What Is a Great Book?
Mortimer J. Adler
There is no end to the making of books. Nor does there seem to be any end to the making of lists of "great books." There have always been more books than anyone could read. And as they have multiplied through the centuries, more and more blue-ribbon lists have had to be made.
No matter how long your life, you will, at best, be able to read only a few books of all that have been written, and the few you do read should include the best. You can rejoice in the fact that the number of such is relatively small.
The listing of the best books is as old as reading and writing. The teachers and librarians of ancient Alexandria did it. Quintilian did it for Roman education, selecting, as he said, both ancient and modern classics. In the Renaissance, such leaders of the revival of learning as Montaigne and Erasmus made lists of the books they read.
It is to be expected that the selections will change with the times. Yet there is a surprising uniformity in the lists which represent the best choices of any period. In every age, the list makers include both ancient and modern books in their selections, and they always wonder whether the moderns are up to the great books of the past.
Great books are probably the most widely read. They are not best sellers for a year or two. They are enduring best sellers. GONE WITH THE WIND has had relatively few readers compared to the plays of Shakespeare or DON QUIXOTE. It would be reasonable to estimate that Homer's ILIAD has been read by at least 25,000,000 people in the last 3000 years.
A great book need not even be a best seller in its own day. It may take time for it to accumulate its ultimate audience. The astronomer Kepler, whose work on the planetary motions is now a classic, is reported to have said of his book that "it may wait a century for a reader, as God has waited 6000 years for an observer."
Great books are popular, not pedantic. They are not written by specialists about specialties for specialists. Whether they be philosophy or science, or history or poetry, they treat of human, not academic problems. They are written for men, not professors. To read a textbook for advanced students, you have to read an elementary textbook first. But the great books can be considered elementary in the sense that they treat the elements of any subject matter. They are not related to one another as a series of textbooks, graded in difficulty or in the technicality of the problems with which they deal.
Great books are always contemporary. In contrast, the books we call "contemporary", because they are currently popular, last only for a year or two, or ten at the most. You probably cannot recall the names of many earlier best sellers, and you probably would not be interested in reading them. But the great books are never outmoded by the movement of thought or the shifting winds of doctrine and opinion.
Great books are the most readable. They will not let you down if you try to read them well. They have more ideas per page than most books have in their entirety. That is why you can read a great book over and over again and never exhaust its contents.
They can be read at many different levels of understanding, as well as with a great diversity of interpretations. Obvious examples are GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, ROBINSON CRUSOE and the ODYSSEY. Children can read them with enjoyment, but fail to find therein all the beauty and significance which delight an adult mind.
Great books are the most instructive. This follows from the fact that they are original communications; they contain what cannot be found it other books. Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with what they say, these are the primary teachers of mankind; they have made the basic contributions to human thought.
Great minds acknowledge mysteries honestly. Wisdom is fortified not destroyed, by understanding its limitations.
It is our privilege, as readers, to belong to the larger brotherhood of man which recognizes no national boundaries. I do not know how to escape from the strait-jacket of political nationalism. I do know how we become friends of the human spirit in all its manifestations, regardless of time and place. It is by reading the great books.