The Great Ideas Today

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.

17 responses to “The Great Ideas Today”

  1. Totally. Jealous. I knew they had a book on the great ideas but I didn’t know about the series. According to Wikipedia there were 37 volumes!

  2. You might want to sneak over to Andy’s house and steal the bookcase full of Adler-edited volumes the boys have got. I assume they’re from his Great Books series – everything from Aristotle to Marx.

  3. Wishoswashowishshhshsoawsashhhh…

    (That’s the sound of the wind blowing a tumbleweed through your blog.)

  4. Tumbleweeds?! 😉

    If you only knew how busy I was.

  5. I came across your post doing a search for The Great Ideas Today. I was trying to find if there were any more published after 1998 and if not why? Anyway, I just received from my father his entire collection of The Great Books, Gateway to the Great Books and the complete Great Ideas Today from 1961-1998. I unspeakably moved to have them and may never need to buy another book. Well, that may be a tad premature. I am homeschooling my son (also named Ian Stewart!) who is only 5 but we are using classical literature and next have scheduled a children’s version of Plutarch as well as children’s version of the Iliad and a little Shakespeare for good measure! I am envisioning that my newly acquired collection will have much use over the years….

  6. Unspeakably moved sounds about right. Always glad to hear about more classically minded Ian Stewarts in the world!

  7. Hi there~

    I bought the 1995 volume in Beijing 3 years ago when I was exploring in a used-book market. I fell deep in love with the book. But in China it is almost impossible the get the series.

    I came across your post while Googling for GIT, and be really jealous about you guys having all these great books.

  8. I was actually wondering what the start and ending years for the Great Ideas Today series actually are (that is if the series has been ended). As far as I know, the first book in that series is 1961, at least according to what little information I’ve found.

    I have The Great Ideas Today volumes 1965-1972, as well as the 54 volume The Great Books themselves (1952) in their specially made 2-shelf book case, the 10 volume Gateway to the Great Books (1963) in their own tilted stand, and the 10 volume The Great Ideas Program (1959), all of which display only the original copyright year.

    These books I inherited from my father, who I don’t think ever actually read them since the bindings on the vast majority of then are still very tight, and I have been very careful to not stretch the bindings when I read them in order to preserve them in the best condition possible for my son.

    I would like to try and hunt down the earlier volumes to the beginning year as well as later editions as far as they go. Any information on what volume years were actually produced for the series would be appreciated. Thank you.

  9. I bought my set of The Great Books of the Western World in 1960 and every place I have lived they have been with me. I have the yearbooks from The Great Ideas Today from 1960-1969. How I wish I had them all. The additions to the great books are a disappointment to me. I wish they had left the original program alone and started another program with another name.

  10. The Great Ideas Today were published from 1961 until 1998. They are endlessly great, enlightening reading. It took me years to acquire the entire collection, and I found that the later editions (from 1990 to 1998) are increasingly scarce – because fewer were printed with each year – sad.

  11. The whole series was a superb “history of ideas’ from the early sixties to the late nineties. Sadly, it was discontinued due to lagging sales. That was absurd! The real problem was that Encyclopedia Brittanica got taken over by a “generation that knew not Mortimer”. It marked the beginning of the decline and fall of EB.
    I have seen the whole series, from 1961 to 1998 offered on

  12. I have years 1973 – 1990. They have never been read. I would like to sell the set. Any ideas?

    1. Ebay? I’ve seen sets on there.

  13. I believe the full run was from 1961-1998; I have years 1961-1982, but would love to complete it someday. I’m on 1969 right now in the middle of Anselm. Great stuff!

  14. It has been 2.5 years since the last comment, so I don’t know if anyone is still reading this blog. However, I manages to pick up the Great Books (1990) from a church basement sale for $30 about 10 years ago, and like you I became hooked. I have since acquired The Gateway to the Great Books, the entire Great Ideas Today series (1961-1998), the Annals of America series (missng the last few volumes/years), and the Encyclopoedia Brittanica (15th Edition – edited by M.J. Adler), and the single volume Great Treasury of Western Thought. Next to acquire is the Oxford English Dictonary.

    1. Like Michel Daw, I was fascinated to see this dialogue spanning the years. I’ve got all the sets he mentions PLUS the Oxford English Dictionary! But I’m missing nearly a dozen volumes in “The Great Ideas Today” set, and plan to start hunting them down again. I’m on volume 4 of the “Gateway” series, it is huge fun to read. I had to wait until retirement to make time to do this, but have no regrets now. I am especially curious to see the final (1998) volume of “Great Ideas Today.” The preface to the 1996 volume said goodbye to Mortimer Adler.

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