How to Write a Book Worth Reading.

howtoreadThe question, Is it true? can be asked of anything we read. It is applicable to every kind of writing, in one or another sense of “truth” — mathematical, scientific, philosophical, historical, and poetical. No higher commendation can be given any work of the human mind than to praise it for the measure of truth it has achieved; by the same token, to criticize it adversely for its failure in this respect is to treat it with the seriousness that a serious work deserves. Yet, strangely enough, in recent years, for the first time in Western history, there is a dwindling concern with this criterion of excellence. Books win the plaudits of the critics and gain widespread popular attention almost to the extent that they flout the truth — the more outrageously they do so, the better. Many readers, and most particularly those who review current publications, employ other standards for judging, and praising or condemning, the books they read — their novelty, their sensationalism, their seductiveness, their force, and even their power to bemuse or befuddle the mind, but not their truth, their clarity, or their power to enlighten. They have, perhaps, been brought to this pass by the fact that so much current writing outside the sphere of the exact sciences manifests so little concern with truth. One might hazard the guess that if saying something that is true, in any sense of that term, were ever again to become the primary concern it should be, fewer books would be written, published, and read.

~ Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

Adler, M. J., & Va Doren, C. (1972). How to Read a Book. Revised and updated edition. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “How to Write a Book Worth Reading.

  1. Pingback: How to Write a Book Worth Reading. | Bookish Things.

  2. I suppose it depends what one considers to be the truth. I’m not so sure there is such a thing as absolute truth, just people’s interpretations of it, which varies enormously. A Book which contains purely facts would make very dull reading. And fiction by its very nature is ‘made up’, it never actually happened, so does that make it a lie, an untruth?

    I’ve thought about this question a lot because I am so immersed in Irish mythology. Those of scientific mind dismiss it and it’s characters as pure fantasy, because there is no ‘proof’. But there is so much more to this world than only that we can see and touch. Humans have forgotten entirely how to utilise their other senses in order to perceive it, making us very one dimensional. I wonder how it is so much easier and more acceptable to believe in God and Jesus based on a few ancient texts and no hard evidence…

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    • Thanks for commenting, Ali. Truths are principles and facts are propositions, which are not the same things. Well-written fiction is composed of a seamless combination of truth, untruth, and facts. As a very simple example:

      Truth: people love.
      Untruth: an account of the lives of fictional lovers.
      Facts: the who, what, where, when, why and how, of the expression of love.

      The very nature of fiction makes it a lie, but whether or not that’s a bad thing is only a matter of opinion, whereas all good fiction testifies to the truth about the human condition. (More to come.)

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    • Here is another quote from Adler and Van Doren:

      “Facts are also – again to some extent – culturally determined. An atomic scientist, for example, maintains a complicated, hypothetical structure of reality in his mind that determines – for him – certain facts that are different from the facts that are determined for and accepted by a primitive. This does not mean that the scientist and the primitive cannot agree on any facts; they must agree, for instance, that two plus two is four, or that a physical whole is greater than any of its parts. But the primitive may not agree with the scientist’s facts about nuclear particles, just as the scientist may not agree with the primitive’s facts about ritual magic.” (Chapter 12, “Aids to Reading.”) (More to come.)

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      • Makes perfect sense to me. I was thinking more along the lines of differing versions of events in history. Both sides will see a war from completely different viewpoints, for example, and to each of them, their own version is the truth. Hundreds of years later, no one knows for sure which side is telling the truth. Maybe absolute truth is irrelevant. Maybe the only truth which matters is the one that people believe, regardless of whether it is right or wrong.

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    • You may enjoy reading Adler’s and Van Doren’s Chapter 18, “How to Read Philosophy.” As an example, not all Christians are “orthodox”: I am Christian, but I don’t accept the dogma of the absolute infallibility of the Bible, and I believe in the doctrine of continuing revelation from God. In the final analysis, none of us will “know” the truth about the nature of Deity until we leave mortality.

      Finally, I wish more people were familiar with Adler and Van Doren. I rarely use the term “masterpiece,” but their “How to Read a Book” is one. I’ve been re-reading it for more than forty years, and it continues to assist my reading ability and understanding.What helps us to be better readers will help us become better writers, too.

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