Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alex Beam's "A Great Idea at the Time"

Alex Beam is an award-winning columnist for the Boston Globe. His writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, the New York Times and many other magazines. He is the author of Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital and of two novels.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls in a chapter entitled, "Faster, Pussycat! Sell! Sell!" (a play on the title of an old Russ Meyer movie, for those with peculiar memories). And yes, the excerpt cuts directly to the quick of the book, which is about selling the 52-volume Great Books of the Western World to a skeptical public. But before Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins and the Encyclopedia Britannica could go public, Adler tried selling his $500 "Founders Edition" of the GBWW door to door, to plutocrats, to raise badly needed money for the foundering Great Books scheme:

Late on a Friday afternoon, Adler secured an appointment with the taciturn Earl Puckett, chairman of Allied Stores, then the largest department store in America. Here's my idea, Adler said. Buy a set of the Great Books for each one of your eighty-five stores, and have them donate the books to the local public library for some free publicity. Puckett didn't answer, but buzzed his secretary for a list of his store locations. Without speaking, he placed check marks next to roughly half the store names and then rose to leave for the weekend. "We'll take forty-five sets," Puckett said.

Hutchins and Adler tried this same gambit with Conrad Hilton. They cornered him in a drawing room of the Twentieth Century Limited transcontinental train and proposed that he buy a set of Great Books for the lobby of each of his hotels. No sale.

Clare Booth Luce, Henry Luce's wife and also a big fan of the Western canon, secured Adler an appointment with Texas oilman H. L. Hunt, said to be the eighth-richest man in America. The right-wing Hunt was obsessed with the spread of "liberalism" in America and had been bankrolling various educational enterprises -- "ill-conceived efforts at propaganda," Adler later called them. Adler met him twice, but couldn't close the sale.

Two days later, he bumped into Sears Roebuck chairman General Robert Wood in Chicago.

"Were you in Texas recently?" Wood asked.

Yes, Adler replied. Wood had just received a phone call from Hunt, inquiring whether Adler was a member of the Communist Party. The Communist Manifesto was one of the Great Books, and Hunt wasn't buying.
Read an excerpt from A Great Idea at the Time, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Alex Beam's column archive at the Boston Globe.

--Marshal Zeringue