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At the age of forty-eight, writer and film critic David Denby returned to Columbia University and re-enrolled in two core courses in Western civilization to confront the literary and philosophical masterpieces ? the "great books" ? that are now at the heart of the culture wars. In Great Books, he leads us on a glorious tour, a rediscovery and celebration of such authors as Homer and Boccaccio, Locke and Nietzsche. Conrad and Woolf. The resulting personal ...

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1996-09-09 Hardcover New New Hardcover! Pristine unmarked pages, may have very slight warehouse wear, no remainder marks, still a great buy straight from book warehouse unread, ... sealed in plastic, exact artwork as listed, Read more Show Less

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New, neat, clean and crisp copy with a little shelf wear on cover . We offer quick shipping, careful packaging, full money-back guarantee and a personally selected range of books ... on self-help, health, healing, homeopathy, relationships, metaphysics, art, Buddhism and Eastern wisdom traditions at most reasonable prices. Please browse our wonderful selection. Read more Show Less

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New SOFTCOVER EDITION. Book is Brand New in Pristine Condition MINT! ! ! ! Factory Sealed. SOFTCOVER! Exactly As Shown in Picture. Simon & Schuster. 'Great Books [PAPERBACK]' ... ISBN # 0684809753. Ship with Delivery Confirmation. Fast Shipping, Reliable Service, Costumer Satisfaction and Money Back Guaranteed! ! Thank You! ! Read more Show Less

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Riverside, New Jersey, U.S.A. 1996 Hardcover New 0684809753. BRAND NEW, FLAWLESS COPY, NEVER OPENED--493 pages. "In Great Books, Denby lives the common adult fantasy of ... returning to school with some worldly knowledge and experience of life. A gifted storyteller, he leads us on a glorious tour--by turns eloquent, witty, and moving--through the works themselves and through his experiences as a middle-aged man among freshmen. He recounts his failures and triumphs as a reader and student (taking an exam led to a hilarious near-breakdown). He celebrates his rediscovery or new appreciation of such authors as Homer, Plato, the biblical writers, Augustine, Boccaccio, Hegel, Austen, Marx, Nietzsche, and Virginia Woolf. He re-creates the atmosphere of the classroom--the strategies used by a remarkable group of teachers and the strengths and weaknesses of media-age students as they grapple with these difficult, sometimes frightening works. And all year long he watches the students grow and his own life and memories b Read more Show Less

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Riverside, New Jersey, U.S.A. 1996 Paperback New 0684809753. BRAND NEW, FLAWLESS COPY, NEVER OPENED--493 pages. "In Great Books, Denby lives the common adult fantasy of ... returning to school with some worldly knowledge and experience of life. A gifted storyteller, he leads us on a glorious tour--by turns eloquent, witty, and moving--through the works themselves and through his experiences as a middle-aged man among freshmen. He recounts his failures and triumphs as a reader and student (taking an exam led to a hilarious near-breakdown). He celebrates his rediscovery or new appreciation of such authors as Homer, Plato, the biblical writers, Augustine, Boccaccio, Hegel, Austen, Marx, Nietzsche, and Virginia Woolf. He re-creates the atmosphere of the classroom--the strategies used by a remarkable group of teachers and the strengths and weaknesses of media-age students as they grapple with these difficult, sometimes frightening works. And all year long he watches the students grow and his own life and memories b Read more Show Less

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At the age of forty-eight, writer and film critic David Denby returned to Columbia University and re-enrolled in two core courses in Western civilization to confront the literary and philosophical masterpieces — the "great books" — that are now at the heart of the culture wars. In Great Books, he leads us on a glorious tour, a rediscovery and celebration of such authors as Homer and Boccaccio, Locke and Nietzsche. Conrad and Woolf. The resulting personal odyssey is an engaging blend of self-discovery, cultural commentary, reporting, criticism, and autobiography — an inspiration for anyone in love with the written word.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
As September rolls around, do you find yourself longing to go back to school despite the fact that you graduated years ago? Would you remember how to read critically? Could you hold your own alongside today's college students? Would you find the Western literary classics culturally relevant and applicable to your life?

At the age of 48, David Denby, film critic for New York magazine and contributing editor of The New Yorker, enrolled in Columbia University to rediscover the masterpieces of the Western tradition. He chronicles his journey in the New York Times bestseller Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World.

What brought Denby back to his alma mater was not a sense of nostalgia, but the current academic debate surrounding Western literature. This culture war centers on the left's denunciation of "dead white European males" as oppressive and exclusionary and the right's reverence of the Western canon as the foundation of traditional values and patriotism. Like many of the extremists engaged in the debate, Denby found his memories of these works faded and forgotten. "I possessed information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs.... And I wanted to add my words to the debate from the ground up, beginning and ending in literature, never leaving the books themselves."

Thus Denby returns to Columbia for the two "great books" courses: Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. During his yearlong education he exploresthedifficulties of going back to reading seriously; analyzes today's college students; observes the teaching styles of four professors; and enters into a period of self-discovery as he learns to deal with life as a middle-aged student, father, and husband.

Along the way he gains a new appreciation of writers such as Homer, Boccaccio, Austen, Nietzsche, Conrad, Machiavelli, Marx, and Woolf. He walks away from his experiences believing deeply that students today, more than ever, need this type of humanistic education and that both sides of the culture war are simplifying the Western tradition.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Does a great books canon exist? Left-wing critics denounce the notion of a canon, while right-wingers often use it to assert unquestioned Western supremacy. This superb book suggests an answer. Denby, the film critic for New York magazine, returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, after 30 years to retake the two core curriculum courses, grapple with the world's classics and regenerate his own lapsed reading habit. It is a heartening portrait of (elite) American education and a substantialsometimes enthrallingread. His teachers are committed pedagogues, the students a diverse (religious faith separates more than does ethnicity) and thoughtful lot. But the students are young, and the book's richest moments are when the mature Denby engages with the texts. Reading the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, he feels anxious, recognizing the ironic truth "[W]hat we avoid, we become." Hobbes's comments on the state of nature lead Denby to muse on insider trading and the time he was mugged. He contrasts Beauvoir's call for female liberty with the "Take Back the Night" antirape march on campus. Denby steps aside to interview academics and analyze the debate about the canon; he acknowledges that white male critics too long ignored the likes of Virginia Woolf, but resolutely argues for the seeking out of all great books, not merely ones that represent excluded groups. Why? Because the "Western classics were at war with each other," and learning to read Hegel and Marx, or the Bible and Nietzsche, is no lesson in indoctrination but the beginning of "an ethically strenuous education" and "a set of bracing intellectual habits." Author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Denby, a noted movie critic, goes back to his alma mater, Columbia University, to retake the LitHum and contemporary civilization courses he took in the early 1960s to determine whether the politically correct crowd is right about the great books being intellectually bankrupt. He decides the PCs are mostly all wet. "These books...speak most powerfully of what a human being can be. They dramatize the utmost any of us is capable of in love, suffering, and knowledge. They offer the most direct representation of the possibilities of civil existence and the disaster of its dissolution." For a scholar's viewpoint on great books, see Harold Bloom's The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (LJ 9/1/94). (LJ 8/96). Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Disturbed by the culture wars and the debate over "Great Books," Denby, the film critic for New York magazine, retook Columbia University's famed "C.C." and "Lit Hum" courses, the prototype of the "Great Books" curriculum, which he had taken some 30 years earlier. Reading all of the books and noting the effects on the students, professors, and himself, he compared his current experience with his earlier one. The result is an extended, personal account of the "Great Books" and their enduring power to challenge us and resist categories. They represent the "other" for all students, whatever their ethnic background. Denby concludes that the judgments leveled by cultural ideologues of both the Left and the Right are poorly informed and largely nonsense. A provocative contribution to the culture wars. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/96.]Thomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, Ga.
Patricia Hassler
Thomas Wolfe may have proposed that we can't go home again, but he didn't exclude the possibility of a quick scuttle back to college. Denby, a film critic for "New York" magazine, returned to Columbia at age 48 to participate as an observer in two core courses he had taken there as an undergraduate: Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. When he realized that "I no longer knew what I knew," Denby took his wife's dare to reread and rethink the classics in an academic milieu. He spent two semesters listening, debating, observing students, and critiquing teaching styles in an effort to "possess" reading and turn it once again into a satisfying act. Denby's account is a fascinating blend of memoir, journal, reporting, exegesis, and soul-searching by a man who slowly realized the truth of one professor's caveat that to read these works, each reader would need "to create a self." In the act of doing so, Denby proved that one man's response to the Great Books might be writing a great book of his own.
Kirkus Reviews
In a coup of cultural journalism, a prominent film critic returns to the Ivy League classroom as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars.

For this book, Denby, film critic for New York and a contributing editor at the New Yorker, spent an academic year attending Columbia University's famous "core curriculum" classes in the great books, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. Denby recreates how he read, pondered, and discussed classic texts from Homer and Sappho to Nietzsche and Conrad, all the time maintaining and meditating on his intensely cosmopolitan yet family-centered life. When Denby reads Plato, or for that matter Austen, he contemplates how the "media fog" to which he contributes as a film critic envelops his fellow students; when he reads Woolf, or for that matter Virgil, he considers the transformations wrought in his own lifetime by feminism. Denby's book will be easy to poke fun at—or to poke holes in. Academic leftists will note how after much anxious criticism of some vague group called the "cultural left," an interview with an actual radical professor discovers only a sensible, if gloomy, argument that the great books are too hard for today's underprepared undergraduates. Conservatives will snort at Denby's epiphanies over a feminist critique of Aristotle's Politics. But Denby's mission is precisely to counter such pessimism and cynicism, and to capture the potential of such epiphanies, by honestly recording his own intellectual experiences. Such exposure takes real courage. And Denby's courage pays off: His thick description of what learning and teaching the great books actually means to us today puts to shame the facile speculation that has heretofore dominated culture-wars journalism.

When Denby puts himself on the line as a student and as a person by actually reading the classics, his audacious humility amounts to a kind of greatness of soul. In important ways, this is one of very few truly good books on the culture wars.

From Barnes & Noble
The author's return to the university for re-enrollment in two Western civilization courses prompted these reflections on the "great books" of history by Homer, Rousseau, "and other indestructible writers of the Western world." "An exalting reinforcement of the idea that literature and life are inseparable..."--New York magazine. A New York Times bestseller.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684809755
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/9/1996
  • Pages: 463
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Meet the Author

David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker and author of Great Books and American Sucker. He lives in New York City with his wife.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


* The Iliad

* Professor Edward Tayler tells us we will build a self

* The college bookstore; my lost attention

* Columbia students then and now

* C.C. begins: Anders Stephanson and the hegemony of the western calendar

* Professor Tayler teaches the Iliad

* Achilles the hero I had forgotten. I had forgotten the extremity of its cruelty and tenderness, and, reading it now, turning the Iliad open anywhere in its 15,693 lines, I was shocked. A dying word, "shocked." Few people have been able to use it well since Claude Rains so famously said, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here," as he pocketed his winnings in Casablanca. But it's the only word for excitement and alarm of this intensity. The brute vitality of the air, the magnificence of ships, wind, and fires; the raging battles, the plains charged with terrified horses, the beasts unstrung and falling; the warriors flung facedown in the dust; the ravaged longing for home and family and meadows and the rituals of peace, leading at last to an instant of reconciliation, when even two men who are bitter enemies fall into rapt admiration of each other's nobility and beauty -- it is a war poem, and in the Richmond Lattimore translation it has an excruciating vividness, an obsessive observation of horror that causes almost disbelief.

Idomeneus stabbed at the middle of his chest with the spear, and broke the bronze armour about him which in time before had guarded his body from destruction. He cried out then, a great cry, broken, the spear in him, and fell, thunderously, and the spear in hisheart was stuck fast but the heart was panting still and beating to shake the butt end of the spear.

(XIII, 438-44)

If I had seen that quaking spear in a shopping-mall scare movie, I would have abandoned the sticky floors and headed for the door. Exploitation and dehumanization! Teenagers never read anything -- that's why they love this grisly movie trash! Yet here is the image at the beginning of Western literature, and in its most famous book.

The quivering spear was hair-raising, though there were even more frightening images: eyeballs spitted on the ends of spears and held aloft in triumph, a blade entering at the mouth "so that the brazen spearhead smashed its way clean through below the brain in an upward stroke, and the white bones splintered." Homer records these mutilations with an apparent physical relish that suddenly gives way to bitter sorrow (this is one way the images differ from those in horror movies) and to a yearning for ordinary life, a caress of nostalgia slipped into the mesmerizing catastrophe before us. The exultant violence is shot through with the most profound dismay. The Greeks, camped outside the walls of Troy, are far from home, but home, and everything lovely, proper, and comforting that might happen there, is evoked in heartbreaking flashes. There is the case of

Simoeisios in his stripling's beauty, whom once his mother descending from Ida bore beside the banks of Simoeis when she had followed her father and mother to tend the sheep-flocks.

Therefore they called him Simoeisios; but he could not render again the care of his dear parents; he was short-lived, beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Aias, who struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.

He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some blackpoplar...

(IV, 472-82)

The nipple of the right breast. Homer in his terrifying exactness tells us where the spear comes in and goes out, what limbs are severed; he tells us that the dead will not return to rich soil, they will not take care of elderly parents, receive pleasure from their young wives. His explicitness has a finality beyond all illusion. In the end, the war (promoted by the gods) will consume almost all of them, Greeks and Trojans alike, sweeping on year after year, in battle after battle -- a mystery in its irresistible momentum, its profoundly absorbing moment-to-moment activity and overall meaninglessness. First one side drives forward, annihilates hundreds, and is on the edge of victory. Then, a few days later, inspired by some god's trick or phantasm -- a prod to the sluggish brain of an exhausted warrior -- the other side recovers, advances, and carries all before it. When the poem opens, this movement back and forth has been going on for more than nine years.

The teacher, a small, compact man, about sixty, walked into the room, and wrote some initials on the board:


While most of us tried to figure them out (I had no trouble with the first two, made a lame joke to myself about the third, and was stumped by the fourth), he turned, looking around the class, and said ardently, almost imploringly, "We've only got a year together...." His tone was pleading and mournful, a lover who feared he might be thwarted. There was an alarming pause. A few students, embarrassed, looked down, and then he said: "This course has been under attack for thirty years. People have said" -- pointing to the top set of initials -- "the writers are all white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It's not true, but it doesn't matter. They've said they were all Dead White Males; it's not true, but it doesn't matter. That it's all Western civilization. That's not quite true either -- there are many Western civilizations -- but it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is this."

He looked at us, then turned back to the board, considering the initials "DGSI" carefully, respectfully, and rubbed his chin. "Don't Get Sucked In," he said at last. Another pause, and I noticed the girl sitting next to me, who has wild frizzed hair and a mass of acne on her chin and forehead, opening her mouth in panic. Others were smiling. They were freshmen -- sorry, first-year students -- and not literature majors necessarily, but a cross-section of students, and therefore future lawyers, accountants, teachers, businessmen, politicians, TV producers, doctors, poets, layabouts. They were taking Lit Hum, a required course that almost all students at Columbia take the first year of school. This may have been the first teacher the students had seen in college. He wasn't making it easy on them.

"Don't get sucked in by false ideas," he said. "You're not here for political reasons. You're here for very selfish reasons. You're here to build a self. You create a self, you don't inherit it. One way you create it is out of the past. Look, if you find the Iliad dull or invidious or a glorification of war, you're right. It's a poem in your mind; let it take shape in your mind. The women are honor gifts. They're war booty, like tripods. Less than tripods. If any male reading this poem treated women on campus as chattel, it would be very strange. I also trust you to read this and not go out and hack someone to pieces."

Ah, a hipster, I thought. He admitted the obvious charges in order to minimize them. And he said nothing about transcendental values, supreme masterpieces of the West, and the rest of that. We're here for selfish reasons. The voice was pleasant but odd -- baritonal, steady, but with traces of mockery garlanding the short, definitive sentences. The intonations drooped, as if he were laying black crepe around his words. A hipster wit. He nearly droned, but there were little surprises -- ideas insinuated into corners, a sudden expansion of feeling. He had sepulchral charm, like one of Shakespeare's solemnly antic clowns.

I remembered him well enough: Edward Tayler, professor of English. I had taken a course with him twenty-nine years earlier (he was a young assistant professor then), a course in seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry, which was then part of the sequence required for English majors at Columbia, and I recalled being baffled as much as intrigued by his manner, which definitely tended toward the cryptic. He was obviously brilliant, but he liked to jump around, keep students off balance, hint and retreat; I learned a few things about Donne and Marvell, and left the class with a sigh of relief. In the interim, he had become famous as a teacher and was now the sonorously titled Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities -- the moniker was derived from Columbia's most famous English literature professor, a great figure when I was there in the early sixties.

"The Hermeneutic Circle," Tayler was saying. "That's what Wilhelm Dilthey called it. You don't know what to do with the details unless you have a grip on the structure; and at the same time, you don't know what to do with the structure unless you know the details. It's true in life and in literature. The Hermeneutic Circle. It's a vicious circle. Look, we have only a year together. You have to read. There's nothing you'll do in your four years at Columbia that's more important for selfish reasons than reading the books of this course."

Could they become selves? From my position along the side of the classroom, I sneaked a look. At the moment they looked more like lumps, uncreated first-year students. The men sat with legs stretched all the way out, eyes down on their notes. Some wore caps turned backward. They were eighteen, maybe nineteen. In their T-shirts, jeans, and turned-around caps, they had a summer-camp thickness, like counselors just back from a hike with ten-year-olds. Give me a beer. The women, many of them also in T-shirts, their hair gathered at the back with a rubber band, were more directly attentive; they looked at Tayler, but they looked blankly.

Tayler handed out a sheet with some quotations. At the top of the page were some verses from the beginning of Genesis.

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: And God divided the light from the darkness....And God said,

Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,

and let it divide the waters from the waters.

"You may not believe that God created the universe," Tayler said, mournful, sepulchral, "but, anyway, look what God is doing in this passage. He's setting up opposites. Which is something we do all the time in life. Moral opposites flow from binary opposites. There are people you touch, and people you don't touch. Every choice is an exclusion. How do you escape the binary bind? Look, St. Augustine, whom we'll read later, says that before the Fall there were no involuntary actions. Before the Fall, Adam never had an involuntary erection." Pause, pause..."If Adam and Eve wanted to do something, they did it. But you guys are screwed up; you're in trouble. There's a discrepancy between what you want to do and what you ought to do. You want to go out and have a beer with friends, and you have to force yourself through a series of battles. After the Fall, you fall into dualities."

There were other quotations on the sheet, including one from John Milton, but Tayler didn't say right then what their significance might be. He looked around. Was anyone getting it? Maybe. Was I? We would see. Then he turned all loverlike and earnest once more. And he said it again.

"Look, keep a finger on your psychic pulse as you go. This is a very selfish enterprise."

By the time the action of the Iliad begins, the deed that set off the whole chain of events -- a man making off with another man's wife -- is barely mentioned by the participants. Homer, chanting his poetry to groups of listeners, must have expected everyone to know the outrageous old tale. Years earlier, Paris, a prince of Troy, visiting the house of the Greek king Menelaus, took away, with her full consent, Helen, the king's beautiful wife. Agamemnon, the brother of the cuckold, then put together a loose federation of kings and princes whose forces voyaged to Troy and laid siege to the city, intending to punish the proud inhabitants and reclaim Helen. But after more than nine years of warfare, the foolish act of sexual abandonment that set the whole cataclysm in motion has been largely forgotten. By this time, Helen, abashed, considers herself merely a slut (her embarrassed appearance on the walls of Troy is actually something of a letdown), and Paris, her second "husband," more a lover than a fighter, barely comes out to the battlefield. When he does come out, and he and Menelaus fight a duel, the gods muddy the outcome, and the war goes on. After nine years, the war itself is causing the war.

How can a book make one feel injured and exhilarated at the same time? What's shocking about the Iliad is that the cruelty and the nobility of it seem to grow out of each other, like the good and evil twins of some malign fantasy who together form a single unstable and frightening personality. After all, Western literature begins with a quarrel between two arrogant pirates over booty. At the beginning of the poem, the various tribes of the Greeks (whom Homer calls Achaeans -- Greece wasn't a national identity in his time), the various tribes assembled before the walls of Troy are on the verge of disaster. Agamemnon, their leader, the most powerful of the kings, has kidnapped and taken as a mistress from a nearby city a young woman, the daughter of one of Apollo's priests; Apollo has angrily retaliated by bringing down a plague on the Greeks. A peevish, bullying king, unsteady in command, Agamemnon, under pressure from the other leaders, angrily gives the girl back to her father. But then, demanding compensation, he takes for himself the slave mistress of Achilles, his greatest warrior. The women are passed around like gold pieces or helmets. Achilles is so outraged by this bit of plundering within the ranks that he comes close to killing the king, a much older man. Restraining himself at the last minute, he retires from the combat and prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, for the defeat of his own side; he then sits in his tent playing a lyre and "singing of men's fame" (i.e., his own) as his friends get cut up by the Trojans. What follows is a series of battles whose savagery remains without parallel in our literature.

It is almost too much, an extreme and bizarre work of literary art at the very beginning of Western literary art. One wants to rise to it, taking it full in the face, for the poem depicts life at its utmost, a nearly ceaseless activity of marshaling, deploying, advancing, and fleeing, spelled by peaceful periods so strenuous -- the councils and feasts and games -- that they hardly seem like relief at all. Reading the poem in its entirety is like fronting a storm that refuses to slacken or die. At first, I had to fight my way through it; I wasn't bored but I was rebellious, my attention a bucking horse unwilling to submit to the harness. It was too long, I thought, too brutal and repetitive and, for all its power as a portrait of war, strangely distant from us. Where was Homer in all this? He was everywhere, selecting and shaping the material, but he was nowhere as a palpable presence, a consciousness, and for the modern reader his absence was appalling. No one tells us how to react to the brutalities or to anything else. We are on our own. Movie-fed, I wasn't used to working so hard, and as I sat on my sofa at home, reading, my body, in daydreams, kept leaping away from the seat and into the bedroom, where I would sink into bed and turn on the TV, or to the kitchen, where I would open the fridge. Mentally, I would pull myself back, and eventually I settled down and read and read, though for a long time I remained out of balance and sore.

Other men may have more active recollections -- scoring a goal, kissing a girl at the homecoming game, all that autumn-air, pocket-flask, Scott Fitzgerald stuff -- but my sweetest memory of college is on the nuzzling, sedate side. At the beginning of each semester, I would stand before the books required for my courses, prolonging the moment, like a kid looking through the store window at a bicycle he knows his parents will buy for him. I would soon possess these things, but the act of buying them could be put off. Why rush it? The required books for each course were laid out in shelves in the college bookstore. I would stare at them a long time, lifting them, turning through the pages, pretending I didn't really need this one or that, laying it down and then picking it up again. If no one was looking, I would even smell a few of them and feel the pages -- I had a thing about the physical nature of books, and I was happy when I realized that my idol, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson, was obsessed with books as sensuous objects.

Obviously, it wasn't just learning that excited me but the idea of reading the big books, the promise of enlargement, the adventure of strangeness. Reading has within it a collector's passion, the desire to possess: I would swallow the whole store. Reality never entered into this. The difficulty or tedium of the books, the droning performance of the teacher -- I might even have spent the entire previous semester in a self-absorbed funk, but I roused myself at the beginning of the new semester for the wonderful ritual of the bookstore. Each time I stood there, I saw myself serenely absorbing everything, though I was such an abominably slow reader, chewing until the flavor was nearly gone, that I never quite got around to completing the reading list of any course.

And so it has been ever since. Walking home from midtown Manhattan, I am drawn haplessly to a bookstore -- Coliseum Books, at Broadway and Fifty-seventh, will do -- where I will buy two or three books, which then, often enough, sit on my shelves for years, unread or partly read, until finally, trying to look something up, I will pull one or another out, bewildered that I have it. I like to own them: I had grown into a book-buyer but not always a book-reader; a boon to the book trade, perhaps, but not a boon to myself.

Reading, after eating and sex one of the most natural, central, and satisfying of all acts, had amazingly become a vexed experience. I read a great deal, sometimes I read all day long, but most of the stuff was journalism, essays, criticism, or novels that had been adapted into movies and that I needed to check out before writing my film reviews for New York magazine, or books by writers whom I never missed (Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John le Carré) and whose work seems less like something new than a reacquaintance with trusted friends. But what did I read? I mean read seriously? Reading Marcel Proust's Swann's Way was a rapturous experience not likely to be succeeded by the rest of Remembrance of Things Past. At least, not in my present state of distraction. To read anything as densely, lusciously detailed as Proust, you have to set aside a special time, at least an hour of quiet, and though there were people I know who got up early to read Proust or even a decent new American novel, I can't get myself up early, and if I could, I would make coffee and read the Times in peace before the boys hit the kitchen. My wife, whose life was certainly as disrupted and jangled as mine, still read a great deal, book after book, sometimes plowing straight through an author's entire work. But I no longer had the concentration or the discipline for serious reading; I had lost the habit of just falling into something the way real readers do, devouring it on the bus, in the tub, at a lunch counter. Movies more than satisfied my desire for trash, but when I picked up a serious book, my concentration often wandered after twenty pages. I wanted to read it, but vagrant thoughts came charging in, and the words from the book got caught at a bottleneck leading to my attention. My rhythm had changed. I was a moviegoer, a magazine-reader, a CNN-watcher. Following a breaking story on CNN, I would watch updates at certain points of the day, and then pick up the story again when a car alarm woke me in the middle of the night, then catch the denouement in the morning. This business of being "informed" could be almost nightmarish: If you stayed with a story long enough, you began to feel as if you were a ball rolling over and over, or the hands of a clock coming back to the same point.

Going back to school would force me to read the whole shelf in the bookstore. By going back, I would not be searching for my youth -- a ghoulish thought. Youth, I now saw, was the most overpraised time of life. You can't watch your own kids playing when you're young, or enjoy power, and the money you spend belongs to your parents. I dawdled and stumbled through the early part of my life and enjoyed the prerogatives of middle age, but I longed for...another chance, another time spent reading seriously, another shot at school. I was sick of not really knowing anything; I longed to submit myself to something larger than my career.

At the age of forty-eight, I stood in front of the shelves in Columbia's bookstore at 115th Street and Broadway, a larger and better-lit place than the store in my day, which was so tightly packed one never got away from that slightly sweet smell that new books have. I was absurdly excited. There they were, the books for the Lit Hum and C.C. courses: the two thick volumes of Homer; the elegant Penguin editions of Aeschylus and Hobbes, with their black borders and uniform typeface; the rather severe-looking academic editions of Plato and Locke, all business, with no designs on the cover or back, just the titles, and within, rows of virtuously austere type. They were as densely printed as law-books. I was thrilled by the possibility that they might be difficult. I would read; I would study; I would sit with teenagers.

Can Achilles really be the first great hero of our literature? He seems a fool, an infantile narcissist. The first word of Western literature is menin -- in old Greek, "rage" or "wrath." Homer means Achilles' rage, the kind of rage that has an element of divine fury in it and that destroys armies and breaks cities. But to us (though not to the early Greeks), Achilles' anger seems less divine than vain and egotistical. His war booty has been stolen by another man, and he sits sulking in his tent. Is the immense size of his anger not absurdly out of proportion to its cause? Yet Achilles dominates the poem even as he withdraws; his moody self-preoccupation is part of what makes him fascinating. He creates an aura, a vibration of specialness. We understand something of who he is from Marlon Brando's glamorously sullen performances in his youth. A greater destiny flows from Achilles' angry will than from the settled desires of simpler men.

He is very young, perhaps in his early twenties, fearless, tall, fleet-footed, strong, a compound of muscle and beauty with so powerful a sense of his own precedence that he is willing to let the war go badly when his honor is sullied. The Trojans, led by their stalwart, Hector, kill many Greeks and come close to burning the Greek ships and cutting off their retreat. Hoping to stem the tide, Achilles' tentmate and beloved friend Patroclus enters the battle. He dons Achilles' armor, and in that armor -- as a substitute for Achilles -- he is slain by Hector.

Achilles' withdrawal now comes to an end. Enraged, inconsolable, he prepares at last to enter the battle (we are deep into the poem, and we have not yet seen him fight), an event accompanied by a cataclysmic rending of the heavens and the seas. The sky darkens, the underworld nearly cracks open. Huge forces, unstoppable, move into place. Achilles begins to fight, expelling his anguish in a rampage. As Book XXI opens, he is driving the Trojans back toward Troy:

But when they came to the crossing place of the fair-running river of whirling Xanthos, a stream whose father was Zeus the immortal, there Achilleus split them and chased some back over the fiat land toward the city, where the Achaians themselves had stampeded in terror on the day before, when glorious Hektor was still in his fury. Along this ground they were streaming in flight; but Hera let fall a deep mist before them to stay them. Meanwhile the other half were crowded into the silvery whirls of the deep-running river and tumbled into it in huge clamour, and the steep-running water sounded, and the banks echoed hugely about them, as they out-crying tried to swim this way and that, spun about in the eddies. As before the blast of a fire the locusts escaping into a river swarm in air, and the fire unwearied blazes from a sudden start, and the locusts huddle in water; so before Achilleus the murmuring waters of Xanthos the deep-whirling were filled with confusion of men and of horses.

But heaven-descended Achilleus left his spear there on the bank leaning against the tamarisks, and leapt in like some immortal, with only his sword, but his heart was bent on evil actions, and he struck in a circle around him. The shameful sound of their groaning rose as they were struck with the sword, and the water was reddened with blood. As before a huge-gaping dolphin the other fishes escaping cram the corners of a deepwater harbour in fear, for he avidly eats up any he can catch; so the Trojans along the course of the terrible river shrank under the bluffs. He, when his hands grew weary with killing, chose out and took twelve young men alive from the river to be vengeance for the death of Patroklos, the son of Menoitios. These, bewildered with fear like fawns, he led out of the water and bound their hands behind them with thongs well cut out of leather, with the very belts they themselves wore on their ingirt tunics, and gave them to his companions to lead away to the hollow ships, then himself whirled back, still in a fury to kill men.

(XXI, 1-33)

Homer didn't have to tell his listeners that the leather thongs, tightening as they dried, would cut into the flesh of Achilles' Trojan captives. Nor did he have to explain why Achilles later kills a Trojan warrior, an acquaintance, who begs for mercy at his knees. But how is the American reader supposed to respond to this? He comes from a society that is nominally ethical. Our legal and administrative system, our presidential utterances, our popular culture, in which TV policemen rarely fail to care for the victims of crime, are swathed in concern. Since the society is in fact often indifferent to hardship, it is no surprise that irony and cynicism barnacle the national mood. By contrast, the Greek view was savage but offered without hypocrisy. Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, nor as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful. We might say that Homer offers a conception of life that is noble rather than ethical -- except that such an opposition is finally misleading. For the Greeks, nobility has an ethical quality. You are not good or bad in the Christian sense. You are strong or weak; beautiful or ugly; conquering or vanquished; living or dead; favored by gods or cursed. Here were some of Tayler's "binary opposites," but skewed into matching pairs alien to us, in which nothing softened Homer's appraisal of quality.

Academic opponents of courses in the Western classics constantly urge readers to consider "the other" -- the other cultures, odd or repugnant to Western tastes, which we have allegedly trampled or rendered marginal and also the others who are excluded or trivialized within our own culture: women, people of color, anyone who is nonwhite, non-male, non-Western. But here, at the beginning of the written culture of the West (the Iliad dates from perhaps the eighth century B.C.), is something like "the other," the Greeks themselves, a race of noble savages stripping corpses of their armor and reciting their genealogies at one another during huge feasts or even on the field of battle. Kill, plunder, bathe, eat, offer sacrifices to the gods -- what do we have to do with these ancient marauders of the eastern Mediterranean?

They looked awfully pale for college students. From where I sat, on the steps of Low Library, watching them walk around the campus on the second day of school, there was hardly a suntan in sight. Didn't anyone go to the beach anymore? I knew this was a city campus, but we've just had three months of summer. They didn't look all that happy, either; they looked serious, even a bit gloomy, and tense. Opening-week anxieties perhaps. Also, the tuition was a fortune (about $23,000 including room and board), and even though many of them received aid, they probably needed more money. They had spent the summer working, that was it, and working indoors. No time for the beach. Anyway, Columbia students never did look too healthy. One could not call it a debonair campus (the glamorous go elsewhere). They were smart, though, and serious and ambitious, and isn't that what I liked about them?

In my day, back in the early sixties, the College was heavily populated with city Jews and Italian-Americans, bookish, sallow young men (like me) preoccupied with Sartre and Kafka, Beethoven and the Modern Jazz Quartet, young men in green corduroy jackets or pea coats, who smoked unfiltered cigarettes, Camels or Gitanes, in the Bogart imitation fashionable at the time. We weren't the only students, of course. In fact, we were a minority, my friends and I -- English and history majors heading for careers in law, teaching, and journalism -- but we had created our own snobbish version of Columbia, which centered on such famous writers (and fairly recent students) as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and such English teachers as Trilling, Frederick Dupee, and Steven Marcus. There were also the students I thought of as Ivy League boys -- noble oarsmen, I called them -- who had a haughty but depressed air, as if they were disappointed not to be at Princeton. I was prejudiced against them, not only because their manners were different from ours but because they were so often in good shape. Now most of the male students were in better physical shape than we had been; they almost all had some muscle tone (infra dig among intellectual students in 1961).

More important, the students weren't all male anymore; women had been admitted in 1982 and now made up half the college. And the size of the minority population had grown. Walking into another Lit Hum section (I was sampling different approaches), I had nodded to a few students, and then a few more, and suddenly realized that the class was utterly unlike the ones I had sat in thirty years earlier. Out of a class of twenty-two first-year students, there were exactly four white males. Four! The students were from Europe, India, Singapore. O America! They were from everywhere. But why was I so surprised? Did I want a predominance of white males in the class? I did not. Still, an old-grad memory bank had been jolted. If you are a man over forty, you simply do not realize, until you enter a classroom, how pluralistic American university education has become.

"John F. Kennedy was killed on November twenty-second, 1963," the teacher said. "Is that an objective statement?"

The other required great-books course -- Contemporary Civilization, or C.C. -- was also getting under way. As the students listened to this opening sally, they looked blank. They were mostly sophomores, and were not about to make fools of themselves. Was it a tric

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Table of Contents



Reading Lists


1. Homer I

2. Sappho

Interlude One

3. Plato I

4. Homer II

Interlude Two

5. Plato II

6. Sophocles

7. Aristotle

Interlude Three

8. Aeschylus and EuripidesInterlude Four

9. Virgil

10. The Old Testament

11. The New Testament

12. Augustine

13. Machiavelli

Interlude Five

14. Hobbes and Locke

15. Examination

Winter Break


16. Dante

17. Boccaccio

18. Hume and Kant

Interlude Six

19. Montaigne

20. Rousseau

21. Shakespeare

22. Hegel

23. Austen

24. Marx and Mill

25. Nietzsche

Interlude Seven

26. Beauvoir

27. Conrad

28. Woolf


Appendix: Earlier Reading Lists

Selected Bibliography


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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, September 16th, welcomed David Denby to discuss GREAT BOOKS.

Moderator: Welcome to the Live Events Auditorium. Are you ready to go back to school with David Denby, film critic for New York magazine and author of the bestselling GREAT BOOKS: MY ADVENTURES WITH HOMER, ROUSSEAU, WOOLF, AND OTHER INDESTRUCTIBLE WRITERS OF THE WESTERN WORLD? Mr. Denby is joining us live online. Welcome, David Denby! Thanks for joining us this evening to discuss GREAT BOOKS.

David J Denby: Well, thank you for having me. It's nice to speak to people -- if not in the flesh, then in "the great electronic nowhere." Or should I say "the great electronic everywhere"?

Patrick from Ithaca: What made you decide to return to Columbia at age 48? I still have nightmares about being back at school and not being prepared for a test.

David J Denby: Well, Patrick, I took a test in the literature course, and I can tell you that I nearly had a nervous breakdown. When you put those nightmares into practice, they turn out even worse than the dream. I went back to school for a number of reasons. One was, I'm a movie critic by trade, at New York magazine, and the movies as a whole have not been too satisfying over the past ten years. Linked to that, I was afraid of becoming stale as a movie critic. And I felt as well that I had in some way lost touch with myself. That my brain was filled with images from the media. That I lived too much in the media and that I had lost some sense of who I was. My responses to things seemed secondhand or mediated, in fact, and I thought reading very seriously might bring me into some sort of confrontation with myself. And the other major reason was to make my own contribution to the debate about the Western classics in American undergraduate education. I though both the academic left and the right in this country were using Western classics as ideological spears to throw at each other and that in these polemics I got very little flavor of the books themselves. So I thought, I have to read this literature myself, and I have to enter the debate in the most authentic way I could, which was to report on my reading and on how the books were taught and on how young people - 18 and 19 year olds -- were now reading them.

Peter from Columbus, OH: To you, Mr. Denby, what, exactly, is the Western canon of literature? Do you agree with the professor who said that this "list" is an American invention?

David J Denby: No. It's a combined European English and American invention, but it represents the experience of many, many readers in many, many conditions of life who have found extraordinary sustenance from a certain number of books. I'm not saying that the canon is fixed forever; and it's certainly not fixed by the books that are on Columbia University's reading list -- you could make up another list with many different books on it. But I will say this: I think Homer, THE BIBLE, Shakespeare, and some German philosophy and English fiction are absolutely central to the Anglo-American experience, and I think everyone should at least read that very minimal list. It doesn't mean you can't read everything else. We have certain values in this country, and among those I would include the notion that you have a self, that you have a soul -- defined in sacred or secular terms -- that you have certain inalienable rights as a human being and so on. And I think that those notions come from the classics and the institutions of western Europe and England and through the founding fathers into our culture, where they mix with absolutely everything else. And the everything else is of equal value, but I think it's a good idea to begin with certain core works and certain core ideas, and that core does not come from Japan, China, India, or Africa.

Laura from upstate NY: I haven't read your book, only the short description, but I wonder if you have any comments on Milton. I'm a senior in university and I'm reading it basically for the first time. Is PARADISE LOST a "great book"?

David J Denby: Absolutely. I'm sorry that I didn't write about it. I think it's magnificent and quite difficult and absolutely worth studying. I think that as a woman, you may be offended by certain notions in it, namely that woman is not man's equal. Adam comes first. But if you can put that aside, there's a magnificence and grandeur in it that is unequal in English and American poetry. And one of the things that's most fascinating is how Satan become the most interesting and dominating figure in the poem. And this is a big problem for Western culture. It's never been more of an issue or a problem than right now, and that is that we find evil in some ways more interesting than goodness.

Ransom from echo: In your mind, what is it that makes these writers so indestructible?

David J Denby: Well, there's no simple answer. As I said before, millions of people have read them and gotten something very powerful from them. Second, they are complex or, in academic jargon, multivalent works, meaning that they have different levels -- there are different ways you can read them. And as I discovered, they seem very different to the reader in different periods of your life. They are rich enough to seem to change for you. Actually, what changes is the reader, and in that respect, as a Columbia professor, Lionel Trilling, used to say, the book reads you. So when Homer read me at 18, he found me rather timid and scared of the violence in THE ILLIAD and THE ODYSSEY. And when he reads me now, 30 years later, he finds me much tougher -- I hope -- and willing to see the physical magnificence of living life at its extreme of effort and glory. And when Shakespeare read me at 20, he found me too frightened of my parents' power over me to respond very well to KING LEAR, which is a play about parents and children. He finds me at 50 -- having buried both my parents -- someone who understands the awful ambiguities of that relationship and of facing the fact that you have to become parents to your parents. So one reason these books are indestructible is that they give you this kind of changing mirror if you read them at different periods of your life.

Christian from Kansas: Hi, David Denby! What do you think about colleges having a diversity requirement? Do you think it's necessary and constructive?

David J Denby: I think it's a good idea to begin with Western classics and then to be required to familiarize yourself with the great work and central institutions of another major culture. To give an example, at Columbia, after you take the two required courses in Western literary and political theory classics, you then take another pair of courses which you choose freely. But the courses are linked together, so you might take African history and Modern African Literature. Or Japanese History or Modern Japanese Politics and Economy. And I think that additional requirement, at least the rudiments of another culture, is an excellent idea.

Loralei from Silver Springs, MD: How does one become a film critic? Did you go to film school? I'm really curious. Thank you for taking my question.

David J Denby: Loralei, I did go to film school, at Stanford, which has a small program that focuses on documentary film. I did take courses in Film History and Film Aesthetics, but the truth is, I don't thank any of that is really necessary. What's necessary is that you see everything good -- both old and new -- that you read the best critics of the past, such as James Agee, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, and others, and the best critics today, and that you start writing for yourself. Write down your responses to every movie you see -- old or new. Write descriptions of actors and actresses. The whole secret of being a good film critic is to learn the ability to evoke what is on the screen. Judgment is a necessary part of film criticism, obviously, but it's only a part. The whole thumbs up, thumbs down approach to movie reviewing is really inadequate at this point. To be a good critic you have to first and foremost be a good writer, which also means reading a great deal.

Aaron Dailey from Lodi, CA: It seems like book adaptations are big this fall season. I know this is off the subject of GREAT BOOKS, but I was wondering if you, as a film critic, think books can successfully translate into films? What do you think will happen with A THOUSAND ACRES and GREAT EXPECTATIONS this fall?

David J Denby: I haven't seen either of those two yet, but it's a general rule, at least among critics, that a much better movie is likely to result from a second-level novel than from a classic. The reason is that a writer like Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy (whose book L.A. CONFIDENTIAL has just been made into a terrific movie opening Friday) -- the reason that such writers adapt better than Henry James or Jane Austen is that they provide very strong plotlines and good characters, but they don't imprison the director in a classic text, so the director and the screenwriter can be free to adapt. On the other hand, it is very hard to reproduce anything comparable to Jane Austen's prose. What we got from those Jane Austen adaptations -- which all had their strengths -- was a feeling for what the social milieu of her novels looked and felt like. What England looks like, what a grand house looks like, what a rolling lawn looks like. What we don't get is the complexity of her point of view.

Iso from New York City: Having graduated a few years ago, I still yearn to return to school every fall. Do you think that education is wasted on the young?

David J Denby: Well, Vladimir Nabokov said, "You have to read a book twice in order to read it once." By which he meant, I think, the first time you are just learning the ground plan of the play or the novel, and the second time you are really experiencing the living, breathing soul of whatever it is. But you can't have that second experience if you haven't had the first. So even if you don't get everything that you read when you are 18, 19, or 20, the soil is enriched. And later on, things that you think you've forgotten, it turns out, have been working inside you all along. And when you read a great novel or a great poem ten or 20 years later, you realize it's been there inside you all the time.

Harvey from the Upper West Side, NY: I am just curious to get your opinion of which books you personally think are the best classic works of literature but don't get proper due in "great books" classes.

David J Denby: Some things that I either hadn't read the second time around or were added to Columbia's list that I loved would include an absolutely fascinating play by Euripides, THE BACCHAE. And something that meant a great deal to me and is often misrepresented is Machiavelli's THE PRINCE, which, if you read it carefully, is really not a cynical text at all. But Machiavelli has a different notion of morality, apart from Christian morality. His morality is based on the Greek and Roman notion of public service, duty, bravery, and honor. Another wonderful book that's been often misrepresented and undervalued is Boccaccio's book of erotic tales THE DECAMERON. One of the things that's liberating about it is that it proposes a much saner and less tension-filled notion of sex than anything we believe today. I think the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, because he is less dense and technical than, say, Kant or Hegel, is not taken as seriously as he should be. And Mill's pamphlet-length book on liberty is absolutely essential to understanding this culture; and it's much tougher and more complex than is usually accounted. And one book that I've always underrated is Virginia Woolf's TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, which I hated as an undergraduate and I now think is a masterpiece.

Ida from Turlock, CA: What do you think about colleges students today? What are some of the similarities and differences?

David J Denby: Well, I think the students I encountered -- first of all, half of them were women this time around, and Columbia was all male in 1961, and that made the conversations more interesting. I think the students were genuinely nicer than we were, and by that I mean they were less complacent and very eager to understand someone else's point of view. They were trying very hard to be truly tolerant. The downside of this is the undergraduate form of political correctness, which has a certain blandness and unwillingness to engage seriously in debate at times, particularly if the debate is going to come close to any kind of generalization of any group whatsoever. And another part of the blandness is a notion that everything in life that's difficult can be worked out through negotiation or therapy. Many of the students had troubles with the tragic works of literature, such as Oedipus Rex. They found it hard to accept that a person makes a choice that can't be taken back. They feel that identity is something that can constantly be molded and changed, and that personality trait is an artifact of growing up saturated in the media.

Winnie from Somerville, NJ: I applaud you! If only my husband could have tackled his midlife crises the way you did! Did you really take the courses for credit or for a grade? Were you really enrolled or did you audit these classes? Why?

David J Denby: I knew when I was going in that I was going to write a book, so credit and grade was not the point, but I audited after asking permission from the university. But I did take the courses very seriously and I read everything -- in many cases twice -- and I took an exam, which, as I said earlier, led me almost to a nervous breakdown. But the way to do this without going back to school is to join a reading group. In fact, Barnes & Noble is beginning to run reading groups on great books in some of its stores. Or you could get together with a group of friends and take it slowly, read one book a month, and at each meeting, one person has to serve as the instigator or teacher. That person has to work up some background on the writer, which is not hard, and just get the conversation going -- ask some leading questions and try to sum up what the writer is doing -- get the conversation moving. And from there, the conversation should take off.

Maria from Boston: Has rereading these works had an effect on the way you review your films, or given you more literary context, perhaps?

David J Denby: I was afraid for a while that taking the courses and rereading the books would kill my interest in writing about movies altogether. But it didn't happen that way. What happened was I simply became more impatient than I already was with movies made without any great passion or risk or belief in the audience. I became even more impatient with movies as industrial product and commercial marketing vehicles. But seeing a bad action movie didn't make me necessarily long to read THE ILLIAD again; it made me long -- more sharply than before -- for a great action movie. In other words, I recognize that literature and movies often do different things and have different strengths.

PClarke from Berkeley: I loved the part of GREAT BOOKS where you take your first test! What were your greatest discoveries about yourself when you returned to school?

David J Denby: I learned many different things. Each book, as well as being very exciting in itself, creates a different version of you, the reader, as you are reading it. So when I read Aristotle, who is great at sorting things out and classifying things, I discovered for the first time in myself an appreciation of order in life, and in intellectual life, too. And when I read the book of Job, I realized how frightened I was that the roof would fall in on me and my family the way it falls in on Job. And second, that that was a trivial and self-pitying response to the book of Job. What the book of Job really calls you to is an existence lived as courageously as possible. And I learned when I read KING LEAR that I often did not give my mother in her last years, when she was full of rage like King Lear, the things that she needed most -- and on and on through the year.

Oragen from aol: Could you please talk about your professors, Mr. Denby? Did they put a certain spin on their interpretations depending on their own political beliefs? How was your interaction with them?

David J Denby: The two literature professor were very much nonpolitical, at least on the surface. They were aware of the political issues involved in reading the Western classics, but they did not impose their political views one way or another, apart from the belief that these books were of extraordinary value and the belief that these books would amount to a kind of testing of young readers. My professor in the political-theory course was an avowed Swedish socialist who always clearly labeled his opinions and never imposed them on the students. In fact, he was very gratified by religious students and conservative students, and he would encourage them to formulate their views as rigorously as possible. What interested him was that you should become aware of what your hidden assumptions were. That you would not take your own point for granted as a fact of nature. He wanted you to see that it was, in fact, a point of view, an ideology, a system of ideas that allowed you to act. But he never suggested that your ideology should be one thing or another. I got along with the three of them really well, and in two of the classes, I actually participated quite a lot. In general, I had a ball doing the whole thing.

Moderator: Thank you for being here, Mr. Denby. Any final comments?

David J Denby: The reason these books in particular are so powerful is that they go as far as any books can go in revealing what a human being is and is capable of and what a civil society is or could be. Goodnight, and thank you all for coming online.

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Reading Group Guide

1. How does Denby's use of his "interludes," along with the application of his own experience to his understanding of the texts, support his insistence that these texts remain "required reading?" That they are to be read as living literature?

2. Denby laments the level of discussion surrounding literature and writes "the act of reading had been hollowed out." What methods does Denby use in his attempt to restore the discussion to the level of euphoria and rapture that he describes as literature's uniquely special character?

3. Denby decries the notion that "aestheticism and liberal humanism are a matched pair of delusions -- an unconscious body of oppression designed to convince the powerless that their situation is normal" and asserts that power is not fixed. How does he support this assertion?

4. What answer does the book give to Denby's question, "Was there anything of the original intention or effects still at work in the courses?" What does the answer imply about the attack on such courses as instruments of marginalization?

5. The great works, as presented by Denby, represent not one unified idea and/or philosophy, but what? How does he argue this in defense of the Western classics as required courses?

6. Denby writes: "Anyone with eyes and ears knows that there is only one 'hegemonic discourse' in the lives of American undergraduates, and that is the mass media...everyone lives in the media." How does this liberate literature? Has the concept been misapplied to literature, "as if art were responsible for America's social problems"? How does Denby reconcile this to his "real life" occupation as a movie critic?

7. Denby writes, "Reading seriously might be a way offinding the edges again." What does he mean by edges? How do they "help us escape the prison of our own cliches" and our estrangement from humanity?

8. In his subjective response to great works, Denby might be taken literally to represent only Jewish, white, middle-aged males. What does he offer as defenses of this approach? Does this method illuminate the texts for us? How does Denby escape his literal identity and speak across cultural, ethnic, and gender gaps to all of American society? Is Denby, at age forty-eight, capable of "innocent" readings?

9. Within the virulent political and academic climate of the debate surrounding the role of great literature in higher education, Denby suggests that his book is "an adventure book, a folly." Why? What does he hope to achieve with his "naive" addition to the debate?

10. Apply Denby's assertion that the "political line of argument is inseparable from the aesthetic performance embodying it" to Great Books.

11. Denby calls feminism "the only successful revolution of the 20th century." How would Virginia Woolf respond? Why does Denby choose to discuss Virginia Woolf as the final author rather than Joseph Conrad? How does she resonate Denby's entire work? What is the "something else" she has widened the canon with?

12. Analyze Denby's bibliography. How would you describe it? What, if anything, do the texts represent? Is it an arbitrary selection?

13. Final exam -- Why does one read great literature?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2003

    Better Than Scholarship

    When i bought GREAT BOOKS at a discount in a drugstore I thought it would be a cheap reference book. Sort of Cliffs Notes in one volume. Wrong. These chapters are penetrating insights into the modern relavance of the great writers of the Western world. Wow! The reader has to follow with pleasure the mental turnings of the author as he studies these books again. But there is more. Because David Denby opens ones own mind to rethinking what one thought about things, the reader is lifted to a new and personal perception of these great works. Grown-up people will eat this book up.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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