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Great Books (1996)

by David Denby

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1,545209,380 (3.76)38
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.… (more)
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» See also 38 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
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 |
Great Books is Denby’s personal reassessment of the great thinkers and philosophers in the western canon from a mature age. It’s enlightening for those of us interested in intellectual thought. However, he frequently refers to technologies, events and people from the early nineties that are obsolete, dated, or who have completely disappeared from popular awareness. A revision that removed references that don’t stand the test of time would be in order. They are distracting and make one think of what a quaint little, self-absorbed time the pre-911 era was. ( )
  varielle | Mar 23, 2021 |
NA
  pszolovits | Feb 3, 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 |
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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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