Aspen’s great books readers
August 21, 2009
While enjoying Christopher Beha’s recent book about reading the Harvard Classics, “The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else,” I was reminded of how the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World had affected my family and Aspen.
Beha writes, “… one of the great pleasures of reading has always been that it created, long before the advent of Facebook, a virtual community that transcended time and place.” The Great Books and the Aspen Institute’s seminars nourished a vibrant reading community in Aspen.
Publication of Great Books of the Western World coincided with the creation of the Institute’s executive seminars. Walter Paepcke was searching for a way to continue the meaningful discussions that had arisen during the Goethe Bicentennial. Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago had been instrumental in the success of the Bicentennial. They were compiling selections of the classics while writing the first volumes of the Great Books. Those two volumes defined the purpose of the project and introduced a method for reading the other 52. Paepcke pushed Adler into providing a great books seminar, similar to those he had conducted at the University of Chicago, at the Wheeler during the summer of 1950. Those seminars with general audiences led to the creation of the executive seminars and, for the few Aspenites who participated, enticed them to read the classics.
The first edition of the gargantuan set of Great Books came out in 1952. Fewer than 2,000 were sold the first year and not many more until after 1961, when they were marketed like encyclopedias. Mortimer Adler did not like the idea of mass-marketing as he feared the sets would be used, as had the Harvard Classics, to decorate shelves rather than for their intended educational purpose. Three of my aunts bought sets in the ’50s and I remember seeing them engrossed in those books for years.
Adler’s Syntopicon, a guide for reading and studying the classics, provides topical reading lists and introductions. According to Adler, it “serves the end of liberal education to the extent that it facilitates the reading of the great books and beyond that, the study and teaching of them.” Adler selected 50 topics including; love, honor, and courage, then links the reader to what Homer, Chaucer, Aristotle or others wrote about those themes.
Paepcke and Adler’s goal of facilitating a liberal education touched many in Aspen, but perhaps not the audience they originally conceived. Aspen’s permanent and summer populations of middle-aged women comprised the majority of those who availed themselves of the opportunity. Few of those women born in the early decades of the 20th century graduated, or even attended, college. What they lacked in university education they fulfilled with self-education. They aspired to be culturally knowledgeable. They enjoyed the arts, read diverse literature and were intellectually curious.
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Adler, criticized for not including a single female writer in the great books, never apologized. The focus in the early years of the Institute was on businessmen, and although many of their wives attended the seminars, few women felt that Adler took them seriously. Nevertheless, with the time to read and the desire for a liberal education, they applied themselves most seriously to the seminars and the Great Books.
I must admit that my attempts to follow Adler’s formula for a liberal education have been feeble at best, but I did absorb the example of three aunts’ reading habits. I internalized the value of understanding the classics even if I didn’t read them. My sister Jeanne was completely committed to the task, so much so that she used her summer wages to buy her own set. Jeanne majored in English at Colorado University. She shunned class attendance in favor of round-the-clock reading. Of all the people I know who own a set, she completed the most thorough reading.
Well into following Adler’s guide and comparing the Great Books with her assigned college literature she concluded, in the 1960s feminist furry, that Aristotle wasn’t so profound and that Adler’s apparent bias against female writers and anyone who published after the 19th century was more than she could tolerate. Heaping insult upon injury, her professors told her that the public domain translations used for the Great Books were chosen to save money when better, more readable, translations were available. The 1990 edition addressed both shortcomings.
Reading does create a “virtual community” that transcends place and time, but the launch of the beginning of the Great Books is only a childhood memory of a now-aging clique of Aspen readers.