Great Books

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Simon and Schuster, Sep 25, 1997 - Biography & Autobiography - 492 pages
In Great Books, Denby lives the common adult fantasy of returning to school with some worldly knowledge and experience of life. A gifted story-teller, he leads us on a glorious tour - by turns eloquent, witty, and moving - through the works themselves and through his experiences as a middle-aged man among freshmen. He recounts his failures and triumphs as a reader and student (taking an exam led to a hilarious near-breakdown). He celebrates his rediscovery or new appreciation of such authors as Homer, Plato, the biblical writers, Augustine, Boccaccio, Hegel, Austen, Marx, Nietzsche, and Virginia Woolf. He re-creates the atmosphere of the classroom - the strategies used by a remarkable group of teachers and the strengths and weaknesses of media-age students as they grapple with these difficult, sometimes frightening works. And all year long he watches the students grow and his own life and memories break out of hiding.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - greeniezona - LibraryThing

(review originally written for bookslut) Great Books by David Denby is by no means itself a great book, though it is entertaining enough, I suppose. Being the avid bookslut that I am, I am always ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - ennie - LibraryThing

Film critic David Denby re-takes the Columbia College core courses 30 years later. I did finish this book, but skimmed over the discussion of the actual literature, which was just too intellectual for ... Read full review


Introduction to the Second Edition 2005
Introduction to the First Edition 1996
Reading Lists
Homer I
Interlude One
Plato I
Winter Break
Hume and Kant
Interlude Six

Homer II
Interlude Two
Plato II
Interlude Three
Aeschylus and Euripides
Interlude Four
The Old Testament
The New Testament
Interlude Five
Hobbes and Locke
Marx and Mill
Interlude Seven
Earlier Reading Lists
Selected Bibliography

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About the author (1997)

Chapter 1


* 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, "I''m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here," as he pocketed his winnings in Casablanca. But it''s the only word for excitement and alarm of this intensity. The brute vitality of the air, the magnificence of ships, wind, and fires; the raging battles, the plains charged with terrified horses, the beasts unstrung and falling; the warriors flung facedown in the dust; the ravaged longing for home and family and meadows and the rituals of peace, leading at last to an instant of reconciliation, when even two men who are bitter enemies fall into rapt admiration of each other''s nobility and beauty -- it is a war poem, and in the Richmond Lattimore translation it has an excruciating vividness, an obsessive observation of horror that causes almost disbelief.

Idomeneus stabbed at the middle of his chest with the spear, and broke the bronze armour about him which in time before had guarded his body from destruction. He cried out then, a great cry, broken, the spear in him, and fell, thunderously, and the spear in his heart was stuck fast but the heart was panting still and beating to shake the butt end of the spear.

(XIII, 438-44)

If I had seen that quaking spear in a shopping-mall scare movie, I would have abandoned the sticky floors and headed for the door. Exploitation and dehumanization! Teenagers never read anything -- that''s why they love this grisly movie trash! Yet here is the image at the beginning of Western literature, and in its most famous book.

The quivering spear was hair-raising, though there were even more frightening images: eyeballs spitted on the ends of spears and held aloft in triumph, a blade entering at the mouth "so that the brazen spearhead smashed its way clean through below the brain in an upward stroke, and the white bones splintered." Homer records these mutilations with an apparent physical relish that suddenly gives way to bitter sorrow (this is one way the images differ from those in horror movies) and to a yearning for ordinary life, a caress of nostalgia slipped into the mesmerizing catastrophe before us. The exultant violence is shot through with the most profound dismay. The Greeks, camped outside the walls of Troy, are far from home, but home, and everything lovely, proper, and comforting that might happen there, is evoked in heartbreaking flashes. There is the case of

Simoeisios in his stripling''s beauty, whom once his mother descending from Ida bore beside the banks of Simoeis when she had followed her father and mother to tend the sheep-flocks.

Therefore they called him Simoeisios; but he could not render again the care of his dear parents; he was short-lived, beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Aias, who struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.

He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some black

(IV, 472-82)

The nipple of the right breast. Homer in his terrifying exactness tells us where the spear comes in and goes out, what limbs are severed; he tells us that the dead will not return to rich soil, they will not take care of elderly parents, receive pleasure from their young wives. His explicitness has a finality beyond all illusion. In the end, the war (promoted by the gods) will consume almost all of them, Greeks and Trojans alike, sweeping on year after year, in battle after battle -- a mystery in its irresistible momentum, its profoundly absorbing moment-to-moment activity and overall meaninglessness. First one side drives forward, annihilates hundreds, and is on the edge of victory. Then, a few days later, inspired by some god''s trick or phantasm -- a prod to the sluggish brain of an exhausted warrior -- the other side recovers, advances, and carries all before it. When the poem opens, this movement back and forth has been going on for more than nine years.

The teacher, a small, compact man, about sixty, walked into the room, and wrote some initials on the board:





While most of us tried to figure them out (I had no trouble with the first two, made a lame joke to myself about the third, and was stumped by the fourth), he turned, looking around the class, and said ardently, almost imploringly, "We''ve only got a year together...." His tone was pleading and mournful, a lover who feared he might be thwarted. There was an alarming pause. A few students, embarrassed, looked down, and then he said: "This course has been under attack for thirty years. People have said" -- pointing to the top set of initials -- "the writers are all white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It''s not true, but it doesn''t matter. They''ve said they were all Dead White Males; it''s not true, but it doesn''t matter. That it''s all Western civilization. That''s not quite true either -- there are many Western civilizations -- but it doesn''t matter. The only thing that matters is this."

He looked at us, then turned back to the board, considering the initials "DGSI" carefully, respectfully, and rubbed his chin. "Don''t Get Sucked In," he said at last. Another pause, and I noticed the girl sitting next to me, who has wild frizzed hair and a mass of acne on her chin and forehead, opening her mouth in panic. Others were smiling. They were freshmen -- sorry, first-year students -- and not literature majors necessarily, but a cross-section of students, and therefore future lawyers, accountants, teachers, businessmen, politicians, TV producers, doctors, poets, layabouts. They were taking Lit Hum, a required course that almost all students at Columbia take the first year of school. This may have been the first teacher the students had seen in college. He wasn''t making it easy on them.

"Don''t get sucked in by false ideas," he said. "You''re not here for political reasons. You''re here for very selfish reasons. You''re here to build a self. You create a self, you don''t inherit it. One way you create it is out of the past. Look, if you find the Iliad dull or invidious or a glorification of war, you''re right. It''s a poem in your mind; let it take shape in your mind. The women are honor gifts. They''re war booty, like tripods. Less than tripods. If any male reading this poem treated women on campus as chattel, it would be very strange. I also trust you to read this and not go out and hack someone to pieces."

Ah, a hipster, I thought. He admitted the obvious charges in order to minimize them. And he said nothing about transcendental values, supreme masterpieces of the West, and the rest of that. We''re here for selfish reasons. The voice was pleasant but odd -- baritonal, steady, but with traces of mockery garlanding the short, definitive sentences. The intonations drooped, as if he were laying black crepe around his words. A hipster wit. He nearly droned, but there were little surprises -- ideas insinuated into corners, a sudden expansion of feeling. He had sepulchral charm, like one of Shakespeare''s solemnly antic clowns.

I remembered him well enough: Edward Tayler, professor of English. I had taken a course with him twenty-nine years earlier (he was a young assistant professor then), a course in seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry, which was then part of the sequence required for English majors at Columbia, and I recalled being baffled as much as intrigued by his manner, which definitely tended toward the cryptic. He was obviously brilliant, but he liked to jump around, keep students off balance, hint and retreat; I learned a few things about Donne and Marvell, and left the class with a sigh of relief. In the interim, he had become famous as a teacher and was now the sonorously titled Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities -- the moniker was derived from Columbia''s most famous English literature professor, a great figure when I was there in the early sixties.

"The Hermeneutic Circle," Tayler was saying. "That''s what Wilhelm Dilthey called it. You don''t know what to do with the details unless you have a grip on the structure; and at the same time, you don''t know what to do with the structure unless you know the details. It''s true in life and in literature. The Hermeneutic Circle. It''s a vicious circle. Look, we have only a year together. You have to read. There''s nothing you''ll do in your four years at Columbia that''s more important for selfish reasons than reading the books of this course."

Could they become selves? From my position along the side of the classroom, I sneaked a look. At the moment they looked more like lumps, uncreated first-year students. The men sat with legs stretched all the way out, eyes down on their notes. Some wore caps turned backward. They were eighteen, maybe nineteen. In their T-shirts, jeans, and turned-around caps, they had a summer-camp thickness, like counselors just back from a hike with ten-year-olds. Give me a beer. The women, many of them also in T-shirts, their hair gathe

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