Great Books of the Western World (60 Volumes)
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I have noticed other collections of great books often include mediocre and more obscure works which, while important in their historical context, are not part of what Adler described as the 'timeless conversation of ideas' that undergirds Western civilisation. Other collections of 'great books' more often reflect the compiler's or editor's cultural prejudices (though I know the same could be said for Adler, a 'Dead White Male') and frankly, a lot of chaff is in with the wheat. In one list for example, over 50% of the books were novels from the 20th century. The good thing about the 'Great Books' in this collection is that they are 'battle-tested' - Adler went to experts in the respective fields and asked them which works had survived the test of time, and which had not, and those that had 'made the grade.'
The other excellent thing is Adler's 'syntopicon of Great Ideas' and his extensive Bibliography at the end. The syntopicon and Bibliography together are almost a liberal education in themselves. The key ideas that have shaped western thought since its inception are cited and then Adler writes a 5,000 or so word essay explaining how they are discussed by the authors in the series, from Plato to Freud. Works that are highly relevant but not included in the collection but which also discuss these issues are included, such as Cicero, Schopenhauer, Lombard, Paine, Voltaire, etc.
In my view the collection is excellently priced. Considering a university education even in the liberal arts these days costs somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000, a book set costing only 1/30th or 1/100th of that but providing the core for a 'liberal education' as Adler puts it, is in my view a 'no-brainer.' Many people at my university have degrees in Law or the Arts but have not read a single book from this collection, and do not have any sense of where ideas like postmodernism have their actual origin; few have actually read the works of Plato or Plotinus (who Derrida refers back to a great deal in his most important works), Marx (many 'Marxists' have not actually read Marx's works aside from the 'Communist Manifesto') or Freud. Schopenhauer once said 'We need to read the primary texts (of an author of genius), for they will be far more enlightening than the mediocre mind who tries to fit him within his three pounds of grey matter.' Although Schopenhauer had Plato and Kant in mind when writing this, the same applies to the rest of these books. They are the finest of thinking the West has to offer the rest, and for better or worse, have framed 3,000 or so years of our intellectual history.
This set will be an excellent investment for anyone who seeks to learn about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Despite the price and the effort required to master these texts, the journey in the end is well worth it.
All true. But none of that matters. What you are buying here is the first three volumes (especially volumes 2 & 3) and their attendant reference set. I've owned the set for 20 years and found it invaluable because of those three first volumes. Here's how they work:
Volume 1, The Great Conversation, is essentially an inspirational text centered on the importance of a broad Liberal Education, as set against other views of education. You may take or leave it. The treasure house is the next two volumes.
The Syntopicon (volumes 2-3 of the set) is an index of 100 fundamental concepts that built the Euromerican mind and cultural vision. To give you an idea, here is a sample of the Great Ideas:
Art, Beauty, Cause, Chance, Democracy, Desire, Emotion, Eternity, Family, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Immortality, Infinity, Justice, Labor, Language, Life and Death, Love, Mathematics, Matter, Memory, Oligarchy, Progress, Prophecy, Quantity, Religion, Rhetoric, Sin, Soul, State, Time, Truth. War and Peace, Wisdom.... you get the idea: Big Ideas.
Each of the 100 ideas is introduced with a brief essay that explains it and attempts to sketch out how it has been viewed throughout Western history. The essays are not dumbed down, but most of them are perfectly accessible to most of us. After this introductory essay, there follows an index of virtually every significant reference to that idea in every author in the set; you are given page numbers within this set of books.
THAT is what you are buying.
Want to see how Plato's idea of "Punishment" differs from Rousseau's? Just look it up in the Syntopicon, and follow the indexed references. Want to know how "Animal" was dealt with in Montesquieu, William James, and Freud? Go to the Syntopicon.
Certainly, once I have looked up the references in the GBWW volume on Plato, I will give the text a read there; but if my interest leads me to want a deeper view, I'll also go to other sources -- more accurate translations, even the original texts, if I have that language -- and read the better translations &c in those books. But I start with the Syntopicon. If tracing out the history of the main ideas that shaped Western civilization appeals to you, this is your set of Great Books.
Thus: this is not a set of books you buy to read for pleasure, curled up by the fire on a rainy day. By that standard, this set would be an abysmal failure. But this IS a set of books you would use as one of the most powerful reference libraries you can put on your shelf. By that criteria, you cannot find a better anywhere today, online or otherwise.
The book pages are thin and somewhat flimsy. I owned a set of the 54-volume cloth-bound first (1952) edition and the bookcase which came with them. I still have the bookcase and put this 60-volume set in it. The 60 volumes of this second edition take up much less shelf space than the 54-volume set. That's how much thinner is the paper on which the books are now printed.
The covers of the books feel like they are made of some kind of paper board. They just feel cheap in in my hands.
In short, you might want the set for its content, but don't expect a production quality reflective its intrinsic value.
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