Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
by David Denby
Simon & Schuster, 493 pp., $30.00
David Denby is the film critic of New York magazine, a man by his own admission professionally deformed by movies. Off duty he is normally busy with everything a successful journalist, husband, and father living in New York is likely to be busy with. Not the kind of man, one might think, who comes home from the office or the theater and selects the Iliad or The Social Contract or The German Ideology for his evening’s relaxation. But somehow Denby fell to thinking that there was something lacking in his intellectual life, and something wrong with the intellectual climate of his society. He recalled his student days at Columbia, where, in 1961, he had been required to take two “core” courses, Literature Humanities, or Lit Hum, and Contemporary Civilization, or C.C. Back in those days it was no doubt possible for young persons to find these courses tedious or exacting, but nobody had thought of calling them politically oppressive. By 1991 this was a commonplace judgment. Partly to test that judgment, partly out of a desire to find out what effect the experiment might have on “a settled man who was nevertheless unsettled,” Denby went back to Columbia and enrolled in both courses. When he came to the end of them he wrote up his experiences in this “adventure book.” The result will probably irritate a fair number of people, most of them inside the academy; their stock responses are unlikely to include due praise for this unusually angled, vivacious, and candid commentary.
A man nearing fifty can hardly hope to pass unnoticed in a freshman class, or to simulate the wonderful literary and philosophical innocence of most modern eighteen-year-olds, and it might be argued that the mere presence of Denby, however tactful his demeanor, must have fatally altered the situation he was hoping to investigate. But he at least took this possibility into account. He listened unaffectedly to his fellow students, got on well with some of them, and never mistook ignorance for stupidity.
Courses which begin with both the Homeric epics and take in Greek tragedy, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the Bible, Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Austen, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, Beauvoir, and Woolf, to name but a few, must explicitly allow for students’ ignorance, but they will still seem terrifying to beginners. Taking the courses again thirty years on, a former student like Denby will be less ignorant, intellectually more streetwise. He was also capable of suspecting that there was more to be got from the Great Books than he had originally supposed, and that to have paid them little attention since college days might have been a damaging mistake.
He was ready to suffer a little to remedy it. At first the going was hard; to concentrate on the prescribed texts for long enough to respond sensibly to them called for an unwonted effort. He had to shift from the mode of attention appropriate to magazine articles to the …