Good Books vs Great Books

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


This controversy focuses on the books that should be a part of one’s general education. It is a dispute about the traditionally recognized canon of the monuments of Western literature in all fields–works of mathematics and science as well as works of poetry, drama, and fiction, and also works of biography, history, philosophy, and theology. Here we are confronted with current attacks upon the canonical list of great books and the responses that those attacks have elicited.

I am involved in this controversy–as associate editor of the first edition of the Great Books of the Western World, published in 1952, and as editor in chief of the second, much expanded edition, published in 1990. The second edition differed from the first in many respects: new translations, a revised Syntopicon, and six volumes of twentieth-century authors that did not appear in the first edition, as well as fifteen authors added in the period from Homer to Freud. As in the case of the first edition, so in the case of the second, our Editorial Board and the large group of advisers whom we consulted did not agree unanimously about the authors to be included; but in both cases there was ninety percent agreement. That, in my judgment, is all one can expect in a matter of this kind.

I would like to call your attention to two things about the second edition. In writing an introductory essay, which appeared in a volume that accompanied the set, entitled The Great Conversation, I anticipated the controversy that the second edition of the Great Books of the Western World would arouse. This did not arise before. In the 1940s, when we were engaged in producing the first edition, ”Eurocentric” was not current as a disapprobative term. There was no hue and cry about the absence of female authors; nor had blacks cried out for representation in the canon. In those earlier decades of this century, students and teachers in our colleges and educators in general were not concerned with multiculturalism in our educational offerings.

The second edition contains female authors, some in the nineteenth and some in the twentieth century, but no black authors; and it is still exclusively Western (i.e., European or American authors) with none from the four or five cultural traditions of the Far East.

The controversy over the desirability of multiculturalism having arisen in the late 1980s, I took account of it in my introductory essay, pointing out carefully the criteria in terms of which the authors were selected for inclusion, explaining the difference between the five hundred or so great works included in the set and the thousands of good books listed in the Recommended Readings at the end of each of the 102 chapters in The Syntopicon. These lists included many female and many black authors, but none still from the Far East.

These exclusions were not, and are not, invidious. The difference between great and good books is one of kind, not of degree. Good books are not “almost great” or “less than great” books. Great books are relevant to human problems in every century, not just germane to current twentieth-century problems. A great book requires to be read over and over, and has many meanings; a good book needs to have no more than one meaning, and it need be read no more than once.

I also explained but did not apologize for the so-called Eurocentrism of the Great Books of the Western World by pointing out why no authors or works from the four or five distinct cultural traditions in the Far East were included or should be included. The Western authors are engaged in a great conversation across the centuries about great ideas and issues. In the multicultural traditions of the Far East, there are, perhaps, as many as four or five great conversations about different sets of ideas, but the authors and books in these different cultural traditions do not combine these ideas in one Far Eastern tradition, nor do they participate in the great conversation that has occurred over the last twenty-five centuries in the West. There are undoubtedly great, as distinguished from good, books in all of these Far Eastern traditions.

I did not anticipate that those who responded to the publication of the second edition by challenging its Eurocentrism or complaining about the fact that its authors were still for the most part dead white males, with few females and no blacks, would do so entirely in terms of announcements in the press of the list of included authors, and without reading my introductory essay and without knowing that a large number of female and black authors were included in the 102 lists in The Syntopicon of good books cited as readings recommended in addition to the great books included in the set, along with many other books by white males, none of them regarded as great.

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