How to Read a Book

ByMortimer J. AdlerSIMON & SCHUSTER
ANYTHING that leans ever so little towards a return to ‘the grand old fortifying classical curriculum ‘ may always be sure of a good word from us, so we are bound to give this work an attenuated sort of recommendation on general principles, although there is much about it that is quite beyond our understanding. A good seven eighths of the book sounds like teaching your grandmother how to sift ashes; it lavishes great prolixity on procedures which any competent student would naturally follow without being told. Again, if Mr. Adler’s students can’t read, why are they in college? A college is no place for people who can’t read; they should be sent back to the woodpile. Again, we think that the number of those who can’t read and will never be able to read is enormously in excess of Mr. Adler’s estimate. Again, Mr. Adler’s notion that ‘almost all of the great books in every field are within the grasp of all normally intelligent men’ seems to us to need a deal of sifting. We do not know what he means by ‘normally intelligent,’ but if he means the average run of intelligence in our population, or in the student body of our schools and colleges, we believe he is deplorably wrong. So also, in our opinion, the book’s subtitle, ‘ The Art of Getting a Liberal Education,’ savors strongly of quackery; unless indeed Mr. Adler attaches some special meaning to his terms, which apparently he does.
These few observations are enough to show that while Mr. Adler’s work may do some good — we think it will — it may also do some harm. In the traditional view, a liberal education is not to be got on any such easy terms as he proposes; it is a matter of selection, in the first place, and then it is a matter of a great deal of preliminary work with spade, hoe, and harrow. If a student wants a liberal education and can take it, — and we think Mr. Adler will find that such students are almost as scarce as hen’s teeth, — and it he stands up successfully to the discipline of the lycée or the Gymnasium (or, best of all, if he is extra-good and sweats his way through the Ratio Studiorum of Acquaviva), then the chances are that he will emerge with something which could reasonably be called a liberal education. We could think more highly of Mr. Adler’s effort, conscientious as we are sure it is, if he had frankly labeled his educational plan as a makeshift, and had given due warning against the danger of putting any extravagant expectations on it.