Great books are written publications that have been accepted by modern day scholars as the essential foundation of literature in Western culture. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines them as certain classics of literature, philosophy, history, and science that are believed to contain the basic ideas of western culture. Over the years it has become customary for institutes of higher education to incorporate these readings into their curriculum. The reason for the study of these classical texts is to both allow and encourage students to become familiar with some of the most revered authors throughout history. This helps to ensure that students and newly found scholars are equipped with a plethora of resources to utilize throughout their studies.
The great books are used in conjunction with literary classes in higher education courses, but are often taught in separate subcategories designed for the tone of the intended learning environment. Mortimer Adler used 500 books, out of the list of 517 books within the conglomeration of mixed titles, to teach his pupils expanded literary knowledge past that of their current generation. While Adler stuck to the original list, with a few differences to some novels, many chose to omit many of these titles in order to suit an undergraduate class semester by allowing for only 130 books, such as Torrey Honors Institute. For more thorough literary criticisms, people such as Harold Bloom have comprised lists of volumes including up to 2400 books of differing natures.(2,400 books, Harold Bloom)
The great books are those that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture (the Western canon is a similar but broader designation); derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books. Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:
- the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
- the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; "This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest."
- the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.
Circular reasoning may not be a desirable practice in demonstrations, but circular conceptualization sometimes may be.
The great works are nominated by the acclamations of historical choice, and the great issues are those issues found in those works. Parties interested in those issues in turn seek out comment and compare outside opinion in response along the lines of the issues, the discussion of the content of which finally serves as the criteria for rejudging the great works from time to time and including new ones.
The University of Chicago Great Books group called this the Great Conversation. This began in the ninth century BC with Homer, and some even extend this to the Bible. Robert Hutchins called "the goal towards which Western society moves" "the Civilization of the Dialogue" and noted Western Civilization has one great conversation of this type, while Eastern Civilization has several.
The first words of Robert M. Hutchins' preface to the 1952 Great Books of the Western World series declared:
- Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody's mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.
Hutchins and his circle believed textbooks, designed as stepping stones to reach the great understanding achieved by certain authors, and, yes, which often included many important details of practical use, were really becoming a problem in replacing the great books, that is, by becoming the final steps of education in their place. Because in that way, they reduced the ability for learners to attain to the full understanding, by principles, of what they were capable of learning and what the great authors were able to well-convey about the difficult topics they treated or, at least, what those authors were among the best able to convey with regard to the topics it was their primary concern to address in those writings.
In America, Thomas Jefferson, well known for his interest in higher education, frequently composed great books lists for his friends and correspondents, for example, for Peter Carr in 1785 and again in 1787.
In 1909, Harvard University published a 51-volume Great Books series, titled the Harvard Classics. These volumes are now in the public domain.
Great Books of the Western World came about as the result of a discussion among American academics and educators, starting in the 1920s and 1930s and begun by Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University, about how to improve the higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. These academics and educators included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, Jacques Barzun, and Alexander Meiklejohn. The view among them was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought, an emphasis contibuting to the other motives, bearing concurrent results, specified in the above prefatory remarks to the set.
They were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory, which caused educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey (see pragmatism) to disagree with the premise that there was crossover in education.
In 1920, Professor Erskine taught the first course based on the "Great Books" program, titled "General Honors", at Columbia University, and helped mould its core curriculum. The course, however, initially began to fail shortly after its introduction due to numerous disputes between senior faculty over the best way to conduct classes, as well as concerns about the rigour of the courses. This resulted in junior faculty, including Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler after 1923, teaching parts of the course. The course was discontinued in 1928, though later reinstated. Adler left for the University of Chicago in 1929, where he continued his work on the theme, and along with the University president, Robert M. Hutchins, held an annual seminar of great books. In 1937, when Mark Van Doren redesigned the course, it was already being taught at St. John's College, Annapolis, in addition to the University of Chicago. This course was later named Humanities A for freshmen, and then subsequently evolved into Literature Humanities. Survivors, however, include Columbia's Core Curriculum, the Common Core at Chicago, and the Core Curriculum at Boston University, each heavily focused on the "great books" of the Western canon.
Modern day university and college Great Books Programs are inspired by the Great Books movement that began in the United States during the 1920s. The aim of such programs is a return to the Western Liberal Arts tradition in education, as a correction to the extreme disciplinary specializations common within the academy. The essential component of such programs is a high degree of engagement with whole primary texts, the Great Books. The curricula of Great Books programs often follow a canon of texts considered more or less essential to a student's education, such as Plato's Republic, or Dante's Divine Comedy. Such programs often focus exclusively on Western culture. Their employment of primary texts dictates an interdisciplinary approach, as most of the Great Books do not fall neatly under the prerogative of a single contemporary academic discipline. Great Books programs often include designated discussion groups as well as lectures, and have small class sizes. In general students in such programs receive an abnormally high degree of attention from their professors, as part of the overall aim of fostering a community of learning.
There are only a few true "Great Books Programs" still in operation. These schools focus almost exclusively on the Great Books Curriculum throughout enrolment and do not offer classes analogous to those commonly offered at other colleges. The first, and most well known, of these schools is St. John's College in Annapolis and Santa Fe (program established in 1937); it was followed by Shimer College in Chicago, the Integral Program at Saint Mary's College of California (1955), Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California (est. 1971), Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire (est. 1978), and Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire. More recent schools with this type of curriculum include New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho (est. 1994), Gutenberg College in Eugene, Oregon (est. 1994), Harrison Middleton University in Tempe, Arizona (est. 1998), Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming (est. 2005), and Imago Dei College in Oak Glen, California (est. 2010). Fordham University's Honors Program at Rose Hill incorporates the Great Books curriculum into a rigorous first four semesters in the program. Loyola University Chicago's Honors Program combines a Great Books curriculum with additional elective classes on subjects not covered in traditional Western thought over a rigorous four year program. The University of Notre Dame's Program of Liberal Studies, established in 1950, is a highly regarded Great Books Program that operates as a separate institution within the College of Liberal Arts. Dharma Realm Buddhist University is the first Great Books school to offer curriculum combining Eastern and Western classics.
The Center for the Study of the Great Ideas advances the Great Conversation found in the Great Books by providing Adler's guidance, and resource materials through both live and on-line seminars, educational and philosophical consultation, international presence on the Internet, access to the Center's library collection of books, essays, articles, journals and audio/video programs. Center programs are unique in that they do not replicate other existing programs either started or developed by Adler.
Over 100 institutions of higher learning in the United States, Canada, and Europe maintain some version of a Great Books Program as an option for students. Among these are:
- American Public University System
- Azusa Pacific University Honors College
- Baylor University, Great Texts
- Bethlehem College & Seminary, Omnia Program
- Biola University, Torrey Honors Institute
- Boston College
- Boston University
- Columbia University
- Dharma Realm Buddhist University
- East Carolina University Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences
- Faulkner University
- Fordham University, Rose Hill, Honors Program
- Franciscan University of Steubenville
- George Fox University, Honors Program
- Gutenberg College
- Harrison Middleton University
- Hillsdale College
- Houston Baptist University, Honors College
- Iona College
- Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts
- Mercer University
- Middlebury College
- New York University, Gallatin Program, Liberal Studies Program
- Palm Beach Atlantic University
- Pepperdine University
- Saint Anselm College
- St. John's College
- Saint Mary's College of California (Moraga), Integral Liberal Arts Program
- Shimer College
- Templeton Honors College at Eastern University
- Thomas Aquinas College
- Thomas More College of Liberal Arts
- University of Chicago
- University of Dallas
- University of Michigan
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas
- University of Notre Dame
- University of San Francisco, St. Ignatius Institute
- University of Texas at Austin, Thomas Jefferson Center
- University of West Florida, Kugelman Honors Program
- Wilbur Wright College
- Wyoming Catholic College
- Xavier University (Cincinnati)
- The College of the Humanities at Carleton University, Ottawa
- The Liberal Arts College at Concordia University, Montreal
- Liberal Studies at Vancouver Island University
- St. Thomas University (New Brunswick)
- University of King's College (Foundation Year Programme)
- The Arts One Program at the University of British Columbia
- The Centre for Preparatory & Liberal Studies at George Brown College, Toronto
In contemporary scholarship, the Great Books curriculum was drawn into the popular debate about multiculturalism, traditional education, the "culture war," and the role of the intellectual in American life.
Many had issue with the lack of culture added to this list in both the first and second editions due to its lack of diversity in ethnic origin, as many Hispanic- and African-American documents were overlooked because they did not meet the ideals of drawing from the Great Ideas, of which the chosen texts had to meet a total of 25 at the least, to be considered as Great Books.
But this only seems to say persons and communities make choices about how they wish to participate intellectually in tradition in which they inhabit. Howard University, the first historically-black college had only been open 65 years when the last work for the 1952 set had been written. Further, Great books curriculum extends much further than the selection set of one, although one formerly-famous, series of books, and the Great Ideas were not really canonical; rather, the books were, the Great Ideas being invented as concept clusters to identify broad areas of common study down through the ages, though in very many cases slow to conclude, if having yet at all, and often with interruptions, hesitations and reversals.
Much of this debate centered on reactions to the publication of The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 by Allan Bloom. In his book, Allan Bloom suggested that the shortcoming of teaching by the method of the Great books is that it focuses primarily on historical reading without allowing for the point of view of the reader in this day and age.
He argued that this limited the ability for our knowledge to grow, given that no perspective was given in regards to the advancement of civilization past the date of these books. But although the 1952 set ended with a work from 1932, the 1990 second edition had elements designed to meet those objections, such as the six 20th-century-selection volumes, as large, if not larger, than a typical book from the set.
One of the purposes, however, of the set is to help a reader to fundamental mastery of idea topics, which while time-intensive and requiring study beyond a liberal-arts college degree, is apt to lead to the reader making their own decisions of how or whether modern works extend or transcend ideas understood by way of the intellectual traditions preceding those concept clusters.
The Great Books of the Western World is a hardcover 60-volume collection (originally 54 volumes) of the books on the Great Books list (517 individual works). A prominent feature of the collection is a two-volume Syntopicon (meaning "a collection of topics") that includes essays written by Mortimer Adler on 102 "great ideas." Following each essay is an extensive outline of the idea with page references to relevant passages throughout the collection. The collection was available from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., which owns the copyright.
Shortly after Adler retired from the Great Books Foundation in 1989, he served as editor-in-chief in publishing that second edition (1990) of the Great Books of the Western World for Encyclopædia Britannica; it included more Hispanic and female authors and, for the first time, works by black authors. During his tenure as president of the Foundation, Adler had resisted such additions. Ultimately, he remarked:
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. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process ... we chose the Great books on the basis of their relevance to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas. Many of the Great books are relevant to a much larger number of the 102 great ideas, as many as 75 or more great ideas, a few to all 102 great ideas. In sharp contrast are the good books that are relevant to less than 10 or even as few as 4 or 5 great ideas. We placed such books in the lists of Recommended Readings to be found in the last section in each of the 102 chapters of the "Syntopicon". Here readers will find many twentieth-century female authors, black authors, and Latin American authors whose works we recommended but did not include in the second edition of the great books [as main entries].
[Robert Hutchins wrote in 1951,] "In the course of history ... new books have been written that have won their place in the list. Books once thought entitled to belong to it have been superseded; and this process of change will continue as long as men can think and write. It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives, to discard what it cannot use, and to bring into context with the distant and intermediate past the most recent contributions to the Great Conversation."
Before and after the 1990 20th-century-authors volumes were included, additions to the Great Books main entries were also published from 1953 to 2002 in the Great Ideas Today yearbook series volumes (matching the styling of the set like updates to encyclopedias are). The first work from the modern world (some of the races of authors in the ancient world are unknown) chosen for inclusion in these additions to the Great Books main entries by a black author was The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Dubois (1903).
Ancient (before AD 500) :
- Homer – Iliad; Odyssey
- The Old Testament
- Aeschylus – Tragedies
- Sophocles – Tragedies
- Herodotus – Histories
- Euripides – Tragedies
- Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War
- Hippocrates – Medical Writings
- Aristophanes – Comedies
- Plato – Dialogues
- Aristotle – Works
- Epicurus – "Letter to Herodotus"; "Letter to Menoecus"
- Euclid – Elements
- Archimedes – Works
- Apollonius – Conics
- Cicero – Works (esp. Orations; On Friendship; On Old Age; Republic; Laws; Tusculan Disputations; Offices)
- Lucretius – On the Nature of Things
- Virgil – Works (esp. Aeneid)
- Horace – Works (esp. Odes and Epodes; The Art of Poetry)
- Livy – History of Rome
- Ovid – Works (esp. Metamorphoses)
- Quintilian – Institutes of Oratory
- Plutarch – Parallel Lives; Moralia
- Tacitus – Histories; Annals; Agricola; Germania; Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Oratory)
- Nicomachus of Gerasa – Introduction to Arithmetic
- Epictetus – Discourses; Enchiridion
- Ptolemy – Almagest
- Lucian – Works (esp. The Way to Write History; The True History; The Sale of Creeds; Alexander the Oracle Monger; Charon; The Sale of Lives; The Fisherman; Dialogue of the Gods; Dialogues of the Sea-Gods; Dialogues of the Dead)
- Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
- Galen – On the Natural Faculties
- The New Testament
- Plotinus – The Enneads
- St. Augustine – "On the Teacher"; Confessions; City of God; On Christian Doctrine
Medieval (AD 500—1450) :
- The Volsungs Saga or Nibelungenlied
- The Song of Roland
- The Saga of Burnt Njál
- Maimonides – The Guide for the Perplexed
- St. Thomas Aquinas – Of Being and Essence; Summa Contra Gentiles; Of the Governance of Rulers; Summa Theologica
- Dante Alighieri – The New Life (La Vita Nuova); "On Monarchy"; Divine Comedy
- Giovanni Boccaccio - The Decameron
- Geoffrey Chaucer – Troilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
- Thomas à Kempis – The Imitation of Christ
Modern (after AD 1450) :
- Leonardo da Vinci – Notebooks
- Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
- Desiderius Erasmus – The Praise of Folly; Colloquies
- Nicolaus Copernicus – On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
- Thomas More – Utopia
- Martin Luther – Table Talk; Three Treatises
- François Rabelais – Gargantua and Pantagruel
- John Calvin – Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Michel de Montaigne – Essays
- William Gilbert – On the Lodestone and Magnetic Bodies
- Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote
- Edmund Spenser – Prothalamion; The Faerie Queene
- Francis Bacon – Essays; The Advancement of Learning; Novum Organum; New Atlantis
- William Shakespeare – Poetry and Plays
- Galileo Galilei – Starry Messenger; Two New Sciences
- Johannes Kepler – The Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Harmonices Mundi
- William Harvey – On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; Generation of Animals
- Grotius – The Law of War and Peace
- Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan; Elements of Philosophy
- René Descartes – Rules for the Direction of the Mind; Discourse on the Method; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy; Principles of Philosophy; The Passions of the Soul
- Corneille – Tragedies (esp. The Cid, Cinna)
- John Milton – Works (esp. the minor poems; Areopagitica; Paradise Lost; Samson Agonistes)
- Molière – Comedies (esp. The Miser; The School for Wives; The Misanthrope; The Doctor in Spite of Himself; Tartuffe; The Tradesman Turned Gentleman; The Imaginary Invalid; The Affected Ladies)
- Blaise Pascal – The Provincial Letters; Pensées; Scientific Treatises
- John Bunyan - The Pilgrim's Progress
- Boyle – The Sceptical Chymist
- Christiaan Huygens – Treatise on Light
- Benedict de Spinoza – Political Treatises; Ethics
- John Locke – A Letter Concerning Toleration; Of Civil Government; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Some Thoughts Concerning Education
- Jean Baptiste Racine – Tragedies (esp. Andromache; Phaedra; Athalie (Athaliah))
- Isaac Newton – Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Opticks
- Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – Discourse on Metaphysics; New Essays on Human Understanding; Monadology
- Daniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe; Moll Flanders
- Jonathan Swift – The Battle of the Books; A Tale of a Tub; A Journal to Stella; Gulliver's Travels; A Modest Proposal
- William Congreve – The Way of the World
- George Berkeley – A New Theory of Vision; A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
- Alexander Pope – An Essay on Criticism; The Rape of the Lock; An Essay on Man
- Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu – Persian Letters; The Spirit of the Laws
- Voltaire – Letters on the English; Candide; Philosophical Dictionary
- Henry Fielding – Joseph Andrews; Tom Jones
- Samuel Johnson – The Vanity of Human Wishes; Dictionary; Rasselas; Lives of the Poets
- David Hume – A Treatise of Human Nature; Essays Moral and Political; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; History of England
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Discourse on Inequality; On Political Economy; Emile: or, On Education; The Social Contract; Confessions
- Laurence Sterne – Tristram Shandy; A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy
- Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments; The Wealth of Nations
- William Blackstone – Commentaries on the Laws of England
- Immanuel Kant – Critique of Pure Reason; Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals; Critique of Practical Reason; Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
- Edward Gibbon – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Autobiography
- James Boswell – Journal; The Life of Samuel Johnson
- Antoine Laurent Lavoisier – Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
- Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison – Federalist Papers (together with the Articles of Confederation; United States Constitution and United States Declaration of Independence)
- Jeremy Bentham – Comment on the Commentaries; Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
- Johann Wolfgang Goethe – Faust; Poetry and Truth
- Thomas Robert Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population
- John Dalton – A New System of Chemical Philosophy
- Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier – Analytical Theory of Heat
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – The Phenomenology of Spirit; Science of Logic; Elements of the Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
- William Wordsworth – Poems (esp. Lyrical Ballads; Lucy poems; sonnets; The Prelude)
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Poems (esp. Kubla Khan; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ); Biographia Literaria
- David Ricardo – On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
- Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice; Emma
- Carl von Clausewitz – On War
- Stendhal – The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
- François Guizot – History of Civilization in France
- Lord Byron – Don Juan
- Arthur Schopenhauer – Studies in Pessimism
- Michael Faraday – The Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
- Nikolai Lobachevsky – Geometrical Researches on the Theory of Parallels
- Charles Lyell – Principles of Geology
- Auguste Comte – The Positive Philosophy
- Honoré Balzac – Works (esp. Le Père Goriot; Le Cousin Pons; Eugénie Grandet; Cousin Bette; César Birotteau)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson – Representative Men; Essays; Journal
- Victor Hugo - Les Misérables
- Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
- Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America
- John Stuart Mill – A System of Logic; Principles of Political Economy; On Liberty; Considerations on Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
- Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species; The Descent of Man; Autobiography
- William Makepeace Thackeray – Works (esp. Vanity Fair; The History of Henry Esmond; The Virginians; Pendennis)
- Charles Dickens – Works (esp. Pickwick Papers; Our Mutual Friend; David Copperfield; Dombey and Son; Oliver Twist; A Tale of Two Cities; Hard Times)
- Claude Bernard – Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
- George Boole – The Laws of Thought
- Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience; Walden
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – Das Kapital (Capital); The Communist Manifesto
- George Eliot – Adam Bede; Middlemarch
- Herman Melville – Typee; Moby-Dick; Billy Budd
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov
- Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary; Three Stories
- Henry Thomas Buckle – A History of Civilization in England
- Francis Galton – Inquiries into Human Faculties and Its Development
- Bernhard Riemann – The Hypotheses of Geometry
- Henrik Ibsen – Plays (esp. Peer Gynt; Brand; Hedda Gabler; Emperor and Galilean; A Doll's House; The Wild Duck; The Master Builder)
- Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace; Anna Karenina; "What Is Art?"; Twenty-Three Tales
- Richard Dedekind – Theory of Numbers
- Wilhelm Wundt – Physiological Psychology; Outline of Psychology
- Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; The Mysterious Stranger
- Henry Adams – History of the United States; Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; The Education of Henry Adams; Degradation of Democratic Dogma
- Charles Peirce – Chance, Love, and Logic; Collected Papers
- William Sumner – Folkways
- Oliver Wendell Holmes – The Common Law; Collected Legal Papers
- William James – The Principles of Psychology; The Varieties of Religious Experience; Pragmatism; A Pluralistic Universe; Essays in Radical Empiricism
- Henry James – The American; The Ambassadors
- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; On the Genealogy of Morality; The Will to Power; Twilight of the Idols; The Antichrist
- Georg Cantor – Transfinite Numbers
- Jules Henri Poincaré – Science and Hypothesis; Science and Method; The Foundations of Science
- Sigmund Freud – The Interpretation of Dreams; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality; Introduction to Psychoanalysis; Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; The Ego and the Id; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
- George Bernard Shaw – Plays and Prefaces
- Max Planck – Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
- Henri Bergson – Time and Free Will; Matter and Memory; Creative Evolution; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
- John Dewey – How We Think; Democracy and Education; Experience and Nature; The Quest for Certainty; Logic – The Theory of Inquiry
- Alfred North Whitehead – A Treatise on Universal Algebra; An Introduction to Mathematics; Science and the Modern World; Process and Reality; The Aims of Education and Other Essays; Adventures of Ideas
- George Santayana – The Life of Reason; Scepticism and Animal Faith; The Realms of Being (which discusses the Realms of Essence, Matter and Truth); Persons and Places
- Vladimir Lenin – Imperialism; The State and Revolution
- Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time (formerly translated as Remembrance of Things Past)
- Bertrand Russell – Principles of Mathematics; The Problems of Philosophy; Principia Mathematica; The Analysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
- Thomas Mann – The Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
- Albert Einstein – The Theory of Relativity; Sidelights on Relativity; The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
- James Joyce – "The Dead" in Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses
- Jacques Maritain – Art and Scholasticism; The Degrees of Knowledge; Freedom and the Modern World; A Preface to Metaphysics; The Rights of Man and Natural Law; True Humanism
- Franz Kafka – The Trial; The Castle
- Arnold J. Toynbee – A Study of History; Civilization on Trial
- Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea; No Exit; Being and Nothingness
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – The First Circle; Cancer Ward
The original edition of How to Read a Book contained a separate "contemporary list" because "Here one's judgment must be tentative". All but the following authors were incorporated into the single list of the revised edition:
- Ivan Pavlov – Conditioned Reflexes
- Thorstein Veblen – The Theory of the Leisure Class; The Higher Learning in America; The Place of Science in Modern Civilization; Vested Interests and the State of Industrial Arts; Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times
- Franz Boas – The Mind of Primitive Man; Anthropology and Modern Life
- Leon Trotsky – The History of the Russian Revolution
In 1954 Mortimer Adler hosted a live weekly television series in San Francisco, comprising 52 half-hour programs, entitled The Great Ideas. These programs were produced by the Institute for Philosophical Research and were carried as a public service by the American Broadcasting Company, presented by National Educational Television (NET), the precursor to what is now PBS. Adler bequeathed these films to the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas, where they are available for purchase.
In 1993 and 1994, The Learning Channel created a series of one-hour programs discussing many of the Great Books of history and their impact on the world. It was narrated by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman, among others.
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- Hutchins, Robert M., ed. (1952). Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica), v. 1, p. xi.
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Reprinted with some minor changes from The New Leader, May 26 and June 4, 1944
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