X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys

The definition of a Great Book has been discussed previously on this Livejournal here

I argued that there were the three criteria for the definition of a great book. Mortimer Adler used three criteria to determine inclusion in his “Great Books of the Western World” series for Encyclopedia Britannica (see http://books.mirror.org/gb.sel1990.html). I have here paraphrased his words:

    * TIMELESS: Great Books should be works that are as much of concern to us today as at the time they were written, even if that was centuries ago. They are thus essentially timeless — always contemporary, and not confined to interests that change from time to time or from place to place.
    * INFINITE: The second criterion was their infinite re-readability. Few books are worth reading more than once. A great book is inexhaustibly re-readable. It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings. One re-reads a great book with greater pleasure and more insight on each rereading.
    * RELEVANT: The third criterion was the relevance of the work to a very large number of great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last twenty-five centuries. The authors of these books take part in the great conversation, reading the works of many of their predecessors, and answering them. In other words, the great books are the books in which the great conversation occurs about the great ideas. It is the set of great ideas that determines the choice of the great books.

Also worth quoting in full is Alder’s comment on what was excluded from criteria of judgment:

We did not base our selections on an author’s nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author’s race or gender [sic–he means ‘sex’]. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no “affirmative action” in the process.

In the second place, we did not consider the influence exerted by an author or a book on later developments in literature or society. That factor alone did not suffice to merit inclusion. Scholars may point out the extraordinary influence exerted by an author or a book, but if the three criteria stated above were not met, that author or book was not to be chosen. Many of the great books have exerted great influence upon later generations, but that by itself was not the reason for their inclusion. [Adler’s footnote: This negative consideration applies, in my judgment, to Voltaire and his “Candide”. It also applies to the German philosopher Leibniz and his works. Just think of the influence exerted by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin!”]

In the third place, a consideration not operative in the selection process was the truth of an author’s opinions or views, or the truth to be found in a particular work. This point is generally misunderstood; many persons think that we regard the great books as a repository of mankind’s success in its ever-continuing pursuit of the truth. “That is simply not the case”. There is much more error in the great books than there is truth. By anyone’s criteria of what is true or false, the great books will be found to contain some truths, but many more mistakes and errors.

But, in that previous discussion of the Great Books, the most adroit contribution was made by the honorable and ever- insightful Steve Wilson over at ‘My Elves Are Different.’