Inherited Books, Part II

My dad bought the Great Books of the Western World from a door-to-door salesman back in the 1960s. He says he had to haggle mightily to get the entire 50+ book set for about $300. Dad never went to college, but he fancied himself a lover of the classics. I don’t know that he ever really touched the series, which was dreamed up in the early 1950s by Encyclopedia Brittannica. I grew up staring at these books; they occupied several shelves in our home, next to other relics of my dad’s bachelor days, like his hi-fi stereo.

I remember checking the books out when I was in high school and needing to read some of the books contained in the set, like Moby-Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, or the complete works of Shakespeare in two slim volumes. The paper was like onionskin, the type minuscule, and the books astoundingly footnote-free. They were too fancy to take back and forth to school on the bus so back on the shelves they went and I made do with paperback editions I could highlight.

Depending on where you look online, these books were either the greatest thing ever or utterly ridiculous, the brainchild of dead white men to celebrate the legacies of dead white men.

Dad’s downsizing so he palmed the books off on me. I may not ever get around to reading them, but I do plan to read A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam, a book about the making of the “great books” series, which sputtered to an end in 1998. (NY Times review of Baum’s book here. Amazon link here. Cover in lower right.)

 I need to find room for this set now in my basement. Wish me luck.