In this special edition of How to read a Book, I can make clear what was not entirely clear when the book was first published in 1940. Readers of the book knew, though its title did not indicate this with complete accuracy, that the subject was not how to read any book, but how to read a great book. In 1940 the time was not yet ripe for such a title, with which the book might not have reached the large audience that it did. Today, with hundreds of thousands of American families engaged in reading and discussing the great gooks — books that alone require the kind of reading described — the situation is much changed. I have therefore added a new subtitle for this edition: A guide to Reading the Great Books.
How to Read a Book attempts to inculcate skills that are useful for reading anything. These skills, however, are more than merely useful—they are necessary—for the reading of great books, those that are of enduring interest and importance. Although one can read books, magazines, and newspapers of transient interest without these skills, the possession of them enables the reader to read even the transient with greater speed, precision, and discrimination. The are of reading analytically, interpretively, and critically is indispensable only for the kind of reading by which the mind passes form a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more, and for reading the few books that are capable of being read with increasing profit over and over again. those few books are the great books—and the rules of reading here set forth are the rules for reading them. The illustrations that I have given to guide the reader in applying the rules all refer to the great books.
When this book was written, it was based on twenty years of experience in reading and discussing the great books—at Columbia University, at the University of Chicago, and St. John's College in Annapolis, as well as with a number of adult groups. Since then the number of adult groups has multiplied by the thousands; since then many more colleges and universities, as well as secondary schools all over the country, have introduced courses devoted to reading and discussing the great books, for they have come to be recognized as the core of a liberal and humanistic education. But, though these are all advances in American education for which we have good reason to be grateful, the most important educational event since 1940 has been, in my judgment, the publication and distribution by
Encyclopedia Britanica, Incorporated, of
Books of the Western World, which has brought the great books into hundreds of thousands of American homes, and into almost every public and school library.
To celebrate the fact, this new edition of How to Read a Book carries a new Appendix that lists the contents of Great Books of the Western World; and also, accordingly, a revised version of Chapter Sixteen. Turn to page 373 and you will find the great books listed there into four main groups: imaginative literature (poetry, fiction, and drama); history and social science; natural science and mathematics; philosophy and theology. Since 1952, when Great Books of the Western World was published, Encyclopedia Britannica has added a companion set of books, consisting of shorter masterpieces in all fields of literature and learning, properly entitled Gateway to the Great Books. You will find the contents of this set also listed in the Appendix, beginning on page 379.
The present book is, as its subtitle indicates, a guide to reading the things that most deserve careful reading and rereading, and that is why I recommend it to anyone who owns Great Books of the Western World and Gateway to the Great Books. But the owner of these sets has other tools at hand to help him. The
Syntopicon, comprising Volumes 2 and 3 of Great Books of the Western World, is a
different kind of guide to reading. How to Read a Book is intended to help the reader read a single great book through cover to cover. The Syntopicon helps the reader read through the whole collection of great books by reading what they have to say on any one of three thousand topics of general human interest, organized under 102 great ideas. (You will find the 102 great ideas listed on the jacket of this book.) Volume I of Gateway to the Great Books contains a Syntopical Guide that serves a similar purpose for that set of shorter masterpieces.
One other Britannica publication deserves brief mention here. Unlike each year's best-sellers that are out of date one year later, the great books are the perennials of literature—relevant to the problems that human beings face in every year of every century. That is the way they should be read—for the light they throw upon human life and human society, past, present, and future. And that is why Britannica publishes an annual volume, entitled The Great Ideas Today, the aim of which is to illustrate the striking relevance of the great books and the great ideas to contemporary events and issues, and to the latest advances in the arts and sciences.
With all these aids to reading and
to understanding, the accumulated wisdom of our Western civilization is within the reach of anyone who has the willingness to put them to good use.
Mortimer J. Adler