On Mortimer Adler HOW TO READ A BOOK

Marie: It never made sense to me. Of course I had Leo Radista and Stephenson for junior seminar. Radista told nearly all the students in our seminar that they didn’t know how to read, especially some of our more “maverick” students. Perhaps Radista was working on commission for Adler’s book.

William: Last year I had a long talk with an SJC grad who became a professor at a college patterned after “The Program.” I explained to him how as a student I felt so frustrated in my efforts to get tutors to AGREE with me but now in old age I realize that they were perhaps TRAINED NOT to offer agreement but to always offer resistance in order to sharpen our endeavors and keep us far from complacency. This professor grad even said “They must drum it into their heads to be contentious.” For us to be life-long students and good readers I feel we must maintain a certain state of being as follows: 1.) be humble and assume “I only know that I do not know” because if we assume that we know it all and all is obvious then we shall not question with an open mind and “far more dangerous than the unanswered question is the unquestioned answer” 2.) Hold one’s judgment in abeyance as long as possible 3.) FORCE yourself to study things that do not appeal to you whether it is chemistry or math or even transcendental meditation because if you pursue only the path of least resistance then you shall never encounter new ways of thinking 4.) make an earnest effort to BE A DEVILS ADVOCATE and think in the way that your opponent or adversary or ideology is thinking because the only way you can refute is from WITHIN the axiomatic system finding its inherent weakness and turning that against it ; hence with regard to Mr. Raditsa’s rebuke it probably was true that the maverick students should have slowed down a bit and tried to approach things more slowly. As a teenager I fell in love with the poetry of Wallace Stevens. I quickly read his poem Emperor of Ice Cream and for years I would say “let be be FINAL of seem” … only recently did I look at it and realize that the line reads “let be be FINALE of seem” ; BIG difference and hence 5.) always doubt ourselves and challenge ourselves and be our own worst adversary.; the 33 verse of the Tao says “he who knows others has wisdom but he who knows the self has enlightenment” ; it is easy to conquer others but it is difficult to conquer the self.


Mortimer Adler wrote a book on “HOW TO READ A BOOK”

During our discussion what came to my mind is a little poem by Wallace Stevens, the very first poem I ever read from a Time Magazine review in the mid 1960s

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

As a teenager I read in haste and thought it said “Let be be FINAL of seem” and so for years I misquoted that line. I should have read more carefully.

Now in these days of the Internet we have the luxury to READ and see how MANY PEOPLE read.





All I can really do (all that any of us can do) is to offer my personal view on these matters as I passed through life. I summed things up for myself several years ago with a parable or allegory if you will about “The Limb Crawler and the Limb Sawyer.” The next two links give you the long and the short of it, first the SHORT and sweet followed by the LONG and not so sweet: https://williambuell.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/limb-crawlers-and-limb-sawyers/ ; that was the short and sweet and now for the longer and not so sweet ; https://williambuell.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/is-abortion-taking-life/ ; You see, one of the biggest mistakes people make in life is to conflate agreement with truth ; A sophist or a demagogue has the charisma to attract thousands to their school of thought. I did not have such charisma and yet I had need throughout my life to engage in inquiry and dialogue and so THROUGH NECESSITY I had to do it alone in a monologue or soliloquy. I had to be my own preacher, choir and congregation. I would have liked to become an Ayn Rand or a Jacob Kline or an Eva Brann or a Christopher Hitchens or a William F. Buckley, Jr. (and mind you I am not branding them as demagogues, but they did have the charisma to gain a following.) I did not have my own magazine like “The National Review” or my own television show like “Firing Line” so I had to stoke the coals of my own fire like a Thoreau in his cabin or an Emily Dickinson in her parlor or a Fernando Pessoa in his garret and fill an old wooden chest with my scribblings only in this case the wooden trunk was on the Internet. But whenever someone asks me what I really REALLY think then I simply give them a link to all my scribblings and I say to them: “The proof of the pudding is simply this – IF you had something of your own to say then you must have had the foresight to SAY it and write it and put it someplace as a link so that others might see. NOW it may be the case that you were mistaken or even deluded BUT you did the daily exercise of putting it down in words. BUT, if your little box, your little trunk or suitcase of life is EMPTY, then, go away, you fool, because you have nothing to say, you said nothing, you did nothing, you were only a limb sawyer who wrinkled their nose at everything and whined and said “I dont get it” ; there is an old joke which was employed in the TV movie production of Ursula LeGuinn’s The Lathe of Heaven – “Neurotics build castles in the sky; psychotics LIVE in them; and psychiatrists collect the rent.” Well, in a sad and happy way, everyone’s OPUS, EVERYONE, is in a certain sense a castle in the sky, whether it is Kants opus or Plato or Hegel or Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. It was their sand box for 20 or 30 years and it became their sand castle in the sky. They all strive for some kind of closure of “Absolute Knowledge” or some “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” and they are grand and noble lifeworks like Gibbon’s 20 years on “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” or Einstein’s effort at a G.U.T Grand Unified Theory.

Actually there are as many different ways to read a book as there are people who read books. Harold Bloom wrote his book about how to read which is possibly more engaging than Mortimer Adler’s book. I will say that anyone who writes anything that gets other people to read books, no matter how foolish or deranged that writing might be, has done a good work.

I will be the first to admit that in the late 1960s I listened to Adler and Strauss and I was not converted or overly impressed. And I saw people who were in the thrall of such founders of schools of thoughts and I saw such thralls as more to be pitied than their leaders because although we are all fools and knaves, at least Adler and Strauss and Leo Buscaglia were able to get it together enough to publish something and gain some sort of following.

As much as we might personally loath someone like Sarah Palin or Tiny Tim (the falsetto singer of the early 1960s) we must on some level give them credit for the fact that they did something that most of us can never do, namely, they got themselves noticed and they achieved Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame that all of us are supposed to get and perhaps all of us do now with Internet and Facebook and WordPress and Myspace, etc.

Aaron: Sometimes what it takes to succeed at something is wholehearted devotion to it. That includes acquiring a following. But to adapt one of Adler’s arbitrary tests of “greatness”, how many images of him and his books would you suppose will come up on the analogue of google hundreds of years hence?

William: Aaron, excellent question. Ask me in a hundred years (just kidding). Ibn Khaldūn of the 12 century in what is now Tunisia was the father of social sciences http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_Khaldun observing that cultures go through vast cycles of rise and decline. None of his students took up his ideas. His ideas were only rediscovered centuries later. F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing that he was a failure as a novelist and “The Great Gatsby” was only recognized 20 years later. Rosa Parks some 40 years ago (her anniversary just came up) was a trouble-maker of a colored woman on a bus. Had you been on that bus you would have shaken your head. You would never imagine that she would one day receive the highest civilian award for her troublesomeness. The two doctors who pioneered lobotomy and turned the Kennedy girl into a vegetable received a Nobel prize. And yet Joyce, Proust and Nabokov never won Nobel prizes. Life is full of surprises and history is full of even more surprises.


We can see there are people who admire Adler and there are people who do not. We must acknowledge that the efforts and beliefs of many people at the University of Chicago and elsewhere went into founding what is now the Great Books Program at SJC. We see from Kyle’s post this morning that there are people who are less than happy with the SJC experience. And we can find people such as myself who have derived satisfaction every day of our lives from the experience although in the eyes of the world we are academic and economic failures. By the way, shortly after Kyle posted he had a long talk with me about the past and the future. I told him that what he wrote was O.K. with me in the sense that there is no ad hominem or profanity. We all need some place to vent at times and express our dissatisfactions in a civil fashion. I have a youtube link to that SJC film from years ago where a young cigarette smoking Jacob Kline talks with a student who is frustrated and on the verge of dropping out. I will find that and post it here.


If Fred Rogers were an SJC graduate then this speech would be a strong argument for the practical value of such an education. Fred Rogers did not go through “The Program.” But SJC has not cornered the market on the power of discourse or persuasion or informed consent. I find this speech moving.

I searched in haste for this clip and only just now realized that it is part of a site entitled “American Rhetoric Bank” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/ Sometimes “rhetoric” is a dirty word but it does not have to be a dirty word. Sex can be a dirty word but it can also be a beautiful word. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and a knife is merely a tool in the hand of a surgeon or a weapon in the hands of a criminal. What we see of the world depends on how we look at it; through a microscope, a telescope or rose-colored glasses. We need some way to interpret what we see, but even “seeing through a glass darkly” is better than closing our eyes and refusing to look.


I totally agree with you that SJC is not “a scam.” I want to give K. a chance to vent his frustrations. He has received some excellent advice from various people in this thread. I have a different alumnus (my age bracket) in a different group who is trying to convince me that I should be unhappy about my SJC education of 40 years ago and that I should try to audit some free CUNY classes so that I can see how much better a college experience can me. Some of what I said to him I reposted here because it is pertinent to this thread. I helped my first wife get through Harvard night school by attending some classes while she was ill and taking some notes and those classes were taught by the same professors/instructors who taught the regular Harvard undergrads. I grew up near New Haven and had a lot of exposure over the years to Yale students and teachers and graduates. After 40 years has gone by, what is the point of casting blame on one’s undergraduate experience. My total 4 years ’69 – 71 cost $16000 including pocket money, train fares to New Haven. My father told me that he had invested $500 in something which grew to $16000 so he used that to pay for school. My education was part of a divorce settlement. I can honestly say that during the past 40 years I have had a number of pleasant dreams (when I am asleep, actual dreams) in which I get to go BACK to SJC and re-do one year, and in the dream I try to decide which year I would like to redo. By the way, the man who thinks I should audit CUNY… I told him I am content with what Google and Facebook and WordPress provide (and PBS educational TV) as far as continued intellectual stimulation.

Obviously the Homeric poems were some kind of oral tradition which finally was written down and redacted (and the same might be said for the Vedas.) Socrates possibly represented some kind of oral tradition which traces back to the pre-Socratics and Plato was for the first time trying to CAPTURE IN WRITING some of what took place as an oral tradition. There was a certain notion that one could not trust the written word once separated from the author and that you needed the living author with you to explain the intention whereas the written word divorced from the author might be distorted in some way. One sees that same mistrust of the written word in the 2nd century bishop Irenaeus who was right at the time when the Gospels were being written and redacted and leaving the oral tradition. In face it was Irenaeus who argued that there should only be 4 Gospels because of that 4 faced vision of Ezekiel which corresponds to something in the Book of Revelation. I guess the point I am trying to make is that SOMETHING takes place in a seminar dialogue with 30 people that cannot take place elsewhere and it is something electric, something living a life of its own and one can try to approximate what happens by writing down the dialogue but the written word is a shadow of the living discussion. It is that living experience of the seminar which I miss the most and which I try to recreate for myself on-line in chat rooms like Yahoo and IRC and in message boards.


*In face* should read *In FACT it was Irenaeus who argued” … I vividly remember Jaroslav Pelikan pointing out Irenaeus mistrust of the written word in his 5 volume masterpiece, “The Christian Tradition – A History of the Development of Doctrine.” What I am about to say will only have real meaning to people from India who are familiar with Tusidas’ Ramayan (Ramacharitamanasa – The Holy Lake of the Acts of Ram) and the TV version of the Ramayan made in the 1980s by Ramanand Sagar. The two key scenes from the book (and movie) are 1.) The great Garuda who is the eagle “vehicle” of Vishnu himself, upon seeing Ram stricken with certain weapons actually LOSES FAITH, and so he comes to the humble Crow (Kag Bushundi) who is a singer of the Ramayan and the Crow restores the Eagles faith through the singing of the Lila (pastimes of Ram who is the earthly avataric incarnation of Vishnu.) Now the SECOND important scene is where the woman devotee of Ram, whose name is Shabari, spends all of her life in bhakti devotion, reliving the pastimes and finally Ram himself comes to see her (imagine Jesus appearing to a monk or nun.) Shabari has only one request, one question for Ram. Shabari asks Ram to teach her the nine devotional excellences which can bring the devotee to a personal vision of the Lord… well in the movie Ram LAUGHS because she is asking for lessons in what she has ALREADY ACHIEVED since Ram is right there, but he grant her request and explains the nine excellences which are Sravana, Kirtana, Smarana, Padasevana, Archana, Vandana, Sakhya, Dasya, Atmanivedana BUT WHAT IS SIGNIFICANT IS THE VERY FIRST and foremost which is SIMILAR to a seminar experience, namely Sravana which is ASSOCIATION or FELLOWHIP discourse with those who share your interest, and it is a kind of bootstrap experience – sravana means hearing, so it is kind of like LOGOS or discourse and it is also remotely like the word become flesh.

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