To read well, says Dr Adler, is to analyze, understand, judge, compare with other books, and finally to create something new. This last refers to a new idea, one not to be found in any of the books individually. The reader, ideally, becomes a writer. Thus the discourse between writers and readers grows and contributes, to use Adler’s term, to the “Great Conversation.”
Eliot’s collection is a good vehicle for Adler’s comparative approach. In his introduction, Eliot himself says that there are many ways to read the Classics, but focuses on one: to contrast the ideas of authors writing at different times and places. The Harvard Classics are not merely an assortment of great books, but a deliberate selection carefully cross-indexed with the self-guided education of its readers in mind.
For Eliot, the purpose of the series was to “develop and foster in many thousands of people a taste of serious reading of the highest quality, outside of the Harvard Classics as well as within them.” Adler’s method demands we go further. Eliot was constrained by a self-imposed limit: that his portable university fit on a five-foot shelf. For Adler, the best way to appreciate the Classics (and every book they lead to) is to add, each of us for ourselves, a sixth foot.
The Sixth Foot is the collective name for the posts found on this blog. Of each book, the Sixth Foot will ask, and try to answer: Why is it worthwhile? What can we learn from it? How does it fit in the canon and where does it lead us?
I hope my posts encourage your comments. So continues the conversation.