More on old books: Mortimer Adler on permanent literature

The faster things change, the more important our reference points if we want to avoid motion sickness.

The great books are always contemporary.


In contrast, the books we call “contemporary,” because they are currently popular, last only for a year or two, or ten at the most. They soon become antiquated. You probably cannot recall the names of the bestsellers of the fifties. If they were recalled for you, you probably would not be interested in reading them. Especially in the field of nonfiction books, you want the latest “contemporary” product.


But the great books are never outmoded by the movement of thought or the shitting winds of doctrine and opinion. On the contrary, one great book tends to intensify the significance of others about the same subject. Thus, Marx’s Capital and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations illuminate each other, and so do works as far apart as Claude Bernard’s Introduction to Experimental Medicine and the medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen.


Schopenhauer said this clearly: “Looking over a huge catalogue of new books,” he said, “one might weep at thinking that, when ten years have passed, not one of them will be heard of.”


His further explanation is worth following: There are at all times two literatures in progress, running side by side, but little known to each other; the one real, the other only apparent. The former grows into permanent literature; it is pursued by those who live for science or poetry; its course is sober and quiet, but extremely slow; and it produces in Europe scarcely a dozen works in a century; these, however, are permanent. The other kind is pursued by persons who live on science and poetry. It goes at a gallop, with much noise and shouting of partisans. Every twelve-month it puts a thousand works on the market. But after a few years one asks. Where are they? Where is the glory which came so soon and made so much clamor?


This kind may be called fleeting, and the other, permanent literature.

Mortimer J. AdlerHow to Read a Book

See also:

Cutting edge: learning and change
Learning for the future: fundamentals
Deep Literacy: what it takes
Kevin Kelly on deep literacy
Tyler Cowen on reading fast, reading widely and reading well
Neil Gaiman on reading fiction, empathy and changing the world
Books as network opportunities
Broker Books
Folk art and reading as rivals
Misreading the mind: Ezra Klein and Nicholas Carr on transactional reading and contemplation
C.S. Lewis on reading the originals
C.S. Lewis on reading old books

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