Good Books and Great Books

Scholars have come up with different ways to classify books. The most used method of classifying books is by library codes. Outside of a mechanical classification, most critics categorize books as either good or great.

Great books are books that constitute an essential background in western cultural literature. They are those books that tradition and some institutions have high regard for in terms of expressing the foundations of western culture. According to the popular author Mortimer Adler, these books had contemporary significance to the problems and issues of modern times. They express ideas on how to solve a particular problem. They help people understand existence itself and to make our world a better place.

These books are inexhaustible. They can be read again and again with great benefit to the reader. The ideas in these books are well explained and they still matter to readers today. Whether you were from the last century or the one to come, these books will continue to provide insight.

Adler, in his book, The Great ideas: A syntopicon of great books of the Western world, detailed how books are delineated as “great”:

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 positioned such texts in the lists of suggested readings to be found in the last section in each of the 102 chapters of the “Syntopicon”. Here people find loads of twentieth-century female, black, and Latin American authors whose works we recommended but did not include in the second edition of the great books.

Unlike great books, good books do not prompt the reader to read the book again. Good books are said to not express ideas as poignantly as great books. They also do not aid the reader as much as great books do, shifting their consciousness, encouraging towards greater inner virtue. Good books are those that tell a story, but lack a certain substance to influence the reader strong enough to make them act in a new way.

Great books remain highly regarded throughout the ages because of their intrinsic value to transform the reader for the better. Good books do not stand up to this task, focusing on entertainment.


Adler, M.J., Fadiman, C., & Goetz, P.W. (1990). Great book of the Western world (2nd ed.). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
Adler, M. J. (1952). The great ideas: A syntopicon of great books of the Western world. Chicago. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Adler, M. J. (1992). A second look in the rearview mirror: Further autobiographical reflections of a philosopher at large. New York: Macmillan.
Wynar, B. S., Taylor, A. G., & Osborn, J. (1980). Introduction to Cataloging and Classification (6th ed.). Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.