Memories of Middle-Brow Culture

Earlier this month two friends wrote to tell me that 1) Britannica has apparently let The Great Books of the Western World go out of print--at the least, they don’t seem to be accepting orders any longer, and 2) Will and Ariel Durant’s many-volumed Story of Civilization has been turned into an E-Book.

Now both these sets were important to me as a boy. I write about the Great Books in my memoir An Open Book, but am not sure if I discussed the Durant volumes. I spent most of one summer checking out one volume after another from the library, eventually grinding to a halt with The Age of Voltaire. I’ve often wondered what became of the world after the 18th century.

As a boy, I found the Durant history wonderfully readable. In fact, I only started The Story of Civilization because I’d already greatly enjoyed The Story of Philosophy. In recent years I’ve had occasion to go back to both Durant best-sellers to read chapters on Spinoza and Leibniz, and I was deeply impressed. This wasn’t pabulum, it was popularization of the very best kind. To the world, of course, the Durants--and the people behind the Great Books: Mortimer J. Adler, Clifton Fadiman, et al--are iconic representatives of the “middlebrow.”

As it happens, Dwight MacDonald’s famous attacks on middlebrow and masscult--mainly from Against the American Grain-- have been recently reedited into a New York Review paperback classic. It’s well worth reading. Nobody was a better literary polemicist than MacDonald. And yet. . . .

Once I would have shuddered to be regarded as a middlebrow. No longer. I think of my kind of literary journalism as very much in this tradition. I try to be an intermediary between scholarly and difficult or forgotten works and ordinary readers--in part because I’m really an ordinary enough reader myself, albeit a more rabid and wide-ranging one than most people. The Story of Civilization and The Great Books of the Western World, whatever their faults, encouraged people during the middle years of the 20th century to read about the past and to discover the great works and thought of the past. What’s wrong with that?

Do others in the Reading Room have warm (or unpleasant) memories of the Great Books or of The Story of Civilization, or of the Book of the Month Club or of the Saturday Review of Literature or of such old-style bookmen as Vincent Starrett and Christopher Morley? Please share your thoughts and reminiscences. Many thanks.

- Michael Dirda

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