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.
Read an Excerpt
* The Iliad
* Professor Edward Tayler tells us we will build a self
* The college bookstore; my lost attention
* Columbia students then and now
* C.C. begins: Anders Stephanson and the hegemony of the western calendar
* Professor Tayler teaches the Iliad
* Achilles the hero
I had forgotten. I had forgotten the extremity of its cruelty and tenderness, and, reading it now, turning the Iliad open anywhere in its 15,693 lines, I was shocked. A dying word, "shocked." Few people have been able to use it well since Claude Rains so famously said,... see more
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Discussion Points
- How does Denby's use of his "interludes," along with the application of his own experience to his understanding of the texts, support his insistence that these texts remain "required reading?" That they are to be read as living literature?
- Denby laments the level of discussion surrounding literature and writes "the act of reading had been hollowed out." What methods does Denby use in his attempt to restore the discussion to the level of euphoria and rapture that he describes as literature's uniquely special character?
- Denby decries the notion that "aestheticism and liberal humanism are a matched pair of delusions -- an unconscious body of oppression designed to convince the powerless that their situation is normal" and asserts that power is not fixed. How does he support this assertion?
- What answer does the book give to Denby's question, "Was there anything of the original intention or effects still at work in the courses?" What does the answer imply about the attack on such courses as instruments of marginalization?
- The great works, as presented by Denby, represent not one unified idea and/or philosophy, but what? How does he argue this in defense of the Western classics as required courses?
- Denby writes: "Anyone wit