Don’t be misled by the modest title of this skillful book. It is indeed, in the author’s words, a practical guide to the art of reading, but it is much more than that. The subtitle adds the suggestion that true reading is the art of getting a liberal education, but even that does not exhaust the contents; the book is in reality a tract for the times, beginning with the problem of literacy and ending with the relation of critical-mindedness to democratic institutions. With a steady cross-fire of aphorisms and illustrations, Professor Adler riddles present modes of education in America, the semantics craze, the exclusive devotion to scientific thinking, and several other misconceptions in criticism, history, and metaphysics.

At the same time as it shows off the author’s wit and expository talents, the book gives a generous puff to the new educational venture at St. John’s College, Annapolis, much valuable information about humanities courses there, at Chicago, and elsewhere, and a fair slice of Professor Adler’s spiritual and pedagogic autobiography. In other words, despite a great deal of intentional and effective repetition, these four hundred pages are packed full of high matters which no one solicitous for the future of American culture can afford to overlook.

The primary object of the book, however, is to show people how to read. Mr. Adler means by that taking in accurately the meaning of a book in its several parts and forming a competent judgment of it for the sake of individual—and ultimately social—enlightenment. Reading for insight, Dr. Adler thinks, is rarer in our day than at certain periods in the past; and he is rightly convinced that this sort of self-education is the best means of maintaining freedom in an age of propaganda and calculated irrationalism. I shall not divulge here the system of rules which Dr. Adler has worked out for the intending reader. The student of great books—and they alone constitute the materials of reading as an art—will find that like all arts, it is not quite so simple as mastering the multiplication table, though, contrary to common belief, it is equally within the reach of ordinary brains.

While enthusiastically agreeing with his main thesis, I wish to question here one or two of Professor Adler’s assertions. I am struck first of all by what appear to me inconsistent beliefs in the fixity of truth and in the democratic diversity of minds. The author’s liberalism, which he very sensibly connects with a truly liberal education, rests on what he calls the authority of reason, which implies given world enough and time, there would be in a thoroughly educated community no disagreements about truth. Though tastes might differ, wisdom would be one. The history of ideas shows that this is a vain hope. The problem is not to become unanimously reasonable, but to get on with men who contradict us through no unreason of theirs or ours.

Denying this relativism, Dr. Adler is haunted, it seems to me, by the common but essentially superstitious fear that it must mean “anything goes”—that, for example, any old interpretation of the Constitution or the Book of Job is as good as any other. Relativism means no such thing: it means relating a truth to the observer of it. Curiously enough, what Dr. Adler rejects as a possibility for the living, namely, “two or more sides to a question,” he accepts for the great dead of the European tradition, since he asks us to read with sympathy a grand list of great books from Homer to William James—a list that expounds at least half a dozen irreconcilable views of the world. The “truth” of these contradictory books must therefore be sought by one of two ways—either by a winnowing out of “error” from each one in the light of some orthodoxy, or else by a consideration of each world view as coherent, tenable, illuminating—valid, in fact, as far as it goes and as far as its holder is concerned.

But then what becomes of Professor Adler’s formal way of extracting the meaning of a great book and ridding oneself of mere opinion? Making outlines, parsing sentences, and testing syllogisms are thoroughly good exercises, but what do they yield—discipline, understanding, or truth? Perhaps these are connected, but is the sequence infallible? All good teachers want to give mental discipline and all honest teachers report innumerable failures; but how many of the reported successes are merely apparent—the student having acquired nothing more than a technique of formal analysis, a set of carving knives, and not a working mind? Commentators, whom Dr. Adler greatly admires, are generally felt by thinkers to be an accursed race. Shall teachers strive to develop thinkers or train commentators?

As a corollary to this problem, I might suggest that Dr. Adler’s impatience with the American undergraduate, and particularly with college reading courses that are not under his supervision, is perhaps excessive. He underestimates the effect of age and experience on the faculty of understanding. He regrets the lack of method in his own education, envying the French. Yet many products of the French lycée, which is all method, deplore their own system. Certainly many of the writers in the great tradition not only beseech unacademic minds for the only hearing they hope to get, but also assert the futility of the system, as system, in the education they received. Perhaps the same can be said of Mr. Adler’s, which is by turns winning, provocative, sensible, utopian, familiar, and original: it will do many people an immense amount of good. It may also stiffen not a few in the belief that industry and method make an artist. The grain of salt needed to season any system must as always be self-administered. But this does not mean that Professor Adler has not deserved well of his country and earned the reward of the bearers of light.

Originally published in The Saturday Review, March 9, 1940.

Jacques Barzun is a cultural critic and historian.