How my journey with great books began

Discovering Britannica’s Great Books set

Jim Esch
4 min readJan 7, 2024


I’d like to share a personal story about how my odyssey with great books got started. There’s actually a few influences on this journey, but here I’ll focus on The Great Books of the Western World set, published by Encyclopedia Britannica.

Those leatherette covers take me back to the 1960's

My father got the set in the early 1960’s, a couple years before I was born. It might have been a gift. The bookcase stood in our living room when I was very young.

At some point, it migrated to my bedroom, which doubled as a family office. On one side of the bed, there was a built-in bookcase with children’s books, a set of illustrated Bible stories, and a World Book Encyclopedia set. On the other side were two bookcases set up back to back, filled with Book of the Month club titles, books on religion, old college textbooks, and cheap paperbacks, a metal desk with drawers, and my Mom’s manual typewriter from her college days.

Basically I grew up surrounded by books. Practically all the books in the house were shelved in my bedroom.

Before I ever read any of the Great Books volumes, I would mostly just stare at them. They looked austere, not exactly inviting, and yet I was drawn to the authors’ names on the spines. And why were they color coded? What was the scheme? I had no…