Bill Farrell


During the autumn of 1990 the Encyclopedia Britannica published the Great Books of the Western World, its selection of Western civilization's sixty best works. Newspapers respectfully reported the event. Commentators acclaimed the set's affirmation of Western culture. A scholarly symposium at the Library of Congress celebrated the collection's publication. The National Press Club, usually concerned with major politicians and famous journalists, invited Mortimer Adler, the series editor in chief, to address it.

In his interviews and public appearances connected with the publication of the series, Adler stressed that to be a great book a work must discuss a large number of the "great ideas." But Adler's — and presumably the Britannica editorial board's — criteria present some problems.

Amid the triumphal hoopla, a few critical voices pointed out that the series contained no books by authors of color. Some suggested that the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois should have been included. (C. L. R. James arguably also merited inclusion.) In response, Adler said that no black American had written a great book. Specifically addressing Du Bois's exclusion, Adler argued that Du Bois's best book was his autobiography, which simply failed to meet the criteria for inclusion in the series.

A shorter version of the following article first appeared in the September 11-17, 1991, issue of In These Times.


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