To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books,” Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote in the introductory volume of The Great Books of the Western World. “All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.”
An examined life has never been the aim of more than a fraction of any population, and intellectuals have always been rightly hated. But America certainly boasted a more literate citizenry fairly recently. More than sixty years ago, the Encyclopedia Britannica published the fifty-four-volume Great Books of the Western World. Whereas giving away the series today might be next to impossible, door-to-door salesmen—another relic (killed by enterprising door-to-door rapists) of a mostly forgotten age—sold more than a million sets at a starting price of $298, when $298 went a long way.