Adler and Van Doren: Unfashionable Truth

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. Yes, 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 outragiously 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 of 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 and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (1972)

There is no shortage of somewhat reactionary statements like this in How to Read a Book, but there is a germ of truth to all of them. I’m sure bad writing is not a 20th century invention—Adler and Van Doren, in concentrating on “good” books, have probably not been exposed to the bad writing of centuries past. On the other hand, now that publishing is so cheap, books both good and bad are proliferating wildly. It may also be possible that there are fewer truths left to write about now than in the past. Most of them have been pretty well covered centuries, if not millennia ago. It is probably far easier (and certainly more attention-getting and ego-boosting) to express a novel but false idea in a conventional way than to express a conventional truth in a novel way. Perhaps the books that we call great are those that do the latter.