[Web4lib] how "great" are the great books?

Eric Lease Morgan emorgan at nd.edu
Mon Nov 15 15:21:40 EST 2010

In an attempt to validate a mathematical model of mine I have implemented a crowd sourcing survey addressing the question, "How 'great' are the Great Books?". [1]

In 1952 Robert Hutchins and friends edited a set of books called The Great Books of the Western World. [2] According to Hutchins, the items of the set were selected for their ability to discuss Mortimer Adler's 102 "great ideas" (art, cause, fate, government, judgement, law, medicine, physics, religion, slavery, truth, wisdom, etc.). By reading the books and discussing them with fellow readers, one was expected to further and enhance their liberal arts education. Think of it as "life long learning" for the 1950s.

Using a variation of the venerable TFIDF (term frequency, inverse document frequency) algorithm, I have attempted to measure the "greatness" of the Great Books. In an effort to validate the model, I am soliciting as many people's input as possible. I'm shooting for 100,000. If the results match the model, then I may be able to say the model represents reality. Interesting!?

The survey is really simple. A random idea is selected from the "great ideas". Two books are randomly selected from the Great Books. The poll-taker is then asked to choose the book they consider "greater". After the question is answered the process is repeated. Apparently this voting process is called the Condorcet Method. [3] ("Thanks Andreas.")

Please consider answering the survey at least ten times. It will take you less than sixty seconds. Don't think too hard about the questions because there are no wrong answers. If you go so far as to take the survey 100 times, then you might get an idea of the sorts of books from the Great Books you consider... great. For a more thorough introduction to the survey, see the introductory blog posting. [4]


[1] survey - http://bit.ly/bPQHIg
[2] Great Books - http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1074025
[3] Condorcet method - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_method
[4] blog posting - http://bit.ly/cRNg1t

Eric Lease Morgan
University of Notre Dame

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