A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground : ‘Great Books’ editor Mortimer J. Adler rejects the growing challenges to his list of Western readings


Mortimer J. Adler is puffing on the thick stub of a pungent post-prandial cigar, addressing the subject of what it means to be educated in America.

The 89-year-old warhorse of the “great books” battles--philosopher, classifier par excellence and author of 46 books on thought--doesn’t actually discuss the matter. Rather, in hallmark curmudgeon style, he pronounces, denounces, dismisses, and, when a challenging notion seems too contemptible to consider, merely stares it down like a cur.

At a time when approaches to education are as diverse as the multicultural society they seek to serve, Adler is uncannily free of scholarly doubts.


“An educated person is one who, through the travail of his own life, has assimilated the ideas that make him representative of his culture,” he once wrote in a newspaper editorial.

From Adler’s perspective, the culture of citizens of the United States is founded upon the ideas of the philosophers and writers of Western Europe, from ancient Greece through the 17th- and 18th-Century Enlightenment in France, Germany and England. Their major works are contained in the series, “Great Books of the Western World,” sold through Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., and presided over by Adler as editor-in-chief.

Originally published in 1952, the “Great Books” established a widely available standard of cultural excellence. In the intervening decades, Adler has been hailed as the tireless propagator of reading the classics in this country, a practice followed for centuries in European universities.

This fall, the “Great Books” have been revised, with a black-tie banquet at the Library of Congress to fete the publication. Consisting of 60 volumes, 130 authors and 517 works, the set has been expanded to include 60 new entries. For the first time, it admits 45 thinkers and writers from the 20th Century, as well as 15 new figures from the past, and introduces four women--one American, Willa Cather, and the English novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

While the 1952 editorial board was entirely Anglo-Saxon, consultants for the second edition include academics from Ghana, France and Japan, as well as a woman and Mexican poet/writer Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz.

Though Adler allows that a balance has been achieved among works from France, Germany and England, the rest of Europe is sparsely represented or omitted. Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” is the sole example of Spanish-language culture, and there are no contributions from blacks.


Predictably, liberal academicians and critics have bridled. The fact that certain names do not appear, they argue, demonstrates that in an ethnically diverse society the business of high-brow list-making is both prejudicial and passe.

“The crux of the current debate is, ‘Is there a Western tradition?’ And does this tradition still represent what Matthew Arnold called the best that has been thought and said,” says James Atlas, critic and author of “The Book Wars,” which delineates the battle lines.

Protests historian Paul Seaver, director of Stanford University’s Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) program, which last year replaced the core curriculum of 15 books: “We can all make up lists depending on what it is we’re interested in. A list that focuses on philosophy, as the ‘Great Books’ do, is not wrong. But it isn’t the only way of looking at things.”

E. D. Hirsch Jr., professor of English at the University of Virginia, and author of the best-selling book, “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” argues that not only is a canon of literary works not necessary, it is not necessary to read entire books as long as there is a shared knowledge of cultural “items.” “I’m not interested in whether anybody ever reads ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I’m interested that when ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is mentioned people will know what I’m talking about.”

Radical feminist and Duke University English professor Jane Tompkins contends that colleges and universities do not adequately reflect the real world in which their students live and learn.

Tompkins, who has taught such courses as “Popular Women’s Novels of the 20th Century,” would expand teaching materials from lists of books to include movies, TV shows and songs. “The idea of just having books is totally out of date culturally speaking. The world tells its story to itself now in a number of different media.”

Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, Duke University professor and perhaps the country’s most influential and fashionable black scholar, lambastes the “Great Books” committee for a “profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color--red, brown or yellow.

“Here was a chance for Mortimer Adler and company to redefine what our notion of the great tradition really is. But rather than to confront the challenge of the 21st Century . . . they turned backward toward the 19th Century. That will be seen historically as a great mistake.”

Against such a formidable enemy line, Adler harrumphs: “They’re all ignorant. They have no background, they have no depth of knowledge, no memory. I would not be so impatient if they were relevant.”

For critics of a strict literary canon, the question is posed in reverse. Since publication of his best-selling book, “The Closing of the American Mind” in 1987, Allan Bloom has taken on the mantle of the nation’s tutor, demanding greater attention to the classics and warning of the intellectual impoverishment caused by the introduction of sociologically trendy studies.

“Adler represents a very old-fashioned form of the debate,” comments Atlas. “He likes to classify books and ideas in a simple and popular way. Bloom believes these ideas are complicated and deserve rigorous study. He is very eloquent in explaining why these books matter, what they have to say about preserving our civilization and why it’s worth knowing them.”

Adler’s explanation for knowing the “Great Books” is, by any standard, succinct: “We think simply that reading these books is essential to anyone’s liberal education.”

As for fellow Chicago philosopher “that fool, Allan Bloom,” Adler’s animosity toward his younger rival is legendary. Smarting from the lack of a nod in Bloom’s best-seller, he followed with his own work, “Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind,” which begins with an excoriation of Bloom.

“He acts as if he’s inventing it all himself. He’s saying what I’m saying, but he’s saying it without acknowledging he has predecessors,” Adler fumes.

The son of a New York jewelry salesman and a part-time school teacher, Adler studied the classics under John Erskine at Columbia University and taught courses in the great books there in the 1920s. The following decade, he moved to the University of Chicago, where, under the direction of its president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, he established a great books program and acted as associate editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s first set of volumes.

Adler’s sense of self-assertion also appeared at an early age. Amazed that John Stuart Mill, the 19th-Century English philosopher, had read Plato’s “Dialogues” when he was 5 years old, Adler promptly consumed the tome at age 17. He dropped out of high school rather than obey the principal’s order to fire a staffer on the school paper, and later left Columbia without an undergraduate degree because he refused to take the required gym courses.

Before his departure, he attacked one of his professors, John Dewey, in a class paper, so incensing the noted philosopher that he stormed at his student, “Nobody is going to tell me how to love God!”

Continually headstrong, Adler now maintains that nobody is going to tell him who should be in and out of his books.

“All this business of quotas--so many blacks, so many whites, so many women, so many men. It’s all not relevant,” he huffs.

If there are no Latinos, it’s because “Octavio Paz didn’t recommend any.”

No blacks? “They didn’t write any good books.”

Too Eurocentric? “(Asians) came to the West, they better learn Western culture. If they want to stay Japanese, they should stay in Japan.”

Adler separates the planet’s population according to five religious and moral doctrines outside of the West: Hinduism, two forms of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in China and Shintoism in Japan. World culture may come by the end of the 23rd Century, he states, and then there could be a set of great world books.

Meanwhile, he defends the “Great Books” selections as the result of an amicable consensus of cultivated minds. During the three years that deliberations took place, the only serious disagreement came over 19th- and 20th-Century novelists and here, he says, it was only in about 10% of the cases.

To be included, a “great book” had to meet the editorial board’s three criteria: to be pertinent to contemporary life, to be worth rereading many times and to contain a certain number of ideas. An inveterate list-maker whose books bear such titles as “Six Great Ideas” and “Ten Philosophical Mistakes,” Adler has written a “Syntopicon,” an angels-to-world catalogue of 102 ideas, further indexing ideas contained in each book. “Good” books that miss their quota of concepts are mentioned as additional readings.

Despite such fail-safe empiricism, Adler admits that the English writer Laurence Sterne was originally included because “Bob Hutchins, who was editor-in-chief, was very fond of Sterne and put him in. The new editorial board threw him out.” A more difficult judgment was to include Charles Dickens and leave out his Victorian contemporary, William Thackeray, author of “Vanity Fair.”

Cicero and Francis Bacon, whom Adler listed as “bad” philosophers in a college thesis, are not included. Nor, for instance, are Matthew Arnold, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “Being influential is not the mark of a great book.”

Adler considers that, in all, two mistakes were made in the list: the addition of Voltaire’s classic, “Candide,” which he considers “a very minor satire,” and the deletion of Henry Fielding’s 18th-Century comic novel, “Tom Jones” (“It has a lot to say about important problems and the story has many interesting turns.”).

When Tompkins’ suggestion of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” is mentioned, it receives a contemptuous swat of the hand.

Gates’ objection is presented: “There is no way (you) could say with a straight face that (the black American sociologist, W.E.B.) Du Bois’ ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’ the greatest work ever written by a person of color in his country, did not satisfy the three criteria of greatness.”

Adler responds: “There’s no question that Du Bois was a scholar. . . . But we left out all these white scholars of equal eminence.”

It will be at least another 100 years before Du Bois or anybody else takes their place in the parade of Western civilization that will be Adler’s legacy. The next revision is scheduled to come at the end of the 21st Century. “You don’t do these things quickly,” he says.

Mortimer J. Adler

What follows are Mortimer J. Adler’s additions to “Great Books of the Western World.”

Twentieth-Century thinkers and writer: Henri Bergson, “Introduction to Metaphysics”; Willa Cather, “A Lost Lady”; Anton Chekhov, “Uncle Vanya”; Albert Einstein, “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory”; William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”; F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”; Ernest Hemingway, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”; James Joyce, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”; Eugene O’Neill, “Mourning Becomes Electra”; Henri Poincare, “Science and Hypothesis”; Claude Levi-Strauss, selections from “Structural Anthropology”; Marcel Proust, “Swann in Love”; Bertrand Russell, “The Problems of Philosophy”; Virginia Woolf, “To the Lighthouse”; Max Weber, “Essays in Sociology” (selections).

Earlier Centuries: Jane Austen, “Emma”; Charles Dickens, “Little Dorrit”; George Eliot, “Middlemarch”; Erasmus, “Praise of Folly”; Henrik Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” and other works; Moliere, “The Miser” and other works: Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil”; Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”; Voltaire, “Candide.”

Adler’s Critics

The following critics offer their suggestions.

Henry Lewis (Skip) Gates, black scholar: W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk”; Ralph Ellison, “The Invisible Man”; Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes were Watching God”; Toni Morrison, “Beloved”; Wole Soyinka, “Death and the King’s Horseman.”

Jane Tompkins, feminist and pop culture maven: Zane Grey, “Riders of the Purple Sage”; George Lucas, “Star Wars”; Alice Miller, Swiss psychologist, “For You Own Good”; Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind”; Steven Spielber, “ET.”

E.D. Hirsch, author of “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know”: The Bible; William Shakespeare, the tragedies; Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech; Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address.”