James Campbell in The New York Times:
A Great Idea At the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of Great Books by Alex Beam.
The humble book has survived many attacks on its integrity over the centuries, whether from tyrannical clerics or fearful governments or the new electronic wizard that promises a peculiarly modern “pleasure of the text” via limitless accessibility. Nevertheless, publishers continue to produce books, while countless numbers of people read them and — a word that crops up frequently in relation to books — love them.
In the middle of the last century, a committee of commercially minded academics came up with its own strategy to undermine the enjoyment of reading. With the backing of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler and a few others whittled the literary, scientific and philosophical canon down to 443 exemplary works. They had them bound in 54 black leatherette volumes, with the overall designation Great Books of the Western World, then hired genial salesmen to knock on suburban doors and make promises of fulfilment through knowledge. In a postwar world in which educational self-improvement seemed within everyone’s reach, the Great Books could be presented as an item of intellectual furniture, rather like their prototype, the Encyclopedia Britannica (which also backed the project). Whereas the Britannica justified its hulking presence in the home as a reference tool, however, the Great Books made a more strident demand — they wanted to be read. Unfortunately, once opened, the volumes were forbidding. Each was a small library in its own right, with slabs of text arranged in monumental double columns. The Great Books of the Western World were what books should not be: an antidote to pleasure.
The great minds behind the Great Books were Hutchins and Adler.