Monday, January 5, 2009

Great Books

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
1996 David Denby
491 pages + bibliography and index

My local library has display shelves attached to the end of book cases, and the books featured there change every so often. Sometimes there is a theme to the books being displayed, other times not. These books invariably catch my eye and sometimes I check them out. Such was the case with Storms from the Sun, for instance, and such was the case for this particular book. In the book, a film critic for New York magazine returns to Columbia University to observe sections of its Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization classes, so-called "Great Books" courses that focus on the "canon" of Western civilization -- beginning with Homer and ending with Virginia Woolf. Along the way, the canon involves a little of everything -- from history to economics to sociological theory to literature.

The book consists of several interwoven narratives. Denby, upon hearing criticisms from the "academic left", decides to experience the "great books" courses again to re-examine the canon for himself. He took those classes in the 1960s, but he's forgotten most of what he learned there. In this primary narrative, we experience school through Denby's eyes. He writes on the teachers' approaches, the attitudes of his classmates, the stress of exams. He compares his experience
in the mid-90s (which is when this book was written) to his experience in the sixties. Connected to this narrative, but distinct from it, is another story: the way these "great books" shaped him as a freshman, and how they shape him now as a member of the "bourgeaise". (He applies the label to himself.) He recalls moments from his life and connects them to the themes of the books. The theme-based narrative is another major one. His teachers focus more on the meanings of the story, derived from the culture they were set in. They also concentrate on how the various great books shape the others: Virgil reading Homer, Marx reading Hegel, etc. Yet another story that Denby tells is a critical one: he examines western culture, looks at the way it has changed from the times of the various authors and how it has changed from his beginnings.

There's a lot to this book. He weaves all of the above together while at the same time examining claims that the western canon is exclusionary and doesn't represent the modern western mind or doesn't take women and marginalized political/ethnic groups into consideration. It's a meaty book, and will interest anyone that takes books and literature seriously.

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