I haven’t been this excited about a book or series of books in a while. Back when Mortimer Adler (How to Read a Book) was with the Encyclopedia Britannica he edited a series of books called The Great Ideas Today. Basically, the old elitist (note: I think that’s a good thing) wanted to popularize academic excitement. Taking his list of the 50 great ideas he and Robert Hutchins rounded up the important scholars and authors of the day and had them produce essays on a theme. This would be followed up by an essay from the editors on what the Great Books can say about the subject and a literary section featuring exciting work in literature. These were apparently published every year (I say apparently because I don’t really know).
I bought three of the things on the weekend, at the library “Giant Used Book Sale.” The sale wasn’t exactly giant. Sure, 5 dollars for as many books as can be carried in a stretched out grocery-store bag was kind of cool—although some of the bags were slimy-dirty—but the selection wasn’t really there. For instance, my son and I were excited to find an animated Rikki-Tikki-Tavvi film in the A/V section, until we realized it was Beta. Beta! Anyway, The Great Ideas Today.
I’m sort of a Mortimer Adler nut. His How to Read a Book was kind of influential on me—I’m sure you noticed. He’s even had me reading Aristotle. Consequently, I almost fell over when I saw The Great Ideas Today. I mean, look, here’s the volume I’m reading now: 1963, Does The Conquest of Space Increase Man’s Stature? Not, is it good to spend money on space exploration? Not, what will we find out there? But, what will the conquest of space do to the noble animal? And what does this mean in terms of the book? Well you get Aldous Huxley and Paul Tillich, amongst others, essaying on it. You get the classical-minded editors writing an essay on The Tempo of History, the speeding up of the world. Plus, an essay on Saul Bellow and an unabridged Death of Venice by Thomas Mann. Aldous Huxley and Paul Tillich on the Space Race? Yes! And it annoys them in interesting ways I can’t immediately argue with? Yes!
The other two volumes discuss Heroism and Tradition. I’m in heaven. If you ever see these volumes lying around at a used book sale, put them in a slimy grocery bag and take them home. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Bonus link: In looking for information that would help me pretend I know what I’m talking about I found Mortimer Adler’s Favorite Books. Cool.