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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 Yo 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 explores the difficulties 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.


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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 Yo 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 explores the difficulties 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.

30 review for Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World

  1. 5 out of 5

    David Miller

    I am enough of a romanticist to buy Denby's central point, that the "great books" of Western Literature are valuable for aesthetic and instructive reasons. Indeed, when describing his response to the classic authors in those terms, the writing is fun and enjoyable. Unfortunately, there is more to this book. Much of it is devoted to Denby's social/political commentary, which might best be described as the ultimate middle class white man's perspective on the culture wars of the 1990s. Not all of it I am enough of a romanticist to buy Denby's central point, that the "great books" of Western Literature are valuable for aesthetic and instructive reasons. Indeed, when describing his response to the classic authors in those terms, the writing is fun and enjoyable. Unfortunately, there is more to this book. Much of it is devoted to Denby's social/political commentary, which might best be described as the ultimate middle class white man's perspective on the culture wars of the 1990s. Not all of it is face-slappingly offensive, and he goes out of his way to present the views he disagrees with. But it is one thing to tweak a few post-modernist academics (everyone knows they're full of shit). It is another thing to quote (paraphrase?) a black student's passionate outburst about representation in the university, and then patronizingly wonder for the rest of the book why she is so wrong. Denby's most consistent error is to ridicule the notion that representation matters in the media or in academia. The worst chapter by far is his reaction to Simone de Beauvoir, where he riffs extensively on "Take Back the Night." Denby listens to the stories of the women who have sufferred rape, and wonders why the ones who come back year after year can never "get over it". He tries to put himself in their shoes, and the furthest he can get is to reminisce (for a second time) about that one time he got mugged. He seems to think that sexual violence is some sort of cultural misunderstanding that might be addressed by rereading The Decameron. Even when he admits to feeling like a creepy uncle, you can't escape the sense that he is utterly, deeply clueless. Stupid politics, a few good anecdotes, and possibly some reading recommendations. That's what Great Books has to offer. It worked for me in high school, but it's not my thing anymore.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Emily Alp

    This is an interesting read if you want to get an idea of what the prominent Western classics are and how they are taught at Columbia college in New York. Denby goes back to retake his classical literature courses and recounts conversations in class, reflections outside of class and his deeper relationship with the characters in the classics. Throughout the work there is strung a theme of defense against those who call Western works courses elitist. I didn't buy it and found that Denby talked in c This is an interesting read if you want to get an idea of what the prominent Western classics are and how they are taught at Columbia college in New York. Denby goes back to retake his classical literature courses and recounts conversations in class, reflections outside of class and his deeper relationship with the characters in the classics. Throughout the work there is strung a theme of defense against those who call Western works courses elitist. I didn't buy it and found that Denby talked in circles. It was clear to me that he hadn't ever spent a significant amount of time living outside of the Western sphere of influence. Having lived in Africa and having married a Turkish man and integrated partially into the Turkish-American community, I would say that it's impossible to mount a defense against the mixture of Western and Eastern literature in higher institutions of education here in the US. People need exposure to the structure and thoughts shared by Eastern Literature. Now more than ever, we need to explore cultures that pull us out of our self-satisfied sense of human development. I liked how Denby highlighted the over-indulgence in emotion by rape activists and people who live as victims. But I found this a strange branching off of the argument between those who want to expand the curriculum of great books to include Eastern thinkers and more females and those who believe that the Western classics explain everyone on earth's motivations. Doesn't the second part of that last sentence sound preposterous? It is and that's why this book only gets 3 stars. The stars it does get are for assembling so many different angles and pieces of information into a relatively tightly woven book -- the writing is engaging as well. But if you've exposed yourself enough to the world, be prepared to be baffled by the arguments in this book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sandra Strange

    This book should be required reading for every English/literature teacher, and really is a good book for anyone interested in the most important writinigs of Western civilization. It sounds a bit ordinary: a journalist decides, as an adult 20 years out of college, to go back and repeat his Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities classes required for freshman at Columbia. And then he writes about what he reads and what the class and its professor discuss about all of these basic texts This book should be required reading for every English/literature teacher, and really is a good book for anyone interested in the most important writinigs of Western civilization. It sounds a bit ordinary: a journalist decides, as an adult 20 years out of college, to go back and repeat his Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities classes required for freshman at Columbia. And then he writes about what he reads and what the class and its professor discuss about all of these basic texts. As a journalist, Denby has mastered writing and knows what is interesting. Weaving exerpts from the texts with his own thinking, the thinking of his classmates and professors, and with his own life experiences, Denby presents these texts in a way that will help every experienced reader relive his/her reading adventures and will entice inexperienced readers to examine these important texts. It helps that I agree with his thoughts on contemporary literary criticism and teaching, as well as appreciate many of his opinions about the very important questions these texts raise. It has taken me two weeks to complete this "great book"--and the book was worth the time and thought! I am motivated to read Beauvoir, reread Woolf and wade more deeply into Nietzsche, Rousseau and the other philosophers I have merely sampled.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Carol Storm

    I loved reading these books when I was at Columbia, and I certainly agree with David Denby that people from all backgrounds can benefit from studying what are generally regarded as the key texts of Western Civilization, i.e. Aristotle, Homer, Plato, the Bible. Since I agreed with most of Denby's ideas it was hard for me to understand why I disliked this book so much. No, wait! I think it's because David Denby is a lightweight pretending to be a heavyweight, a privileged insider pretending to be I loved reading these books when I was at Columbia, and I certainly agree with David Denby that people from all backgrounds can benefit from studying what are generally regarded as the key texts of Western Civilization, i.e. Aristotle, Homer, Plato, the Bible. Since I agreed with most of Denby's ideas it was hard for me to understand why I disliked this book so much. No, wait! I think it's because David Denby is a lightweight pretending to be a heavyweight, a privileged insider pretending to be an outsider, a smarmy, shallow, show business type pretending to be afraid of popular culture and the internet. He gives grudging, resentful consideration to the idea that these great books insult and demean women and minorities. He patronizes non-white students who speak out, especially the women, calling them "spirited," and "brave," like they're magnificent animals who just need to be tamed and disciplined by civilized white men . He acknowledges that non-white authors and female authors aren't well represented in the "great books" courses at Columbia. But there are other forms of hypocrisy and exclusion he doesn't even try to confront. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20... When you read Denby's review of the Mel Gibson movie "We Were Soldiers," you get the impression that this movie offended him and threatened him in profound ways. It's a movie about the Vietnam War, but the soldiers are not portrayed as criminals or deviants. They're depicted as heroes, men who do what other men can't, rather like the heroes in Homer's Iliad. The extraordinary thing is that Denby never asks the most obvious questions about the meaning of his resentments. The Iliad is all about combat, but none of the professors who teach it at Columbia are combat veterans. None of the students in the classes he observes are veterans either. That's one perspective Denby doesn't want. And this is one minority group he is happy to exclude! And he doesn't even bother to pretend otherwise. He's an old SDS man and to him the soldiers of Vietnam are still pigs and baby-killers. What's remarkable is that reading the Iliad doesn't make him uncomfortable. He doesn't see the absurdity of an undeserving elite studying a poem about the kind of sacrifices they've been trained from childhood not to make. He pretends to admire make-believe heroes from long ago while spitting on the real heroes of his own time and place. And that's what a Columbia education is all about!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Robyn

    This was pretty disappointing. I waited six years after graduating from Columbia and nearly 10 years after commencing Lit Hum to revisit the material via Denby's experiences. I found his take to be a combination of saccharine, patronizing, and dated (it's nearly 15 years old). Don't even get me started on his chapter on Simone de Beauvoir and the perils of Take Back the Night. I'm so glad that I didn't go anywhere near this prior to seeing the Core (which I adore) for myself, and I will continue This was pretty disappointing. I waited six years after graduating from Columbia and nearly 10 years after commencing Lit Hum to revisit the material via Denby's experiences. I found his take to be a combination of saccharine, patronizing, and dated (it's nearly 15 years old). Don't even get me started on his chapter on Simone de Beauvoir and the perils of Take Back the Night. I'm so glad that I didn't go anywhere near this prior to seeing the Core (which I adore) for myself, and I will continue to caution any prospective CU students from reading it themselves so as to not taint their vision (I'm pretty sure that I had a professor or two along the way give a similar warning, viewing the "text" as worse than Cliff Notes). My heart goes out to any fellow CC/SEAS alums who had to endure sharing a classroom with the not-so-silent observer/author during his journey back in time.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    (review originally written for bookslut) Great Books by David Denby is by no means itself a great book, though it is entertaining enough, I suppose. Being the avid bookslut that I am, I am always fascinated by other people's lists of books. "100 Greatest Books of All Time," "100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century," "Sixteen Books to Read This Summer," -- I'm a sucker for them all. So it is no wonder that when I saw this book about the controversy over the dead-white-European-male-centrism of the (review originally written for bookslut) Great Books by David Denby is by no means itself a great book, though it is entertaining enough, I suppose. Being the avid bookslut that I am, I am always fascinated by other people's lists of books. "100 Greatest Books of All Time," "100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century," "Sixteen Books to Read This Summer," -- I'm a sucker for them all. So it is no wonder that when I saw this book about the controversy over the dead-white-European-male-centrism of the "canon" lying in a bargain pile, I had to pick it up. The premise of the book is certainly interesting. Started in 1991, when there was much public debate over whether the Western canon, as taught in universities around the country, oppressed female and non-white students by excluding works written by any author that was not white, European, male, and dead for a really long time. The author was disgusted by such arguments and evidently railed on about it quite a lot, because his wife was eventually driven to tell him to "put up or shut up." And put up he did. Denby enrolled at Columbia University and signed up for two full year courses, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations. By the time the year was over, he had read an impressive selection of works, ranging from Homer and Plato to The Bible, Marx and Engles, Austen and Woolf, Darwin, and Beauvoir. He then wrote about his reactions to the texts, his professors' approaches to teaching them, and the response of his classmates, which were predominantly in their first or second year of college. As far as Denby sticks to his own reactions to the texts, I generally found the book to be very engaging. It was where he wandered off into all kinds of theories about how whole classes of people live and what they believe that started to grate on me. It's clear from the very beginning that Denby thinks the argument that students could be harmed in any way by being taught from an exclusively "Dead White European Male" canon is ridiculous. The fact that he believes this doesn't bother me, but the way he addresses the entire political Left and all liberals as if they all want to see the Western canon dismantled and abandoned got old fast. But this was just the beginning of Denby treating very large groups as a homogenous and offensive whole. Most of these arguments against what other people believe are dismissive, and are rarely accompanied by an explanation of what he, himself, believes. The one exception is Denby's obsession with the fact that he was once mugged (in New York City, where he lives, and he wasn't harmed, nor did he lose his wallet, only his cash). After dragging the issue through several chapters and a lot of presumptuous attempts to explain the motives of his muggers, he finally postulates that the solution to inner city crime is work. As if McDonalds opening fast-food chains in the ghetto would solve everything. Now that I've gotten that rant out of the way, I can get back to what I actually did like about the book. I appreciated that he wasn't too proud to admit that some of the texts were difficult reading. I was also impressed with how honest he was about the prejudices and preconceptions he brought to many of the readings -- and the apparent joy he found in being proven wrong. I of course found a few books to add to my ludicrously long to-read list, but the most enjoyable part was reading his reactions to books I had already read, which were embarrassingly few and far between. How to close? I enjoyed the book, but I also flung it across the room on occasion. If you're willing to wade through naive impressions of Take Back the Night marches and slanders against every political point of view, by all means, read this book. However I am of the opinion that the only reason this book was a New York Times bestseller is because it had the benefit of good timing and a unique premise. It offers interesting impressions but no new opinions. You want to know what it's like to read the Western canon? Email Jessa and ask her to make it the next Bookslut project. Until then (maybe even then, I'm not that cocky), you're better off reading them on your own.

  7. 4 out of 5

    James Henderson

    David Denby, a prominent film critic returns to the Ivy League classroom as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars. For this book, he 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 the ancient Greeks (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Euripides, and Sappho) to Nietzsche, Freud, and Conrad, all the time main David Denby, a prominent film critic returns to the Ivy League classroom as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars. For this book, he 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 the ancient Greeks (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Euripides, and Sappho) to Nietzsche, Freud, and Conrad, all the time maintaining and meditating on his intensely cosmopolitan yet family-centered life. When Denby reads Plato and Aristotle, 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. He makes a sensible, if gloomy, argument that the great books are too hard for today's underprepared undergraduates. But I reject his epiphanies over a feminist critique of Aristotle's Politics. By recording his own intellectual experiences and glossing over his own cultural blindness he does a disservice to the texts he critiques. Rather than distilling some of the significant ideas of the great thinkers that he read he merely tosses off a rejection of "ideologues" in general with lines like this: "By the end of my year in school, I knew that the culture-ideologues, both left and right, are largely talking nonsense."(p 459) This conclusion may have a grain of truth, but I would rather hear what he learned about knowing and thinking, and what truths he discovered that our culture does adhere to with justification. While he does put himself on the line as a student and as a person by actually reading the classics, his humility should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. At the risk of being too skeptical, based on my own reading of these texts, I found this an unconvincing look at the classics. I would recommend you read the original classics with an open mind and then, if you choose to, consider Denby's book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tim Weakley

    The author, David Denby, spent his professional career as a film critic. Good for him. People need to be taught what is a good film, and what causes a film to fail. Unfortunately he thinks his skills translate into writing a book about great works of literature and philosophy and they don't quite. He begins well. He goes back to school and audits the same two courses by several professors to get an overall look at what passes for a great work at Columbia thirty years after he originally went the The author, David Denby, spent his professional career as a film critic. Good for him. People need to be taught what is a good film, and what causes a film to fail. Unfortunately he thinks his skills translate into writing a book about great works of literature and philosophy and they don't quite. He begins well. He goes back to school and audits the same two courses by several professors to get an overall look at what passes for a great work at Columbia thirty years after he originally went there in the sixties. Some of his insights are very good. He made me want to read The Decameron by how he discussed it. The last part of the book sees the author getting caught up in self interest and what he sees as an intellectual betrayal of themselves by the students because they are too young to know any better. Prosaic stuff...youth wasted on the young etc. I also took issue with his seeming naivete about people of colour feeling alienated when presented with works that held less for them culturally then Western Europeans. He came off as disingenuous. I enjoyed about two thirds of this books, insights and all. I just wish the author had done less comparison using film metaphors.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    My thoughts on this are a mostly incoherent mess that I emailed to Katie and got out of my system. This is partly very dated, partly very timely, partly suffering from that "critic unable to view without imposing his own opinion, when really the professor and the students are much more interesting" thing that Lit Up, the author's most recent book, also had. And there's this, from one professor in the book: "ABCDEF ABABAB ABCDEF... that's your cultural baggage, what you bring to a book. You know wh My thoughts on this are a mostly incoherent mess that I emailed to Katie and got out of my system. This is partly very dated, partly very timely, partly suffering from that "critic unable to view without imposing his own opinion, when really the professor and the students are much more interesting" thing that Lit Up, the author's most recent book, also had. And there's this, from one professor in the book: "ABCDEF ABABAB ABCDEF... that's your cultural baggage, what you bring to a book. You know what a lighthouse is, you know what a window is, you have ideas about marriage. And then the artist begins to use these elements and repeat - ABABAB. And she transforms what you know."Yeah. I liked that.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Brilliant. If you want to be a well-read person, this is a great guide to the 'canon', to get you started. Brilliant. If you want to be a well-read person, this is a great guide to the 'canon', to get you started.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Eric_W

    At age forty-eight, Denby, a theatre critic for New York magazine, decided to return to Columbia University and retake two courses, Literature of the Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, both required of all Columbia graduates. His motivation was to force himself to read through the "entire shelf," not to rediscover his youth, " most overpraised time of life," but to get a second chance at school. He was " of not really knowing anything." The result is a fascinating intellectual journey thr At age forty-eight, Denby, a theatre critic for New York magazine, decided to return to Columbia University and retake two courses, Literature of the Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, both required of all Columbia graduates. His motivation was to force himself to read through the "entire shelf," not to rediscover his youth, " most overpraised time of life," but to get a second chance at school. He was " of not really knowing anything." The result is a fascinating intellectual journey through the Western canon. "Obviously, it wasn't just the 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 . . . ." Perhaps Western only in name, for as Denby points out in the first essay on the Iliad, the great Homeric poem hardly represents the culture as we understand it. The Greeks and their enemies had very different sets of values from those we profess to adhere to today. Plato, too, is hardly harmless and contains much that should be offensive and repugnant to our moralistic and self-righteous religious bigots who suppress Harry Potter books while ostensibly celebrating the "" The Republic has been the source of considerable antidemocratic theory, not to mention collectivized agriculture and eugenics, superior strains of individuals being used for the breeding of superior offspring. As an adult, Denby is struck by how harmful many of these ideas could be, Plato' goals requiring a " of self-suppression that we would find intolerable." Of course, when Plato wrote, Greece was falling apart. How could people disagree so violently when they share so much in common, emotions in particular: " pleasure, sorrow, exaltation." What Plato recognized, and was trying to prevent, was that when people have different interests, a difference in property or loyalty, the state disintegrates. The valuable core is Plato' realization that unity is required, and unity comes from everyone working as part of a common " organism," that shares a common art and culture and a political system that is viewed as working for the benefit of the people. All newly appointed faculty in humanities and social sciences are expected to teach one of the sections, but not everyone does so willingly. Denby interviewed Siobhan Kilfeather, who had arrived with a Ph.D. from Princeton. She had a particularly strong interest in Irish literature and believed that nothing but works originally written in English should be taught; she was incensed that Irish writers had been considered English writers. It was her contention that the whole idea of a "canon" was nonsensical, and that such a contrivance took all of the works out of "context," that no argument was ever made in a vacuum and students would never understand Jane Austen unless they had read Fielding and Richardson first; that students did not have the requisite reading skills and would never appreciate the beauty of the language so what was the point. Denby countered her arguments quite well, I thought, noting that when the books were originally written and read there was no "context" as Kilfeather defined it, and that the whole notion of context "was an academic rather than a literary or reader demand -- an insistence on orderly exposition of influences and roots and so on, all of which had more to do with controlling the presentation of books in courses than with anyone's pleasure in reading them. . . .Readers! That's what undergraduate education should be producing. Kilfeather made the classic error of the academic left: She confused literary study (and her own professional interests) with reading itself." Kilfeather's basic argument seemed to boil down to: "They haven't been educated properly; therefore, let's not educate them properly." Denby decided to take the final exam with the students. It's a moment that provoked extraordinary fear in him, and despite his previous commitment not to, he couldn' help cramming. "Being examined is one of the things you become an adult to avoid. Once you pass twentyfive, you learn how to cover your weaknesses and ignorance and lead with your strengths. Every adult, by definition, is a corner-cutting phony; experience teaches you what to attend to and what to slough off, when to rest and when to go all out. . . .Taking an exam is the grown-up's classic anxiety dream." Afterwards he required a beta blocker, some alcohol, and "two fingers of Nyquil." This is really one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time, a sort of personalized intellectual romp through the Western intellectual tradition. I cannot recommend it enough. An anecdote: Sidney Morgenbesser, professor of philosophy at Columbia, was smoking in the subway. A transit cop came up to the professor and demanded that he put out his pipe. "What if everyone smoked? the cop said reprovingly. "Who are you -- Kant?" the irritated professor asked, whereupon the policeman, misunderstanding "Kant" as something else, hauled Sidney Morgenbesser off to the precinct house.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    I can relate to Denby’s Great Books. I’ve been meandering through them for a few years now. But Denby is a little more structured in his approach. He returns to Columbia University to attend classes on the classics and what comes out is a travelogue through the Western Canon. It’s not an attempt at scholarly reflection. It’s about connecting with these monumental works in a way that gives them personal meaning and dimension. There are some insightful observations about the works themselves, but I can relate to Denby’s Great Books. I’ve been meandering through them for a few years now. But Denby is a little more structured in his approach. He returns to Columbia University to attend classes on the classics and what comes out is a travelogue through the Western Canon. It’s not an attempt at scholarly reflection. It’s about connecting with these monumental works in a way that gives them personal meaning and dimension. There are some insightful observations about the works themselves, but the focus is on his relationship with them. As with any mention of classics that might comprise “the Western Canon”, there is the accompanying haughty disdain. The objections to the elevated importance of writings by dead white men. The objections to the myopic western perspective. Admirably, Denby does not shy away from these complaints and the university provides an interesting forum for this tension. Some complaints are made by those who dismiss the classics without ever having read them. They simply chalk it all up to old stuff which doesn’t have relevance. It’s difficult to give much consideration to those complaints. But it’s hard to ignore objections by female students and students of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds to the systematic propounding of Western thought. For us alive white males, it’s easy to forget how this can make others feel even more marginalized in today’s world. But there doesn’t seem to be an easy way out. There is a lot of substance in those classics. It’s all a matter of degree to what extent pluralism trumps. It’s a debate that shouldn’t stop and it probably won’t.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nicolas Shump

    A well-written account of Denby's decision to go back to Columbia University to re-take their "Great Books" program. The best parts are when he relates the books to people and events in his life. Thinking of Hobbes after being mugged on the subway, memories of his mother when reading King Lear, etc. He spends too much time dichotomizing his perspective as a middle aged man to that of his young classmates. He is also took quick to discount the leftist revisions of the canon. I don't think he cont A well-written account of Denby's decision to go back to Columbia University to re-take their "Great Books" program. The best parts are when he relates the books to people and events in his life. Thinking of Hobbes after being mugged on the subway, memories of his mother when reading King Lear, etc. He spends too much time dichotomizing his perspective as a middle aged man to that of his young classmates. He is also took quick to discount the leftist revisions of the canon. I don't think he contextualizes the time period when Great Books programs like Columbia's began and how things have changed by the 1990s. An interesting read, Denby obviously loves the Great Books. The best parts are when he tries to synthesize the works into his own life. Hobbes, Lear and his mother, Jesus and Denby's Jewish heritage, etc. He spends too much time dichotomizing his old perspective with the young students. He's also too quick to discount the leftist revisions of the canon. I think he also doesn't historically consider the Great Books and its goals versus the perspective of the 1990s. However, his closing chapters are very powerful and this book is worth reading. I used this considerably when I taught Western Civ at KU.

  14. 4 out of 5

    loafingcactus

    I listened to this as an audio book and as such it was charming to have a survey of some great books. I doubt I would have had the patience to read it- if I were going to read something about these books I would either read something of higher quality or read the books themselves. I think Denby was fair in his analysis of his fellow students and himself, but I still found myself irritated by his discussion of his fellow students. Criticizing young people with zero life experience or education is I listened to this as an audio book and as such it was charming to have a survey of some great books. I doubt I would have had the patience to read it- if I were going to read something about these books I would either read something of higher quality or read the books themselves. I think Denby was fair in his analysis of his fellow students and himself, but I still found myself irritated by his discussion of his fellow students. Criticizing young people with zero life experience or education is shooting fish in a barrel, and having your ideas criticized in the major media is not something a college freshman should expect to have happen to them. I think that was in poor taste, if not morally wrong. He also would have done well not to imagine himself as a woman; his general analysis of the "womens issues" topic was enough without that grating presumption. All in all however I think it was an enjoyable and intelligent book, and I appreciated the author's restraint in holding the quite perfect Nabocov quote to the very end.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mary O'Donnell

    This book came out about the same time that my (adult) daughter started at Columbia. I think that I became aware of the book because I loved Denby's reviews in the New Yorker. It was such an incredible opportunity to share his and my daughter's experience. I love this book because it opened me up to so many different writers and enhanced my knowledge. This book came out about the same time that my (adult) daughter started at Columbia. I think that I became aware of the book because I loved Denby's reviews in the New Yorker. It was such an incredible opportunity to share his and my daughter's experience. I love this book because it opened me up to so many different writers and enhanced my knowledge.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Beth G

    I had mixed feelings. The author is often condescending and judgmental towards his young Lit Hum classmates, praising himself for being more mature than first-year college students. Does he expect a gold star? If you can ignore his obnoxious tone, though, the book is an interesting survey of how the Western canon can be taught.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Erica Clou

    This book lists many classics, some that I've previously read, and some that I stopped to read before continuing with Denby. The commentary on the books is not amazing and veers off into memoir, but it's motivational and gives it the feeling of actually attending the class. Overall, I really enjoyed it. First Semester: Chapter 1- The Iliad by Homer (read previously) Chapter 2- The Poetry fragments of Sappho (read 2018) Chapter 3 & 5- The Republic of Plato (also read Apology, Meno, and Euthyphro 2018 This book lists many classics, some that I've previously read, and some that I stopped to read before continuing with Denby. The commentary on the books is not amazing and veers off into memoir, but it's motivational and gives it the feeling of actually attending the class. Overall, I really enjoyed it. First Semester: Chapter 1- The Iliad by Homer (read previously) Chapter 2- The Poetry fragments of Sappho (read 2018) Chapter 3 & 5- The Republic of Plato (also read Apology, Meno, and Euthyphro 2018) Chapter 4- The Odyssey by Homer (read previously) Chapter 6- Oedipus Rex (read 2018) Chapter 7- The Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, and Politics by Aristotle- not yet Chapter 8- The Oresteia and Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (read 2018) The Bacchae and Medea by Euripides- in progress Chapter 9- The Aeneid by Virgil - previously read Chapter 10/11- Holy Bible: New International Version (read 2017) Chapter 12- Confessions by Augustine (read 2018) City of God- not yet Chapter 13- The Prince and The Discourses by Machiavelli Still in progress...

  18. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Atkins

    A thought-provoking work that becomes more engaging as it progresses. I initially picked this up out of jealousy. Having embarked on a personnel exploration of classic literature 4 years ago, the thought of being able to explore these works in the context of college classes at Columbia is very appealing. My expectation was that I would really enjoy the first half of the book covering mostly works that I had read over the past few years and "endure" the second half covering works I was less famil A thought-provoking work that becomes more engaging as it progresses. I initially picked this up out of jealousy. Having embarked on a personnel exploration of classic literature 4 years ago, the thought of being able to explore these works in the context of college classes at Columbia is very appealing. My expectation was that I would really enjoy the first half of the book covering mostly works that I had read over the past few years and "endure" the second half covering works I was less familiar with. In addition to not having read the second half works, they were not necessarily ones that appealed to me (focus on philosophy more than literature). I did enjoy the first half and the discussions of the books as well as Denby's ability to personalize the major themes-showing how they resonate to a modern reader. I appreciated his frustration in the college freshman's inability to recognize the universality of these themes. Fortunately, the second-half fall-off never came. I was already mentally prepared to dismiss the effort (even thinking about how I would write this review). Instead, I experienced some of the most challenging discussion of western thought I have experienced. Denby, is able to look beyond the traditional left/right political/academic dichotomy in a way that makes his arguments as appealing to the (right) as I assume they are to the left (him). I suspect though that many of his peers on the left may be less accepting than I am. Of particular interest was the discussion begun in the chapter on Marx and Mill and culminating in the chapter on Nietzsche regarding the nature of the western canon as it is perceived by the current generation in light of various influence (cultural and gender-based). I have as little interest in Nietzsche as any writer represented in this work but his position that truth is a matter of perspective, provides a perfect basis for the best chapter of the book. If you are interested in a good overview of the western canon, a reflection on it's relevance and an intelligent discourse on it's composition, I would highly recommend Great Books.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Richard Jespers

    Over four hundred and fifty pages, this one took me a long time to read, but it was worth it. Denby, former New York Times critic and now New Yorker film critic, writes of his reading experiences when he audits a couple of literature classes he had taken at Columbia University in the early sixties. I read this book rather belatedly, as it was published in 1996, but it’s never too late to learn of someone’s love affair with literature. There are so many things I could talk about: the number of ma Over four hundred and fifty pages, this one took me a long time to read, but it was worth it. Denby, former New York Times critic and now New Yorker film critic, writes of his reading experiences when he audits a couple of literature classes he had taken at Columbia University in the early sixties. I read this book rather belatedly, as it was published in 1996, but it’s never too late to learn of someone’s love affair with literature. There are so many things I could talk about: the number of masterpieces that he and his colleagues read; the brilliance with which Denby writes of his feelings, his insights, his criticisms of the authors, the teachers, his fellow students (then and later). Denby states here what I believe is the thesis of his book. “Great literature, obviously, could not rescue anyone from so grievous a foreshortening of perspective. It was naïve and false on my part to think that the students would be rescued by Western classics. I knew perfectly well that great books work on our souls only over time, as they are mixed with experience and transformed by memory and desire and many other books, great and small. At some time later, the perception of a ‘choice between freedom and sex’ would dissolve into absurdity. But for a while, the idea worked its mischief” (402). His great experiment of attending classes as a forty-eight-year-old man that he had taken as an eighteen-year-old youth ends in the determination that personal growth is found partly through a lifetime of reading. We don’t just put these writers on the shelves after finishing school. We reread them again and again, these great books, and our lives are instructed by them, are informed by their eminence. From the Greeks to Virginia Woolf, to the scriptures, we are taught and retaught the great lessons of human existence. Can we learn them and relearn them well enough to continue the species?

  20. 5 out of 5

    Emily January

    Denby's exploration of the Western Canon is engaging and thoughtful. I found myself reliving my own experience with required Humanities and Classical Civilization classes as an undergraduate. Despite Denby's claim that his book is not an academic venture, he definitely inserts himself into the discourse. Sometimes, these frank discussions are enlightening. Other times, his attempts at literary analysis are embarrassing. I found this especially true in the chapter on Conrad in which Denby openly Denby's exploration of the Western Canon is engaging and thoughtful. I found myself reliving my own experience with required Humanities and Classical Civilization classes as an undergraduate. Despite Denby's claim that his book is not an academic venture, he definitely inserts himself into the discourse. Sometimes, these frank discussions are enlightening. Other times, his attempts at literary analysis are embarrassing. I found this especially true in the chapter on Conrad in which Denby openly fights critical essays written by two great academics, namely Chinua Achebe and Edward Said. I just kept thinking, "Denby has guts to take on Said, because I sure wouldn't attempt it." Despite such misplaced enthusiasm from this movie reviewer, the book was a fabulous read and highly enjoyable, especially if you have read the great literature of Western civilization. I also appreciated Denby's exploration of the legitimacy of such a canon. Certainly, great world and female literature deserves to be studied as well.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mads

    I was once stranded with just this book in my bag--and how I loved it. I'm familiar with Denby's work in New Yorker but I have to say that I love Anthony Lane's movie reviews better than Denby's, although I remember a particularly incisive article that Denby wrote about Charles Darwin. Because of this book, I re-read the Iliad very very closely and realized how awesome it really is. It was only in my second reading that I realized that the Iliad's first word is "rage." Bloody, brutal thing that I was once stranded with just this book in my bag--and how I loved it. I'm familiar with Denby's work in New Yorker but I have to say that I love Anthony Lane's movie reviews better than Denby's, although I remember a particularly incisive article that Denby wrote about Charles Darwin. Because of this book, I re-read the Iliad very very closely and realized how awesome it really is. It was only in my second reading that I realized that the Iliad's first word is "rage." Bloody, brutal thing that poem. I came to appreciate the phrase "rosy-fingered dawn" mentioned in the movie "Red Thin Line" after re-reading Homer. It was also in this book that I initially became aware of The Society of the Spectacle.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly Anderson

    Disappointing. I was hoping for a new reason to take another look at the "classics." He didn't offer me a good one and in fact made me less interested in going back to these and I ended just being irritated by his "rich white male" perspective. Disappointing. I was hoping for a new reason to take another look at the "classics." He didn't offer me a good one and in fact made me less interested in going back to these and I ended just being irritated by his "rich white male" perspective.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Richard Taylor

    I enjoyed this book which I read in 1996. I knew the objections to Eurocentricism etc but more of that. I'm in NZ, and got the impression that Cornell University ran a Great Books Course or a general course for every student. (Sadly it doesn't which led me to see why scientists I hear talking seem to have an unclear even as to what science is and the same applies to philosophers). That I think would be great. In my view such a general course in classics, literature, philosophy (the key) science I enjoyed this book which I read in 1996. I knew the objections to Eurocentricism etc but more of that. I'm in NZ, and got the impression that Cornell University ran a Great Books Course or a general course for every student. (Sadly it doesn't which led me to see why scientists I hear talking seem to have an unclear even as to what science is and the same applies to philosophers). That I think would be great. In my view such a general course in classics, literature, philosophy (the key) science ideas, art etc should be for all students anywhere. However Denby's ostensible object is firstly to see what the debate was about re Eurocentricism and relativism in modern "theory" and the discussion of Bloom's "Great Books" series etc. But when he re-enrolled he was doing more than this. It was a good thing to do. He was experiencing something new -- almost as if a Professor of Ethics if there is such a person took a job for a year on low pay at a factory, the worst he or she could find. Denby's experience was interesting as recalled in his book. His own life and those of the students enters into the book. During the book his own mother dies, he is mugged, and he observes, sensitively the students, one Italian born girl reads Dante in Italian. It sounds beautiful. The students debate the darkness of Dante's 'Inferno'. They raise objections. Black students object to the European domination of the course. He finds that there has been one woman writer, Virginia Woolf, added to the program. Clearly this is problematic. But he reads Hegel. He reads and reads, on the bus, every where. It is about also the professors. The introduction to Montaigne is by a professor Tayler who says something to the effect: 'You are all about to lose your lives.' Dramatic. But it works. Denby held me. Unlike a critic of the book I found nothing that concerned me. Denby's book in fact got me to read, at the age of 48 myself (I had done engineering (telcoms and electronics) and factory work and a degree in English and Philosophy but I always have a sense of not knowing. Also a question of whether I want to know everything. The limitations of such courses are obvious. We can choose books from China and now days there are "classics" written by African writers, and there are acheivements in all fields by women. The objection to reading the Illiad I saw, and it should be made, we have inherited this Greek and general myth of war. Of course the Illiad is pretty brutal, wheareas books on say the Vietnam war are a subtle way of glorifying that war. In that case it is the losers glorifying there stuff ups. How to lose and remain a winner! Denby isn't a subtle writer but his book is very readable and memorable. The basic premise is good and it involves his life and those of the students. In another book written earlier he visits schools around the US to see what students are reading and studying. In that line Kozol's "Savage Inequalities" is revealing of the difference between class and ethnical areas and schooling. Denby shows something of that. I feel he is sincere and his books good. I don't know his film criticism, but Great Books is a good read. Take it with a pinch of philosophic salt, after all we should all be constantly sceptical if not cynical. Yes, I liked it and it got me into reading and reading about Montaigne and some of the other writers on the course.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Chris Via

    This book was extremely relevant for me, though our degrees of separation are at different scales: I am a 32-year-old, married, full-time professional, who is getting ready to pursue my PhD in English soon (in my "free" time). And I often daydream about going back and taking old survey courses now that I've got more experience and so on. So, I lapped this book up, sentence by sentence, living vicariously through Denby. Alas--halfway through I became a bit bored. But, overall, Denby keeps it inte This book was extremely relevant for me, though our degrees of separation are at different scales: I am a 32-year-old, married, full-time professional, who is getting ready to pursue my PhD in English soon (in my "free" time). And I often daydream about going back and taking old survey courses now that I've got more experience and so on. So, I lapped this book up, sentence by sentence, living vicariously through Denby. Alas--halfway through I became a bit bored. But, overall, Denby keeps it interesting by weaving some crucial arguments from the humanities into the criticism/journal/log in the form of interludes. Two sentence only I underlined, and, taken together, they are my main extraction from the book. In the face of hostility from outside, and incomprehension from within the country, it is tempting for those of us who love classic texts to turn in on ourselves, to assemble Western values around us, and to withdraw into a kind of fortress (3). In American a grown man or woman reading at home during the day is not a person to be taken seriously (195). Both, of course, echo the tableau of a solitary reader blocking the world out with a book. But this notion of "blocking the world out" is either true or false based on our reading choices and intentions. Certainly, if I grab most recent pop fiction and sit around reading it, I am indeed attempting to achieve cathartic reprieve from the world outside. And, honestly, I could do the same with the Western classics. But, when I choose to really read (and re-read, in the Nabokovian sense) and to question and to challenge great books, I am in fact not blocking out the world but attempting to understand it. Yet there is always the danger of preferring even the great books to our fellow humans! While I cannot say this book presents a convincing argument for why everyone should devote time and effort to absorbing the great books, it was still an enjoyable read for a person like me--someone who sensed a kindred spirit in Denby. And it has me thinking about how to better answer the why-read-great-books question.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    The book will undoubtedly give you an excellent idea of what Western classics are, which are most prominent and how they should be taught. The author presents an excellent perspective, mostly because it is based in actual experience, due to the fact he went back to college and took his classical literature courses again. In doing so, he recounts classroom conversations, opinions gathered outside class and draws from his newly developed deepened understanding of and relationship with the literatu The book will undoubtedly give you an excellent idea of what Western classics are, which are most prominent and how they should be taught. The author presents an excellent perspective, mostly because it is based in actual experience, due to the fact he went back to college and took his classical literature courses again. In doing so, he recounts classroom conversations, opinions gathered outside class and draws from his newly developed deepened understanding of and relationship with the literature. He consistently touches on the defense these essential Western works, largely to dispel the belief that they are elitist. Unfortunately, it’s quite repetitive and becomes tiresome, sadly lending to the feeling that perhaps it is rather elitist. I possess a fair amount of intelligence and have a modicum of class but something in the way this book was written, the repetitive nature, just felt like a constant reminder that I wasn’t a Lit major and was likely too lowbrow to grasp all I that was being discussed. I think this Western literary education is indeed necessary, which is not to say other literature is not, as I know some will read this and erroneously infer that. Rather, I think this literature is vital to anyone’s – and everyone’s – education, from a historical perspective, if nothing else. That said, a distilled version of what is presented here would be better – for lowbrow folk, like me, just trying to learn and better themselves.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    I always enjoy this kind of book - the author participates in some experience fully planning to write about the whole thing. I did not have any course where I read Great Books, but I did participate in a great books discussion group and really enjoyed it. My son was three at the time, and I needed to read something beyond his books. And it did feel good to think, discuss and figure out what I thought. As a teacher, I appreciate the mastery of the professors getting college freshmen to mature thr I always enjoy this kind of book - the author participates in some experience fully planning to write about the whole thing. I did not have any course where I read Great Books, but I did participate in a great books discussion group and really enjoyed it. My son was three at the time, and I needed to read something beyond his books. And it did feel good to think, discuss and figure out what I thought. As a teacher, I appreciate the mastery of the professors getting college freshmen to mature through literature. I wish everyone had that opportunity. The discussion of the "common curriculum" and having a list of great books is interesting and very applicable now. The book is lengthy, but he does tie it up nicely in the end. And it is a year-long course. I recommend this book if you are interested in how literature can help people find their way through life, in how teachers can use their courses to build good people, and how having some literature in common to draw from could be a positive thing for society. Life has really changed into "Choose your own adventure" with the internet, but reading and discussing great books by great authors of any background might give us some common ground from which to work things out and appreciate various viewpoints.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christy

    I started into this book because I wanted to challenge myself, wondering how far I could get. After all, what could be very interesting about a middle-aged New York film critic going back to school (Columbia University) to re-take courses on the classics--you know, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare . . . works that he was required to read as a freshman thirty years earlier. I read most of those myself, way more than thirty years ago, and I won’t say they were my favorite lite I started into this book because I wanted to challenge myself, wondering how far I could get. After all, what could be very interesting about a middle-aged New York film critic going back to school (Columbia University) to re-take courses on the classics--you know, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare . . . works that he was required to read as a freshman thirty years earlier. I read most of those myself, way more than thirty years ago, and I won’t say they were my favorite literature. But Denby, the author, gives snatches of the stories here and there, describes the professors and his fellow students, and throws in tidbits about his life in Manhattan. It’s a fascinating mix. I skimmed the sections that dealt with philosophers--Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, and the rest--because they interest me even less now than when I was a student. But I loved Denby’s retelling of the classic stories. And if I ever had an alternate life to live, I would absolutely live it in Manhattan.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    It took me way too long to read this book but that was not entirely Denby's fault. I came very close to giving this book 5 stars, but unfortunately as much as I enjoyed it, as illuminating as it was there, were nonetheless sections where his opinions were too blinkered, too myopic. He saves himself by both admitting and even questioning how who he is, his privilege of class and race, may be affecting his judgement, but he still falls short of overcoming that privilege. And he also dovetails into It took me way too long to read this book but that was not entirely Denby's fault. I came very close to giving this book 5 stars, but unfortunately as much as I enjoyed it, as illuminating as it was there, were nonetheless sections where his opinions were too blinkered, too myopic. He saves himself by both admitting and even questioning how who he is, his privilege of class and race, may be affecting his judgement, but he still falls short of overcoming that privilege. And he also dovetails into a little too much naval gazing in the middle. I got bogged down a bit there. His struggle with Hegel became my struggle with his struggle. And that makes a kind of sense I suppose. Still his final appraisal of the beauty and usefulness of the Great Books rings true. He makes a solid case for the canon while also championing those who would open it up, change it. It should live and breathe. A worthwhile read. Not entirely light or easy, but enriching and even occasionally fun.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Amir

    It was interesting -- I think it was kind of a time warp for me. It was written in 1996 by a guy who was 48 at the time (which I am now), going back to school when I was a college student. He grapples with the politically correct university that was emerging then, the stamping out of great works to make room for more diversity, the political grappling over whether the western canon is even worthy of study any more. These issues have all accelerated since then, so it was cool to think of his argu It was interesting -- I think it was kind of a time warp for me. It was written in 1996 by a guy who was 48 at the time (which I am now), going back to school when I was a college student. He grapples with the politically correct university that was emerging then, the stamping out of great works to make room for more diversity, the political grappling over whether the western canon is even worthy of study any more. These issues have all accelerated since then, so it was cool to think of his arguments both as historical point of time and as relevant to our current moment. And yet. and yet, it was a bit dense and long winded and I decided to move on when I finished about 60% of it. I probably should have skipped to the last chapter, I guess I will get there one day.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Walter Polashenski

    I will start by stating that I’ve never believed it wrong to read “certain books”. Even books whose existence I despise—books by those who have proved themselves vile. I don’t read to have information grafted into me. I read to make my own decisions. There is no greater joy for me. It pains me that this book was felt to be “needed”. I enjoyed what David Denny put together, but not that he felt a need to explore and defend the legitimacy of our literary history. At times books make speak to us no I will start by stating that I’ve never believed it wrong to read “certain books”. Even books whose existence I despise—books by those who have proved themselves vile. I don’t read to have information grafted into me. I read to make my own decisions. There is no greater joy for me. It pains me that this book was felt to be “needed”. I enjoyed what David Denny put together, but not that he felt a need to explore and defend the legitimacy of our literary history. At times books make speak to us nor or less urgently. But to vilify them for who they were written by.... Well that just says a lot about how deep our need to hate runs.

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