was many years in the making and was intertwined with Hutchins’s desire to reform the humanities curriculum at Chicago, but in 1952, after years of planning and bargaining with fellow members of the Great Books team — “If Dickens goes, Melville goes” (Dickens did; Melville didn’t) — he and Adler saw their dream become a well-upholstered reality.
In “A Great Idea at the Time,” Alex Beam presents Hutchins and Adler as a double act: Hutchins the tall, suave one with a gift for leadership; Adler “a troll next to the godlike Hutchins,” with a talent for putting students to sleep. Making the acquaintance of Hutchins through his works was, to Beam, “like falling in love.” By contrast, “to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake.” As an appendix to the Great Books, Adler insisted on compiling a two-volume index of essential ideas, the easily misspelled Syntopicon. A photograph in “A Great Idea at the Time” shows Adler surrounded by filing-cabinet drawers, each packed with index cards pertaining to a separate “idea”: Aristocracy, Chance, Cause, Form, Induction, Language, Life and so on. The cards registered the expression of those ideas — Adler arrived at the figure of 102 — in the Great Books of the Western World.
Hutchins and Adler’s Great Books were a mixture of books you wouldn’t dream of reading; books you think you ought to read but know you never will; and many books that, if you haven’t read them already, you would admire and possibly enjoy. The last category included the “Iliad,” works by Chaucer and Shakespeare, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” a few novels — “Tom Jones,” “War and Peace” — and various works of philosophy. The commercial aspect played on the common desire to harbor all of knowledge — Euclid, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Adam Smith, to name but a few — under one roof.
The texts were presented, however, without annotation, which would prove a hindrance even in the case of relatively accessible works, like Shakespeare’s sonnets. The 54 volumes contained practically nothing written in English in the previous 100 years (two works by Charles Darwin, one by William James), but heaps of Plato and Aristotle, some alarming medical remedies of Hippocrates — “Make the irons red-hot, and burn the pile until it be dried up” — and column after column of ancient science, of little interest to anyone but specialists, who would have equipped themselves with more advanced texts anyway. When asked for his views on which classic works to include among the Great Books, the science historian George Sarton pronounced the exercise futile: “Newton’s achievement and personality are immortal; his book is dead except from the archaeological point of view.”
Hoping to offer the reader what many of the Great Books fail to provide — entertainment — Beam falls over himself in the effort to be breezy and upbeat. No Mortimer Adler, he. “It is hard to resist poking fun,” he writes, and resistance is easily overcome. “From the culture’s point of view, Adler was a dead white male who had the bad luck to still be alive.” When reporting that “War and Peace” was among the selections of Hutchins and Adler, Beam fails to resist adding “no ‘Anna Karenina’; too readable!” His plain-man slangy style, which will be appreciated by fans of his column in The Boston Globe, is just as likely to be off-putting to others. Hutchins and his colleagues, Beam writes, “signed a pact with the devil of commerce” and “hawked their books” the way their ad man, William Benton, sold Crest toothpaste. “Forget that it cleans your teeth; you’ll be popular! Wisdom of the ages, schmisdom of the ages. Forget about learning — your boss will be impressed, women will seek you out (‘Oh! You’re reading Fourier’s “Theory of Heat.” . . . How fascinating!’), your kids will get into college, and so on. . . . Soon enough the Great Books were synonymous with boosterism, Babbittry, and H. L. Mencken’s benighted boobocracy. They were everything that was wrong, unchic and middlebrow about middle America.”
If not a great book, “A Great Idea at the Time” acts as a good guide to the rise and fall of the project. For a brief period, the Great Books were at the heart of the curriculum at Chicago, and continue to feature strongly elsewhere. In one of the reportorial chapters toward the end of his account, Beam visits St. John’s College in Annapolis (it also has a campus in Santa Fe), which still operates a teaching program based on “all Great Books, all the time.” In 70 years, little has changed at St John’s. “If a boy or girl wants to attend medical school,” Beam writes, “that means an additional year . . . of memorizing facts in conventional biology and chemistry classes, not learning the ‘truth’ behind the science, Great Books-style.”
Hutchins and Adler foresaw many obstacles on the way to ushering the Great Books into classrooms and living rooms, overcoming them by persistence, financing — the compilation of the Syntopicon alone took eight years — and a not always likable self-belief. But not even the distilled wisdom of the 54 volumes could have helped them predict that by the 1980s students on campuses throughout the United States would be forming groups and chanting, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western culture’s got to go!” sometimes with support of politicians. By then, the Great Books notion had fallen from its commercial and academic high point to being the focus of readings groups. Beam relates his own adventures in one of the “850 active chapters” of the Great Books Foundation, discussing Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and other writers overlooked even in the updated edition of 1990. The Great Books of the Western World are not what they were. But the world’s great books, in some mysterious, muddled way, endure.James Campbell’s collection of essays, “Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers and Writers in the Dark,” was recently published. He writes a weekly column in The Times Literary Supplement.
This is one of those moments in history when it is worth pausing to reflect on the basic facts:
An American with the name Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a white woman and a black man he barely knew, raised by his grandparents far outside the stream of American power and wealth, has been elected the 44th president of the United States.
Showing extraordinary focus and quiet certainty, Mr. Obama swept away one political presumption after another to defeat first Hillary Clinton, who wanted to be president so badly that she lost her bearings, and then John McCain, who forsook his principles for a campaign built on anger and fear.
His triumph was decisive and sweeping, because he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens. He offered a government that does not try to solve every problem but will do those things beyond the power of individual citizens: to regulate the economy fairly, keep the air clean and the food safe, ensure that the sick have access to health care, and educate children to compete in a globalized world.
Mr. Obama spoke candidly of the failure of Republican economic policies that promised to lift all Americans but left so many millions far behind. He committed himself to ending a bloody and pointless war. He promised to restore Americans’ civil liberties and their tattered reputation around the world.
With a message of hope and competence, he drew in legions of voters who had been disengaged and voiceless. The scenes Tuesday night of young men and women, black and white, weeping and cheering in Chicago and New York and in Atlanta’s storied Ebenezer Baptist Church were powerful and deeply moving.
Mr. Obama inherits a terrible legacy. The nation is embroiled in two wars — one of necessity in Afghanistan and one of folly in Iraq. Mr. Obama’s challenge will be to manage an orderly withdrawal from Iraq without igniting new conflicts so the Pentagon can focus its resources on the real front in the war on terror, Afghanistan.
The campaign began with the war as its central focus. By Election Day, Americans were deeply anguished about their futures and the government’s failure to prevent an economic collapse fed by greed and an orgy of deregulation. Mr. Obama will have to move quickly to impose control, coherence, transparency and fairness on the Bush administration’s jumbled bailout plan.
His administration will also have to identify all of the ways that Americans’ basic rights and fundamental values have been violated and rein that dark work back in. Climate change is a global threat, and after years of denial and inaction, this country must take the lead on addressing it. The nation must develop new, cleaner energy technologies, to reduce greenhouse gases and its dependence on foreign oil.
Mr. Obama also will have to rally sensible people to come up with immigration reform consistent with the values of a nation built by immigrants and refugees.
There are many other urgent problems that must be addressed. Tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance, including some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens — children of the working poor. Other Americans can barely pay for their insurance or are in danger of losing it along with their jobs. They must be protected.
Mr. Obama will now need the support of all Americans. Mr. McCain made an elegant concession speech Tuesday night in which he called on his followers not just to honor the vote, but to stand behind Mr. Obama. After a nasty, dispiriting campaign, he seemed on that stage to be the senator we long respected for his service to this country and his willingness to compromise.That is a start. The nation’s many challenges are beyond the reach of any one man, or any one political party.