Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
In association with the The Adler-Aquinas Institute and Aquinas School of Leadership
A Founding Member of the Alliance for Liberal Learning

Saturday, March 22, 2008

On the Reading of Books

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes
knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.” The
one is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s,
cannot read at all. The other is the ignorance of those who have
misread many books. They are, as Pope rightly calls them,
bookful of blockheads, ignorantly read. There have always been
literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well. The
Greeks had a name for such mixture of learning and folly, which
might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages.
They are all sophomores.

Being well read too often means the quantity, too seldom the
quality, of reading. It was not only the pessimistic and
misanthropic Schopenhauer who inveighed against too much
reading, because he found that, for the most part, men read
passively and glutted themselves with toxic overdoses of
unassimilated information. Bacon and Hobbes made the same point.
Hobbes said: “If I read as many books as most men, I should be
as dull-witted as they.” Bacon distinguished between “books to
be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be digested.”


  1. These are wonderful ways to dismiss the views of those you disagree with. First, you vilify them with pejoratives if they don't read the "right" list of books. Then, you have a second list of pejoratives if they don't come to the same conclusions you did when you read them.

    As long as there are people who insist on debating in these manners, there will be disharmony, conflict and violence.

    Personally, I would prefer if people attempted to understand everyone's concerns. I have quite a bit of confidence that once we understand where people are coming from, the need for labeling them or their positions will diminish if not vanish.

  2. I always like to ask, "what attitudes or behaviors does this bit of writing enable or promote." That is a great help to discern the motivations of those who wrote it.

    My guess is that the illiterate would not be reading these comments, so it isn't aimed at them. If one has read the "right" books and understood them in the "right" way, then these comments will likely confirm to them their superiority. If one has read the "right" books but understands them in the "wrong" way, my guess is that they will miss the point, so that giving offense is likely not the point here. If one isn't sure, then they will likely look for an authority figure to tell them whether they are doing their study right.

    I therefore conclude that the point of this essay was to 1-confirm the arrogance of the intellectual "in" crowd and 2-make those on the fringes of the "in" crowd nervous enough to ask the "in" crowd for advice and to doubt their own lines of reasoning and paths of learning.

    I would prefer instead, essays that provoke people to question their preconcieved notions and to stimulate thought leading to personal awareness.