This is an extended version of an article published in The Conversation on 9th January 2024.
In January 1948, Life magazine published a feature showcasing the ‘102 Great Ideas’ of Western civilization, arrayed in index boxes covering topics from #1: Angel to #102: World. The project was the brainchild of Robert M. Hutchins, then chancellor of the University of Chicago and director of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Hutchins and his team had identified what they believed were the 432 ‘basic great books’, which the Encyclopedia planned to publish in a 54-volume set. To go alongside this collection, Hutchins commissioned a team of researchers to prepare an index so that readers could navigate the complex body of work. The result was displayed as part of an extended article in Life magazine, featuring a large double-page spread in which more than a dozen tired looking indexers posed alongside the output of five years’ work and nearly a million dollars of investment.
While the index was certainly an impressive achievement, at a time before computers were widely available, the results pose more questions than answers. Who exactly decides what counts as knowledge? Who decides which books should be included and which books left out? In this case, all 432 of the ‘great books’ were written by men. Indeed, the subject of ‘Man’ was even given its own chapter in the index, while ‘Woman’ only featured as a sub-category of ‘Family’, ‘Man’ and ‘Love’.Continue reading