Great books!

Via Arts & Letters Daily, a review of a book about the Harvard Classics' successor project -- The Great Books of the Western World. (You must say the title in your deepest voice.) It's interesting. Here's a quote:
Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe, not a cultural theorist. He correctly locates the Great Books among other middle class diversions like the Saturday Review of Literature and the Book of the Month Club. Newly affluent Americans wanted the trappings of learning – and the faux-leather volumes of the Great Books of the Western World fit the bill.

But beyond this, Beam doesn’t give much consideration to Hutchins’s brand of cultural uplift. Does establishing a canon of cultural greatness aid the preservation or defence of democracy? It’s not an easy question to answer...
First of all, I totally see the Harvard Classics as a piece of upwardly mobile furniture -- the equivalent of something cool from Pottery Barn. (In fact they'd be great in the background of Pottery Barn photo shoots.) I'm sure that's why my great-grandfather 1) bought them but 2) never seems to have opened them.

But the question of whether cultural greatness = more democracy is an easy question to answer. The answer is "No." It seems to me, after a year of reading this stuff, that there's nothing inherently democratic, or inherently undemocratic for that matter, about cultural greatness. The instinct to make culture is universal and will persist under almost all political conditions -- except famine, maybe. The twentieth century is full of cultured barbarism; to avoid the obvious Furtwanglery example, look what happened to all the Russian arts institutions that only flourished under Communism.

Personally I'm skeptical of whether we can derive any political use from culture. Or to shade this statement a little bit, that we can derive any consistent or predictable use from it. It's part of my greater skepticism of the "Good For You" argument that seems to be the way they sold these Great Books series. Not that high culture, which we might define as works that have trouble paying their own way, isn't Good For You -- it's just that if it were only Good For You I'd say the hell with it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have the modern-day equivalent to the Harvard Shelf or Great Books. For my birthday, a friend gave me a book called 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I haven't had time to read anything in it yet, so I'm not sure what criteria were used to choose them, but it seems to me something meant to make even avid readers feel like slackers. The first thing I'm going to do is go through the list of titles to see what I've already read. Maybe the task will seem less daunting if I only have 943 books left to read. Also, this could be your next project - read and comment on the recommendations. Happy New Year! MJ