Adler's effort to bring classic literature and philosophy to the masses wasn't without its detractors. Adler's book led social critic Dwight MacDonald to observe: "Mr. Adler once wrote a book called How to Read a Book. He should now read a book called How to Write a Book."
In his book, Adler argued that the best way to gain insight into the great ideas is through what he called original communication—that is, from the source of the idea itself. Hence, reading the Great Books is the way to gain that insight from the original thinkers. Adler proceeds to try to teach the reader how to read for understanding.
Adler served on the Board of Editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica from its inception in 1949 and was the director of editorial planning for the 15th edition beginning in 1965 where he oversaw a vast reorganization of the information in that volume. He became chairman of the Board of Directors in 1974. Adler also taught at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.
With Robert Hutchins, who had been president of the University of Chicago, Adler founded the Great Books of the Western World program (1952), a series of books published in 54 volumes by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. They also founded the Great Books Foundation. The first two sets were presented to Queen Elizabeth II and President Harry Truman.
The series included works of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Hippocrates, Plutarch, Virgil, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Galileo, Cervantes, Bacon, Decartes, Milton, Pascal, Newton, John Locke, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Immanuel Kant, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Stuart Mill, James Boswell, Hegel, Goethe, Melville, Darwin, Karl Marx, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Freud, among others. Reading the entire set could give the reader a classical education in the liberal arts.