In 1961, David Denby entered Columbia University as a first-year student and took two required “great books” courses: Literature Humanities (Lit Hum for short) and Contemporary Civilization (dubbed C.C.). Lit Hum centered on a collection of classic Western texts, from Homer’s Iliad andOdyssey (ninth or eighth century b.c.) to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (part I, 1808; part II, 1832); the basic list had changed little since its institution as a “core course” in 1937. C.C. featured bedrock political (and scientific) treatises such as the Politics of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (Il principe, 1513), although the list over the years had been revised much more extensively than that of Lit Hum.
By 1978, Denby had become the regular film critic of New York magazine, and had mostly forgotten his freshman studies. Around 1990 or so, however, he developed an interest in the controversy surrounding the “canon”—a list of those books generally considered “great” and of enduring value—and its significance for a U.S. student population becoming increasingly diverse. Goaded by his wife, he resolved to return to his alma mater and enroll once again in the Lit Hum and C.C. courses. Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World is, he writes, “An adventure book, then, and also a naïve book, an amateur’s book—in other words, a folly. It could not have been anything else.”
The book’s twenty-eight chapters deal more or less chronologically with many of the “great authors” Denby read. One of the chapters gives a visceral account of examination jitters, and there are seven “interludes” dealing with Denby’s increasingly hostile evaluation of those on the academic left who charge that such core courses as Columbia’s perpetuate a dominant white male perspective.
On the contrary, he says, “the core reading list features many works that revise and even overturn the earlier works on the list. If this is hegemony, it is also self-contradictory. . . . Might not left-academic talk of hegemony and logocentrism really amount to a glib way of gaining control, and even precedence, over an immense legacy of fiercely oppositional thought?” The canon is not closed; Denby credits the feminist movement for the inclusion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). His objection is to any effort, by the left or the right, to impede the process of “oppositional thought.” Although Denby takes issue with traditionalists such as Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and Lynne V. Cheney, criticizing them for elevating the canon as if it were the depository of eternal verities, most of his verbal salvos are directed against Catharine MacKinnon, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Edward Said, Chinua Achebe, and other scholars of the academic left who describe the great surviving literature of the West as “guilty of something. This is no harmless truism (anything that becomes part of the dominant discourse must serve some need of the powerful). At its most severe, it’s a moral attack on art itself.”
Art brings pleasure, and the greatest art brings the most complex and hard-won pleasure. “Pleasure never lies,” he writes, “though pleasure requires cultivation, and complex pleasures the greatest cultivation of all: education.” Such pleasure is not an end in itself, however; the “right kind” of pleasure, the kind that arises from the intense struggle with another human mind through literature, serves to open the door to long-forgotten memories, building a kind of continuity between the person one once was and what one has become. The integrated self is formed out of that continuity, a self distinct from its connections with the mass media of the late twentieth century.
Such a self was what Denby yearned for. “Normally, when I tried to remember things from long ago, I came away with nothing and wandered off into daydreams or movie images—the flood of desire and trivia where memory should be. I had no story to tell.” He describes his media-focused existence as blurring the boundary between self and image and writes that since his earlier student days:
I had abandoned the pleasures of concentration to the pleasures of fantasy; that anguish of beinglost in the media, a part of the swamp of representation, and therefore merely another producer and consumer of images and words without identity or form of my own.
According to Denby, this inner sense of being lost was mirrored in the “social demoralization” in the United States in the early 1990’s, and Denby found that Lit Hum, addressing the nature of the human being, and C.C., addressing...
(The entire section is 1985 words.)