In the early 1950s a 54-volume series, The Great Books of the Western World
, was published by the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica. They comprised 443 works which supposedly embraced the ideas of Western civilisation. It was a runaway best-seller, a cultural phenomenon. Then one day, the fad was over, and they were derided as racist, imperialist and dangerously right-wing. This is a witty history of their cultural reign.
Today the classics of the western canon, written by the proverbial dead white men, are cannon fodder in the culture wars. But in the 1950s and 1960s, they were a pop culture phenomenon. The Great Books of Western Civilization, fifty-four volumes chosen by intellectuals at the University of Chicago, began as an educational movement, and evolved into a successful marketing idea. Why did a million American households buy books by Hippocrates and Nicomachus from door-to-door salesmen? And how and why did the great books fall out of fashion? In A Great Idea at the Time Alex Beam explores the Great Books mania, in an entertaining and strangely poignant portrait of American popular culture on the threshold of the television age. Populated with memorable characters, A Great Idea at the Time will leave readers asking themselves: Have I read Lucretiuss De Rerum Natura lately? If not, why not?