One of the largest — and most tattered — books on Grandpa’s bookshelf is a volume called Masters of Achievement. From its condition, it obviously was a favorite, read over and over again. What kind of book was so well-thumbed?
Masters of Achievement was published by the Frontier Press Company of Buffalo, N.Y. in 1913. To quote its title page, it seeks to tell the stories of “the World’s Greatest Leaders in Literature, Art, Religion, Philosophy, Science, Politics, and Industry.” It tells you something about the people of that era, and what they considered to be important, that figures from literature, art, religion, philosophy, and science all take precedence over politics — and that leaders of “industry” are included at all. Of course, 1913 was a time when Americans welcomed industry and celebrated the bursting economic growth of a still-young, rapidly growing nation.
The breadth of the book also is surprising. It does not focus only on Americans or modern figures. The first hundred pages are devoted to writers, starting with Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. The section on religious figures discusses Zoroaster, Confucius, Buddha, and Mohammed, and the philosophers include Socrates, Plato, Descartes, and Spinoza. The political and military leaders come from a broad range and feature Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Charles V, and Peter the Great.
Finally, you notice who isn’t included. Masters of Achievement does not discuss sports stars, or actors, or musical performers. Obviously, they weren’t considered figures who made significant achievements. American culture — so overwhelming and pervasive today — receives nary a mention in a volume that is hundreds of pages long.
If a book like Masters of Achievement were published today, what do you think it would look like? How many pages would be given over to NFL players, rappers, and people like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians who are “celebrities” for some inexplicable reason that has nothing to do with actual accomplishment?