Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
In the fall of 1991, at 48, David Denby went back to school. Thirty years after entering Columbia University, he returned to repeat the two required core curriculum courses, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, the great books courses that have been on the curriculum at Columbia since the 1930s.
Like Susan Hill’s year of reading from home, this is another one of those brilliant ideas I wish I had had, and I know I’d make better work of repeating courses from my undergraduate years than I would of swearing off buying new books, at which I have failed, albeit rather gleefully. (At least it’s not shoes!!) I feel ready to circle back, and that is precisely what Denby has done so beautifully in this book.
Denby’s decision to repeat his great books courses originated in his irritation with the debates in the culture wars, but underlying the irritation with others is the realization that he has forgotten much of what he studied:
I had read, I had forgotten, and I felt the loss as I did the loss of an old friend who had faded away. I was filled with longing and curiosity. What was the actual experience of reading such books? … I needed to start work on this book in part because I no longer knew what I knew. I felt that what I had read or understood was slipping away. I possessed information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs. The foundations of the building were turning to sand….
Denby’s account of the year has three main threads. First there is the course content itself, which he summarizes and with which he engages in a thoughtful and focused way. This is no Coles Notes version of the great books; he concentrates on one theme from the text and explores it in depth. He also gives us sketches of the students (anonymous) and faculty (by name), and thus provides a wider cast of characters for this year of study. This is a necessary strand, and he lays out the works, the academic setting, the changing seasons and moods on campus as the ground on which he paints his own encounters with the texts.
There is also frequent discussion of the debate about the place of the Great Books in the university curriculum. He is for their inclusion, and though he empathizes with the views of those who bridle at not seeing themselves reflected in the course content, he argues that recognition is rather beside the point. The point is to examine those texts that have shaped, and that continue to shape, Western civilization. This is the most plodding of the three themes, but since the idea to go back to school originated with his fulminating about the culture wars, and his wife challenging him to do something about it, he has to address it directly. Polemic is never my favourite genre, and at more than 400 pages, the book could have been tightened up in places; much of his discussion about the general merits of the Great Books could have been more concise.
Nevertheless, this was a compelling read, and Denby’s prose is just a delight. Most interesting by far is the third strand of the book: how he attaches the goings on in the ivory tower to his own life as a movie critic, husband and father, former teenager, New Yorker, son and citizen. Why do we read if not to be enlivened by the material, to take it not only into our intellect but into the machinery of our daily lives? He has an existential crisis about his career in the world of spectacle after reading Homer and Plato; he reads Hobbes and Locke through his experience of being mugged in the subway; he remembers his years in the 60s, throwing tomatoes at politicians, through Rousseau; he connects his fear of street crime to women’s fear of rape when he attends a Take Back the Night rally and reads de Beauvoir; and gloriously, gloriously, he falls in love with Virginia Woolf after 30 years of loathing her.
And over and over and over again, he gets it, he gets a glimpse into the shimmering greatness of a work as it slips into place in his life and intellectual history.
His chapter on King Lear, a version of which appeared in The New Yorker as “Queen Lear,” is worth the price of admission alone. Denby compares his mother to the needy king, and his raw account of her difficulties and demands in old age is enriched by girding it with this comparison. He pays tribute to her life as a canny, successful and independent business woman, and he describes how her independence and strength all but disappeared after the death of her husband. It was a total transformation, and she became a needy handful.
…when [my mother] died, my tears were produced as much by relief as by sorrow.
The devastating power of King Lear, I now realized, is derived from emotions that we barely admit. We are obsessed, so many of us, with power, with work, with money, with love, sex, and art, and meanwhile two of the most essential and unfathomable tasks in life—raising our children and lowering our parents into the earth—pull away at us steadily, unacknowledged and sometimes unattended. After all, there is a structure to professional success; once you get over the early tremors, the early opposition, you learn the way, and there are many places to pause and take stock. But no rules or guidelines, no training or expertise, really helps you take care of children or elderly parents.
The play brings you back to the inescapable struggle for power between the generations. It suggests that the basic human relations in begetting and dying can be intolerable. … Lear is hardly the only parent to demand too much love from his children.
I love that last line, the colloquial ordinariness of his assessment. He forgives Lear his foolishness; he sees that his mother is not the first unreasonably demanding parent. His own experiences with his mother give him insight into the king’s folly, and by reading Lear, he can find the missing guideline for his struggle with her, a struggle that was all the more puzzling for its late appearance.
This is what great essays do: they connect the very personal and local to the tectonic plates that underpin our culture, and, as Denby argues, those tectonic plates are in part the great books themselves.
Great Books, Great Essay, Great Read.