“The Great Books” by David Denby

by Joshua H. Liberatore

I’ve read a handful of books on the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but none surpasses the lay critic David Denby’s The Great Books. Although I admire Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and tolerate portions of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, I find that such books are only interesting as philosophical or literary arguments; they don’t actually make me want to the read the precious books that form their core concern. Furthermore, straight-up polemics like William A. Henry’s In Defense of Elitism or E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy or William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, or any other politically motivated investigation of the curriculum debates that have wracked (and continue to smolder in) American universities over the past two decades, are limited in their practical impact for the same reason. Too often these ardent culture warriors, from both within and without the university and from both sides of the political spectrum, are so obsessed with looking at particular books and whole fields of study through the lens of “values” – liberal and conservative – that they ignore the most basic and crucial function of the reading experience: edifying the self.

    Denby’s perspective is not ideological but rather admirably selfish yet supremely earnest. He wants to reread the books for himself and find out what they have to say to him. A well-known film critic and journalist (now with the New Yorker), Denby decided “to go back to school” in 1991, attending core curriculum classes at Columbia University for a whole year, 30 years after he’d studied there as an undergraduate. He had two simple goals. His first goal was to see what the big fuss was all about. In 1991, Columbia was a lonely holdout, maintaining two required, year-long humanities seminars in the great books tradition under heavy fire from liberal critics. Many universities had already given up the fight, if they fought at all. Some had gone even farther and dismantled or at least reduced liberal arts requirements of any scope, including basic competency in a foreign language. In the face of all this ripe controversy and hand-wringing, Denby wanted to see whether the courses he took in 1961 were worth battling for a generation later.

    His second goal, inextricably linked with the first, was simply to feed his soul. He describes having felt intellectually depleted by his years in journalism and critiquing movies. He worries about the decline of his own reading skills. He’s stopped doing “serious reading” and become just another daily consumer of the New York Times. Also, as a denizen of New York, he sees crime and deterioration blighting a great city (and in one instance, experiences it directly) and wonders whether literacy or education might have anything to do with what is happening on the streets. But most principally, as an adult and a father, Denby wants to restore something basic and sacred in his cultural and mental machinery, something that the great books (he hopes) might exercise as nothing else could.

    These two goals are linked because, by the end of the book (and after the year of reading), Denby illustrates exactly what was missing in the ink spilled by renowned professors and intellectuals over “political correctness” at the university: the joys and sorrows of a direct reading experience. He puts himself into an actual laboratory, a functioning classroom of talented and diverse students at an elite Ivy League university, under the guidance of capable teachers, and well, just reads. And as he reads, he listens to the conversation, occasionally contributes a remark himself, and interweaves his own memoir into a thorough inspection of the role books play in his life. He lives the great books, not in any cliché sense, mind you – some of the books he finds boring and oppressive – but in the best, genuine significance of a reading life: explore, listen, discover, reflect, and apply.

    He fully admits that his “adventures with the indestructible writers,” as he calls them in his subtitle, are not always easy or pleasant excursions. Aristotle turns out to be quite tedious. Kant is insufferably convoluted and dense. Dante is flat in translation. Who in the Ivory Tower possesses the courage to confess such sentiments in writing, sentiments which nevertheless many devoted readers like Denby have felt and agreed with? On the other hand, to witness Denby’s passionate rediscovery of Homer, Montaigne, and Virginia Wolf – writers he’s sampled before but whose impact was minimal – rings with the triumph of awakening. Great writers speak in different tones to different people at different stages of life – that is why the books remain on reading lists and bookshelves after hundreds, even thousands of years. Their endurance has nothing to do with a white-wing cabal hell bent on enshrining the cultural values of European civilization in the face of diversity’s assault. It’s not to exclude the voices of those who have been left out of or have suffered under that grand narrative. And it’s not about shaping democracy or freedom or any other abstraction. These books keep getting taught because they simply refuse to stop speaking. And now, if you will excuse me, I need to reread The Brothers Karamazov.

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