The original editors had three criteria for including a book in the series drawn from Western Civilization: the book must have been relevant to contemporary matters, and not only important in its historical context; it must be rewarding to re-read repeatedly with respect to liberal education; and it must be a part of "the great conversation about the great ideas", relevant to at least 25 of the 102 "Great Ideas" as identified by the editor of the series' comprehensive index, what they dubbed the "Syntopicon", to which they belonged. The books were not chosen on the basis of ethnic and cultural inclusiveness, (historical influence being seen as sufficient by itself to be included), nor on whether the editors agreed with the views expressed by the authors.
A second edition was published in 1990 in 60 volumes. Some translations were updated, some works were removed, and there were significant additions from the 20th century located in six new, separate volumes.
The project for the Great Books of the Western World began at the University of Chicago, where the president, Robert Hutchins, collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop a course there of a type which had been originated by John Erskine at Columbia University in 1921 with the innovation of a "round table"-type approach to reading and discussing great books among professors and undergraduates.--generally aimed at businesspeople. The purposes they had in mind were for filling the gaps in their liberal education (notably including Hutchins' own self-confessed gaps) and to render the reader as an intellectually-rounded man or woman familiar with the Great Books of the Western canon and knowledgeable of the Great Ideas visited in the "Great Conversation" over the course of three millennia.
An original student of the project was William Benton (later a U.S. senator, and then chief executive officer of the Encyclopædia Britannica publishing company) who in 1943 proposed selecting the greatest books of the Western canon, and that Hutchins and Adler produce unabridged editions for publication, by Encyclopædia Britannica. Hutchins was at first wary of the idea, fearing that commodifying the books would devalue them as cultural artifacts; nevertheless, he agreed to the business deal and was paid $60,000 for his work on the project. Benton at first refused the deal on the basis that the set of works selected would be just that, artifacts, and never actually read.
By chance, Adler was re-reading a source he was using for a book he was writing at the time called How to Think about War and Peace. He noted to the person who had provided the book for him that, while he remembered reading this book as a source for the book he was writing, he had missed the instructive passage this person was pointing out to him and wondered why that had happened. They realized that Adler had read the book focusing on one idea about war and peace and missed the particular significance and importance of the passage about a different subject. Adler struck on the idea to accede to assume the task of producing an index for the whole set for Hutchins by means of which readers could have a sort of "random access" to the works, with the hoped-for result that they would develop a greater interest in the works themselves.
After deciding what subjects and authors to include, and how to present the materials, the indexing part of the project was begun, with a budget of another $60,000. Adler began compiling what his group called the "Greek index" bearing on the works selected from ancient Greece, expecting completion of the entire project within six months. After two years, the Greek index was declared to be a resounding failure. The inferior terms under the Great Ideas across the centuries in which the Greek-language works were written had shifted in their significance, and the preliminary index reflected that, the ideas presented not having "come to terms" with each other.
During those times, Adler had a flash of insight. He set his group re-reading each work preliminarily with a single assigned subordinate idea in mind in the form of a fairly elaborate phrase. If any instances of the idea appeared, they could collate them with co-ordinate ideas of a similar type collected the same way, use the material thus noted to better reframe the larger idea structure and then finally start re-reading the work in its entirety with revised phrasing to do the complete indexing, of ideas.
In 1945, Adler began writing the initial forms of the essays for the Great Ideas and six years and $940,000 more later, on April 15, 1952, the Great Books of the Western World were presented at a publication party in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York City. In his speech, Hutchins said, "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind." The first two sets of books were given to Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, and to Harry S. Truman, the incumbent U.S. President. Adler appeared on the cover of Time magazine for a story about the set of works and its idea index and inventory of Western topics of thought at large, of sorts.
The initial sales of the book sets were poor, with only 1,863 sets sold in 1952, and less than one-tenth of that number of book sets were sold in 1953. A financial debacle loomed until Encyclopædia Britannica altered the sales strategy, and sold the book set through experienced door-to-door encyclopædia-salesmen, as Hutchins had feared; but, through that method, 50,000 sets were sold in 1961. In 1963 the editors published Gateway to the Great Books, a ten-volume set of readings meant to introduce the authors and the subjects of the Great Books. Each year, from 1961 to 1998, the editors published The Great Ideas Today, an annual updating about the applicability of the Great Books to contemporary life. According to Alex Beam, Great Books of the Western World eventually sold a million sets. The Internet and the E-book reader have made available some of the Great Books of the Western World in an on-line format.
Originally published in 54 volumes, The Great Books of the Western World covers categories including fiction, history, poetry, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics. Hutchins wrote the first volume, titled The Great Conversation, as an introduction and discourse on liberal education. Adler sponsored the next two volumes, "The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon", as a way of emphasizing the unity of the set and, by extension, of Western thought in general. A team of indexers spent months compiling references to such topics as "Man's freedom in relation to the will of God" and "The denial of void or vacuum in favor of a plenum". They grouped the topics into 102 chapters, for which Adler wrote the 102 introductions. Four colors identify each volume by subject area--Imaginative Literature, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences, History and Social Science, and Philosophy and Theology. The volumes contained the following works:
The second edition of Great Books of the Western World, 1990, saw an increase from 54 to 60 volumes, with updated translations. The six new volumes concerned the 20th century, an era of which the first edition's sole representative was Freud. Some of the other volumes were re-arranged, with even more pre-20th century material added but with four texts deleted: Apollonius' On Conic Sections, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Joseph Fourier's Analytical Theory of Heat. Adler later expressed regret about dropping On Conic Sections and Tom Jones. Adler also voiced disagreement with the addition of Voltaire's Candide, and said that the Syntopicon should have included references to the Koran. He addressed criticisms that the set was too heavily Western European and did not adequately represent women and minority authors. Four women authors were included, where previously there were none.
The added pre-20th century texts appear in these volumes (some of the accompanying content of these volumes differs from the first edition volume of that number):
The contents of the six volumes of added 20th-century material:
The choice of authors has come under attack, with some dismissing the project as a celebration of European men, ignoring contributions of women and non-European authors. The criticism swelled in tandem with the feminist and civil rights movements. Similarly, in his Europe: A History, Norman Davies criticizes the compilation for overrepresenting selected parts of the western world, especially Britain and the U.S., while ignoring the other, particularly Central and Eastern Europe. According to his calculation, in 151 authors included in both editions, there are 49 English or American authors, 27 Frenchmen, 20 Germans, 15 ancient Greeks, 9 ancient Romans, 4 Russians, 4 Scandinavians, 3 Spaniards, 3 Italians, 3 Irishmen, 3 Scots, and 3 Eastern Europeans. Prejudices and preferences, he concludes, are self-evident.
In response, such criticisms have been derided as ad hominem and biased in themselves. The counter-argument maintains that such criticisms discount the importance of books solely because of generic, imprecise and possibly irrelevant characteristics of the books' authors, rather than because of the content of the books themselves.
Others thought that while the selected authors were worthy, too much emphasis was placed on the complete works of a single author rather than a wider selection of authors and representative works (for instance, all of Shakespeare's plays are included). The second edition of the set already contained 130 authors and 517 individual works. The editors point out that the guides to additional reading for each topic in the Syntopicon refer the interested reader to many more authors.
The scientific and mathematical selections came under criticism for being incomprehensible to the average reader, especially with the absence of any sort of critical apparatus. The second edition did drop two scientific works, by Apollonius and Fourier, in part because of their perceived difficulty for the average reader. Nevertheless, the editors steadfastly maintain that average readers are capable of understanding far more than the critics deem possible. Robert Hutchins stated this view in the introduction to the first edition:
Since the great majority of the works were still in print, one critic noted that the company could have saved two million dollars and simply written a list. Encyclopædia Britannica's aggressive promotion produced solid sales. Dense formatting also did not help readability.
The second edition selected translations that were generally considered an improvement, though the cramped typography remained. Through reading plans and the Syntopicon, the editors have attempted to guide readers through the set.
The editors responded that the set contains wide-ranging debates representing many viewpoints on significant issues, not a monolithic school of thought. Mortimer Adler argued in the introduction to the second edition:
Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates blasted the Great Books for showing 'profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color--red, brown or yellow.'
We did not base our selections on an author's nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author's race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process.
I also wonder how many of the over 100,000 customers who have by now caved in under the pressure of Mr. Harden and his banner-bearing colleagues are doing much browsing in these upland pastures?