The answer is quite easily, actually.
First published in 1940, Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book became a best-seller, translated into at least 5 languages. It was substantially revised and expanded, with the help of Charles Van Doren, for its final publication in 1972.
Adler was the chairman of the board at the pre-Wikipedia Encyclopedia Britannica and Van Doren is best known for his stint on the 1950s quiz show Twenty One, for which he would later admit to being given the answers in advance.
The original book anticipated the post-War expansion of the public school system and growth in reading. It is designed as a supplement for those having a formal education and as a replacement for those going it on their own. It is chock full of good tips for readers and writers and teachers of reading and writing.
One of its most basic lessons is the speed of reading. You’d expect that the authors would have an apoplectic reaction to the notion that any book could be read quickly. But that is hardly the case. Rather, Mortimer and Adler embrace fast reading. As they write, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and with comprehension” (43; emphasis removed). The trick, then, is not learning to read quickly; it’s knowing the speed at which a book demands. Most young people suffer from an inability to know what any particular book requires.
Mortimer and Adler are not out to make every book a revelation and make every author a prophet. Books are intellectual offerings, to be examined, considered, and compared. There are bad books; in fact, most books are bad—or at least not very good. Most books should be skimmed, if they can’t be avoided.
There are other pieces of writing, however, like the Declaration of Independence, that require a great deal of attention and reflection. “Properly read, for full comprehension, those first two paragraphs of the Declaration might require days, or weeks, or years,” they instruct (42). It is Jefferson’s list of infractions, which comprise the bulk of the document, that can be gone over quickly.
How to Read a Book is also remarkable for its unapologetic modernism. Books are things to be understood. The idea that books can mean different things to different people doesn’t come till the seventh chapter, and even then it’s only in passing.
“A book is something different to each reader,” they admit. However, that difference is not the goal; it is certainly not to be embraced. “This does not mean, however, that anything goes” (83). The point is to employ a rigorous and purposeful method to minimize the difference between readers and authors. The goal is not interpreting, but good ol’ fashioned understanding.
Much to the confused chagrin of English faculty everywhere, the authors also caution against the “intentional fallacy”—that is, the idea that a reader can get into the head of an author based on what appears on the page (93).
No doubt, Derrida is rolling over in his “grave.”
Yet even as Mortimer and Adler seem inclined to reject postmodern deconstructionism as lazy and gross, they also want to rescue the relevance of theory. In their discussion of the difference between practical and theoretical texts, the authors identify John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, a canonical piece of political philosophy and theory, as a practical text. Why? Because it tells you how you should form a government, silly. They offer up Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason as an example of a purely theoretical text because it is concerned with what is (ontology) and what we can know (epistemology).
Mortimer and Adler deem comparative analyses—they call it “synoptical”—as the most difficult, which is consistent with what we have come to know in the decades since the book appeared about how people learn.
In addition to the reading comprehension quiz in the appendix, there is also a list of quality authors and texts, which will no doubt be met either with great excitement or great indignation.
The issue, as you might expect, is not with what it includes, but what it excludes. (That said, the Greeks and Romans are a bit over-represented, and I would have preferred to have seen Nietzsche’s remarkable The Gay Science in place of The Will to Power, his unpublished notes.) As a fairly standard representation of the Western canon, it is very white and very male. It’s hard to imagine a list of essential fiction that does not include Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. And where is Steinbeck? It should also include Richard Wright’s Native Son, perhaps the best book on race that’s even been written. The book, published in 1940, was too early to make the first list, but it could have been added to Mortimer and Adler’s revised edition. The same goes for To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, All the King’s Men, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse Five, books which might have been too new to be appreciated fully.
Sadly, with the possible exception of Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and, to a lesser degree, Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, there seems to be a serious dearth of non-fiction books to add to any post-1972 list of must-read texts.
How to Read a Book is a book for everyone and no one. It is a practical book that deserves a slow read. It goes without saying that it should be required of all college students. But it first should be read by the professors who teach them.