When I was 15 or so, I stumbled on a bargain in a second-hand bookstore in Guildford: 71 volumes of Sir John Lubbock’s Hundred Books for 30 shillings. They were appallingly printed from steel plates on cheap and very acid paper. Over the next 35 years the paper turned yellow, went brittle and crumbled; during one of my mid-career moves from one house to another, they went to Oxfam. The 71 volumes were an astonishing mixture, and the whole 100 even more so: Pope’s translation of the Iliad alongside John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics alongside Darwin’s recollections of his time aboard HMS Beagle, plus a surprising number of novels. It was my first encounter with the idea of “Great Books” that we all should read - not that, even now, I’ve read all of them.
“Great Books” courses are nowadays associated with embattled professors in the humanities; they are a speciality of elite American universities and liberal arts colleges. Indeed, St John’s College in Annapolis and its sister college in Santa Fe provide an entire undergraduate education built around the great books. But Lubbock’s choice of books that an educated person should want to read and that a publisher should put out as cheaply as possible for a working-class audience sprang from a different impulse and was anything but an embattled gesture. He was an extraordinary man. Far from being a reclusive scholar, he was a highly successful banker, a more than reputable naturalist and archaeologist, a fellow of the Royal Society, and an MP who was responsible, among other things, for the introduction of bank holidays and the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882.
The preservation of the great stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, the largest prehistoric site in the country, was an act of private benevolence; he bought an estate in the village, and when he was elevated to the peerage he took the title of Lord Avebury. He was a passionate disciple of evolutionary theory, a close friend of T.H. Huxley, and spoke on Huxley’s side in the notorious Oxford debate of 1860 between him and Bishop Samuel “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce. The Hundred Books were not the refuge of an embattled humanist - although Lubbock is credited with the nice remark that “a man may sit in his library and yet be in all parts of the world”. They were part of the great Victorian project to spread the blessings of education as widely as possible. Among Lubbock’s parliamentary crusades was one to get more science taught in the schools attended by working-class children.
Variations on Lubbock’s list were common at the end of the 19th century. Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, reckoned that anyone could secure themselves an education by reading the right books, a selection variously characterised as a “three-foot”, “four-foot” or “five-foot” shelf. Eliot’s version overlapped substantially with Lubbock’s, although it contained fewer volumes, and was unsurprisingly stronger on American literature, of which Lubbock’s list contained almost none.
It’s hard to imagine a modern version: “Your well-stocked Kindle” or “your overstuffed iPad” somehow doesn’t cut it, not least because the world has vanished in which benign members of the educated classes carried the authority that made their lists credible. In that long-lost world, aspirant working-class families bought encyclopedias on the instalment plan in the hope that their children would acquire the education that would admit them to a wider and more interesting universe; in the US, many bought the “Great Books” selected by Mortimer Adler, too. There is no lack of lists today: “How many of these hundred places have you visited?”; “How many of these books have you read?” and so endlessly on. But the tone is competitive, and there is no suggestion that the next question is, “and which of them made you think differently about yourself, the world, or humanity at large?”
If Lubbock’s Hundred Books expressed the progressive urge that resulted in The Open University - which I have always thought embodies the hope that whether by print, radio, television or the internet, you can squeeze a universe into a bedsit - “Great Books” can be wielded as a weapon of a very different sort. Any set of books that “any educated person” is supposed to be familiar with can be a powerful aid to snobbery or worse. If a real or pretended familiarity with them defines the educated in, it also defines the uneducated out. The idea of a canon was one of many things that fell victim to the culture wars of the 1980s; a society that engages in identity politics on a large scale will always find an appeal to the Great Books met with the question, “whose Great Books?” Still, Lubbock and Eliot did include the Koran and the Mahabharata in their lists.
Great Books these days mostly appear as the milestones that mark students’ courses in universities and liberal arts colleges variously described as “Western Civilisation” - “Civ” - or “Humanities”. Whether this is where they should be is to me mysterious; such courses can risk fencing them off as the possession of a few over-precious spirits. It’s hard not to hanker after at least showing them to students, no matter what they want to study - just as it’s hard not to hanker after at least showing humanities students what scientists do. On the other hand, thrusting the Iliad down the throats of students who think their deeper need is for two more courses in Maths for Economists seems cruel and unproductive. Of course, if every secondary school could find time to provide a liberal education when pupils were of an age to absorb it, perhaps with an updated version of Lubbock’s list … but that is no doubt another piece of wishful thinking.