Read any Great Books lately?

Mortimer Adler is probably best-remembered for co-creating the list of “Great books of the Western World” and a corresponding curricula for people to read them and glean the great ideas of the Western world from them.  The list has been (justifiably) criticized for ossifying a canon of dead white men (Adler would later deny that any blacks had ever written good books!).  Even so, the books that made the cut are undeniably good, whether or not a more open-minded scholar might want to add the list.  The “Second edition” added more recent works to the list, but the editor’s bias is still pretty obvious.

Anyway a library consultant, Eric Lease Morgan of Infomotions LLC, decided to test just how great these books are, in the opinion of the online community.  There’s a little write-up on  his blog, which explains the project*.  I think it is both an interesting and dismal premise that you might be able to judge a book’s greatness based on the votes of the masses, but that’s me.

So, whether or not you’ve actually read any of the “great books,” you’re invited to take the survey to help see what a “crowdsourced” hierarchy of the great books will look like.  When you come to a nonsensical question (I found many of them unanswerable) just vote for neither/I don’t know, which is not counted in the  ranking.  My early prediction is that the “greatest” books will the ones most people recognize (whether or not they’ve read them) — the  Shakespeare and Homer (the Bible is not on the list).  We’ll see though!


*I’m pretty amused that one of the early comments on the blog is some Randian crank whining about “Why isn’t Atlas Shrugged on Mortimer Adler’s list, it’s teh greatest?!?”

Published in: on December 5, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (6)  
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  1. Mike, you said, “I think it is both an interesting and dismal premise that you might be able to judge a book’s greatness based on the votes of the masses, but that’s me.” And I agree.

    Yet the investigation is not really a popularity contest. The editors of the Great Books set defined greatness in this way:

    …but the great books posses them [the great ideas] for a
    considerable range of ideas, covering a variety of subject
    matters or disciplines; and among the great books the greatest
    are those with the greatest range of imaginative or intellectual

    In other words, greatness is a measure of the breadth and depth a book describes and discusses great ideas. In a related study I tried to measure just such a thing, specifically, by summing TFIDF scores using words like love, honor, truth, justice, beauty, art, science, god, angle, etc. as query terms. In the end, Shakespeare came out on top when it comes to love. Aristotle can out on top over all. Aristophanes’s Peace came out on top when it comes to war. In my calculations, many works by Hippocrates scored poorly. In the survey, this is proving true, but the converse is not. As you say, popular works (of fiction) are the “greatest”.

    Thank you for feedback.

    • Eric,
      I think I get what you’re trying to do. I am just skeptical that respondents to the survey can give informed feedback on many (perhaps most) of the questions.

  2. Well, I went through twenty questions of the survey. In all twenty questions presented, there was at least one of the works I haven’t read.

    While I’ll happily submit to judgment as an uneducated ignoramus, I do have to question the curricula presented.

    I have an undergraduate degree. I had a full bookshelf through my youth. I’ve had the 1969 version of Collier’s Encyclopedia within thirty feet of where I sleep for 41 years. I went to public school in one of the wealthiest school districts in all of Pennsylvania. I went to two colleges in Philadelphia, one an art school. I worked as a tutor for a Liberal Arts writing program.

    What did I do wrong?

    • 1. The list of Great Books is about 80-90 years old, was fairly conservative when it was created, and hasn’t been formally updated to include newer, important authors.

      2. A lot of the Great Books are outdated. Some are merely outdated scholastically, like Gibbon, in that newer research contradicts many of their findings, but are still worth reading as important examples of synthesizing and analyzing primary source text. Others, however, are outdated scholastically and outdated factually, such as most of Hippocrates and Lucretius, *unless* you’re trying to go through everything in order and put it in a historical context. Which some people do, and that’s wonderful, but IMO you shouldn’t have to know what Hippocrates thinks is cause of bad breath in order to consider yourself liberally educated.

      3. A recent (last 40ish years, maybe?) emergence in education was the idea that there are too many great books, too many great ideas, to focus on teaching students all of them, and it would be better if they were taught critical thinking skills and strategies for analysis directly than expected to decipher them from the thought and analysis of others.

      My general view is that the essentials should be a hierarchy, with a core list of the most important at the top and successive layers down filling in more gaps. Gibbon and Othello probably don’t need to be at the very top, but Thucydides and Hamlet probably do. Hippocrates probably belongs somewhere near Leibniz and Rabelais, who aren’t themselves nearly as important as Augustine. And so on.

      • Thank you for your informed and thoughtful reply!
        Wikipedia claims the first edition was unveiled in 1952 and the second edition added some modern (but pre-20th c.) works in 1990. I suppose I could check a real source too but I’m tired.

        I think most of the books listed are worth reading (from what I’ve heard or read about them!) but it would be ludicrous to claim everyone can or should read them. Looking at the list I’m a little shocked at how many I did manage to read (at least in excerpt) in my life, but there are huge swaths I never read (most of the Greek tragedy and Latin rhetoricians and mathematicians and Enlightenment scientists). I was a philosophy major though so that accounts for a lot of it; also in college I remember two freshmen courses on “great books” I had to take for the (dubious) honors program at the University of Toledo.

        So I’d agree that Plato is still worth reading but Faraday? Not so much.

    • You didn’t buy the Great Books ™ collection and enroll in the courses ™ Adler and company were selling to businessmen who wanted to fill up shelf space and look well-read.

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