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Great Books (1996)

de David Denby

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1,6511910,475 (3.75)39
THE NATIONAL BESTSELLER 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.… (més)
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» Mira també 39 mencions

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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. ( )
  chrisvia | Apr 29, 2021 |
David Denby, a film critic, decides to go back to school and take some courses that he took in 1961-1962 at Columbia University in New York City. As he reads through the "Western Canon" as it is called, he recalls events of his life and re-examines ideals that he held as a young man. Of course he compares them to his own current state, since he has nothing else to go on, and feels disgust for his old self in some cases. In other cases he finds new authors and entertains novel ideas. They changed the syllabus in the time that he had not been there, since women and blacks and latinos and asians were now allowed in the halls of Columbia. Some of them were angry about being fed a diet of Western ideals and culture. For instance, one woman is upset that she must listen to Mozart of all things. So the author ruminates on this and other things and comes to the conclusion that she wanted more of what she was used to, which might have been gangsta rap or bebop for all we know.

Anyway, we go over the stories, novels and works that are covered in this class from 1991 or so and Denby is 48 at the time, giving an interesting contrast to the young men and women that took the class as freshmen.

All in all, I would probably read this again if given the chance. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
Denby has shown me what a poor reader I am. I want to learn to listen better. ( )
  BenjaminG.Brubaker | Apr 26, 2018 |
(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. ( )
2 vota greeniezona | Sep 20, 2014 |
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. ( )
1 vota ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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THE NATIONAL BESTSELLER 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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