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Shimer College: More Move News, And Why It Matters To Chicago

January 15, 2007

Sometime back I posted a reflection on Shimer College, a small, Chicago-area great books-based school, and its move to Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) campus. Recently the Chicago Tribune covered the college’s need, as a result of the move, to sell 33 percent of its library’s books. Aside: For you used book hounds, that sale will be this next weekend in Waukegan.

Why am I bothering to note this? Who cares, in general, about Shimer’s need to cull books? Do Chicagoans love book sales more than any other major urban area? Perhaps.

Aside from catering to Chicago-area book lovers – sellers and buyers – the story really displays the city’s attachment to, and fascination with, the whole notion of the great books. Although the great books idea got its start outside of the city, and well before Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler popularized the idea at the University of Chicago, the great books have retained a great deal of cultural currency in the city well after the passing of both.

Is this just because the Great Books Foundation is located here? Perhaps. Is it because Britannica, a Chicago-based company since the 1940s, was the first publisher to create a great books set, Great Books of the Western World (1952)? This is not likely: I’m probably the only one who really cares about historical facts like this. Is it because the Chicago Public Library still hosts great books discussion groups? Maybe, in part.

I would argue that it’s a combination of these things and more: it’s because the great books idea has become a Chicago tradition. The great books are a part of the city’s lore. Stories about the great books idea have been in the papers here since the 1930s.

So it’s not so much that literary-minded, parochial Chicagoans care about the fate of a tiny college’s library, but rather that the great books – and all of that idea’s related institutions and cultural formations (i.e. One Book, One Chicago) – have enriched Chicago’s urban and suburban culture. In noting the fate of Shimer and its books, some Chicagoans perhaps fear a certain diminishment of their culture. – TL

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