What Makes a Great Book?
Mortimer J. Adler
Great Books are those that contain the best materials on which the human mind can work in order to gain insight, understanding, and wisdom. Each of them, in its own way, raises the recurrent basic questions which men must face. Because these questions never are completely solved, these books are the sources and monuments of a continuing intellectual tradition.
Carl Van Doren once referred to great books as “the books that never have to be written again.” They are the rare, perfect achievements of sustained excellence. Their beauty and clarity show that they are masterpieces of the fine as well as the liberal arts. Such books justifiably are called great whether they are books of science, poetry, theology, mathematics, or politics.
The richness of great books shows itself in the many levels of meaning they contain. They lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. This does not mean that they are ambiguous or that their integrity is compromised. The different interpretations complement one another and allow the reader to discover the unity of the work from a variety of perspectives. We need not read other books more than once to get all that they have to say. But we can always go deeper into great books. As sources of enlightenment, they are inexhaustible.
The interest in many good books that are written is limited to a definite period of history. They do not exhibit the universal appeal that results from dealing with the fundamental questions which confront men in all times and places and in a way that men in all times and places can understand. Great books, on the contrary, transcend the provincial limits of their origin. They remain as world literature. The ones we are sure are great are the ones men everywhere turn to again and again through the centuries.
In view of this, it is often said that great books must pass the test of time. This is quite true. But it is not the passage of time that makes the books great. They were great when they were written. An enduring interest in a book merely confirms its greatness. We may consider some contemporary books great, but we cannot be sure. Their excellence still remains to be proved before the tribunal of the ages.
Mark Twain once remarked that “The great books are the books that everyone wishes he had read, but no one wants to read.” People wish they had read them because they are the indispensable material of a liberal education. They shy away from reading them because these books require thought. And thinking is hard. It is probably one of the most painful things human beings are called upon to do.
The great books are not easy to read. No one should ever expect to understand them very well on a first reading, nor even to master them fully after many readings. I have often said that they are the books which are over everyone’s head all of the time. That is why they must be read and reread. That is also why they are good for us. Only the things which are over our head can lift us up.
Like all the other good things in life, what the great books have to offer is hard to get. But it is precisely because great books are difficult that they are more readable and more worth reading than other books. It is precisely because they raise problems which they do not finally answer that they can provoke us to think, inquire, and discuss. It is precisely because their difficulty challenges our skill in reading that they can help us to improve that skill. It is precisely because they often challenge our accepted prejudices and our established opinions that they can help us to develop our critical faculties.
The difficulty of these books comes not from the fact that they are poorly written or badly conceived, but rather from the fact that they are the clearest and simplest writing about the most difficult themes that confront the human mind. They deal with these themes in the easiest possible way. Therein lies their greatness.