I saw this article in my news feed, lamenting the collapse of interest in The Great Books. Articles much like this one show up often in my news feeds. The collapse of interest in The Great Books, the Classics, traditional curricula, etc., is “common knowledge” amongst conservative intellectuals.
I don’t have sufficient data to disprove that this “collapse” is occurring, but anecdotal evidence makes me skeptical. In the past, there were essentially three ways to be exposed to The Great Books: 1) They were assigned in a classroom. 2) They were assigned by parents who owned a high-quality home library. 3) A reader would stumble upon them in a public library.
Now, it may be true that if you only look at those three vectors you might indeed see a decrease in the rate of exposure to The Great Books. Maybe they aren’t assigned in class as much as they once were. Maybe they are included in fewer home libraries. Maybe they aren’t featured as prominently in public libraries.
Thanks to the popularization of the Internet, however, those are no longer the only exposure vectors available. It’s doubtful that they are even the most important exposure vectors any longer.
My social media feeds are chock-full of posts quoting great literature from history, which encourage me to seek out the sources of these quotes. This is easy to do thanks to modern search engines. I can then download the source material for free from sites like gutenberg.org.
One could counter with the old line, “yeah, but how many kids are really going to do that? You can’t say that your experience is typical.”
Firstly, this is the same sort of argument that people made against Andrew Carnegie’s mission to build public libraries across the continent. “What’s the point of spending all this money on libraries for people who aren’t motivated to read?” The idea that people won’t learn unless forced to do so has little empirical basis. In fact, the opposite is often argued, that people are less likely to learn when forced to do so.
Secondly, I’m not arguing that my experience is typical. Instead, I argue that experiences akin to my own may be trending upwards rather than trending downwards.
I cannot prove that people are reading The Great Books at greater or lesser rates than they did in the past. However, I can prove that people are downloading The Great Books at relatively high rates.
First, we need to define The Great Books. For convenience, I’m going to use Mortimer Adler’s reading list.
The #1 title on the list is The Iliad. According to Gutenberg.org, The Iliad has been downloaded over 11,000 times in the last 30 days alone. The #2 title on the list is the Old Testament. According to Gutenberg.org, the King James Bible has been downloaded almost 4,000 times in the last 30 days.
Here are lists of Gutenberg’s most-downloaded titles. Most of them are on Mr. Adler’s reading list. The top download is Pride and Prejudice, which was downloaded almost 50,000 times in the last 30 days.
Furthermore, the article which provided the impetus for this rant laments that the kids don’t learn Latin these days. According to Gutenberg.org, Latin for Beginners has been downloaded 1173 times in the last 30 days.
I don’t think I need to go through the download stats from Gutenberg for all the books on Mr. Adler’s reading list to make the point. If the thesis is correct that interest in these sorts of books is on the decline, would it not mean that in previous decades Pride and Prejudice was purchased and/or borrowed more than 50,000 times per month in the United States? I’m skeptical that retail and library records would bear out that statistic.
I also note that Gutenberg.org is just one source for these books. There are other sites where one can download classic works, like feedbooks.com and archive.org, not to mention good old Amazon.com or the website operated by one’s local public library. In the case of the Bible, there are plenty of online sources for every imaginable translation. BibleGateway.com is the 308th top-ranked website in the USA, according to Alexa, out of the millions of websites that exist.
Considering that the US literacy rate is at an all-time high, I would not be at all surprised if I was shown data that suggests readership of The Great Books is also at an all-time high.
After all, what percentage of the population even had access to The Iliad in 1900?