Archive for the ‘The Great Books’ Category

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Alan Jacobs

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, though I certainly don’t need to be persuaded about the pleasures of reading.  I see it in my children, I feel it daily, and I am so increasingly addicted to the joy of reading that finding the next great read, for both myself and my kids, has become one of the engines that drives my days.  I would hazard a guess that most of you also feel a sense of superfluity when you read the title of the book.  We don’t need to be told about the pleasures of reading; we are readers; we already take pleasure in reading.  But what writing this blog about books about books has done for me is to enrich my love of reading, and my commitment to making more and more time for it, with stories of others’ love.  Time and time again I have found my own pleasures and thoughts so beautifully articulated by a complete stranger, and there is wonder in that. 

I was almost giddy with delight as I read Alan Jacobs’s story of his love of reading.   A professor of English at Wheaton College, and the author of a biography of C.S. Lewis and a book called Theology of Reading, about how to read lovingly and charitably, Jacobs is also a technophile.  RSS feeds, email and twitter began to swamp his days, and he’d find himself unable to read because of the constant urge to check his i-phone.  He realized one day that he was reading less than he did when he was 10.  And with less pleasure.  What I found most moving about this book is that Jacobs says that when he bought a Kindle (in order to avoid lugging a heavy pile of books on a trip) the Kindle saved his reading life, or, rather, it gave him back his deeply attentive reading life which had been frayed by the distractions of his technological tethers.  This is quite a confession coming from a professor of English.  He also recommends lying about the Great Books you have (not) read, and he thinks that there are too many undergraduate students of English.  So there are quite a few surprises in this English professor’s book about the pleasures of reading.

This is not one of those doom and gloom books about the demise of reading.  On the contrary, he begins by quoting research from the American National Endowment for the Arts that shows that “For the first time in over a quarter-century, … literary reading has risen among adult Americans.” And yet, we continue to wring our hands.  Jacobs quotes frequently from Nicholas Carr, whose The Shallows was a worrying about the effect of the internet on our ability to read well, but Jacobs points out that the so-called dumbing down of America could be a self-fulfilling prophesy:

I find myself particularly intrigued by younger people who have heard their cohort called “The Dumbest Generation,” who are continually told that their addiction to multiple simultaneous stimuli renders them incapable of the seriously focused and single-minded attention that the reading of big thick books requires.  Some of them are defiant in response to such charges, but most at least half-believe them.  Told over and over again that they can’t read, they begin to wonder why they should even try. (6) 

That is a sobering thought.  It’s such a common sensical observation, but it has stuck with me.  Of course there will be some kind of diminishing if you call a generation dumb.  We don’t call our individual children dumb, so why would we label their generation so negatively?  It has allowed me a moment of self-congratulation that I have not wrung my hands in sight of my boys and have, I hope, inculcated not just a love of reading, but a belief that they can tackle big books and enjoy them.

Jacobs’s main thesis is that reading is not hygiene; it should not be done out of duty or by rote.  Rather, he advocates that you follow Whim, and “Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame” (23).

He has a particular beef with books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which he calls the perfect guide for those who don’t want to read but who want to have read” (68).  I disagree entirely with his disdain for the book (I adore the children’s literature version), but the concept of wanting to have read instead of simply wanting to read, I found very persuasive.  “Yes!”, I scribbled in the margins (annotations being another of his pieces of advice for amplifying your pleasure of a book).  Yes!  There have been many times that I have picked up a book in order to be able to say that I have read it, not simply to enjoy the reading of it.  I also have great difficulty in abandoning a book that I am not enjoying.  Reading off of someone else’s list of greatest hits, he says, is a waste of good reading time.  Lie, he says:

Yes, lying is wrong.  But sometimes in this world we have to choose among evils.  It is wrong to lie, but it may be still more wrong to read a bunch of books you don’t want to read—and by “read” them I mean cast your eyes across most of the lines on most of the pages—in order to impress people whose opinion you shouldn’t be deferring to anyhow.  So it would be less bad, I think, to take a little time to figure out what people will be impressed to hear that you’re reading, use Wikipedia to find out just enough about those books to enable you to bluff plausibly when questioned—and then go back home and read whatever you want to read. (68)

I love his faith!  This is not a professor speaking to students (who should never, ever rely on Wikipedia!), it is a book lover speaking to other members of his tribe who may have lost the plot.  I love his faith that we can abandon obligation and simply follow Whim, that the joy of reading will give us not just guilty pleasure but abiding pleasures as well (17).

Where I begin to disagree with Jacobs is in his belief that

The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed.  (“I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes.  “Can I go back to my books now?”)  Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made.  They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books. (107)

I am an extreme reader, but I was not born one.  I am mostly made, not born, and I owe that making to my degrees in English as well as to the learning I get from other readers, on-line and in print.  As gently as he can, Jacobs is saying that undergraduate departments cannot expect to continue to expand as they have in the 60 years since the GI Bill greatly increased university enrollment:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only 30 percent get bachelor’s degrees).  … [It] has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” beyond what may be its natural limits. (107)

I get very uncomfortable with a notion that there are natural limits on the size of the reading class (a term, to be fair, that Jacobs dislikes himself, thus his use of quotation marks).  I owe much of my abiding pleasure of reading to the universities I attended.  I am not an autodidact who would have found that love without an institutional gateway. 

Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about—I scruple not to say it—skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content.  Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours. (114)

Though I do read very differently when I’m teaching a book and reading it for pleasure, I can’t make the same kind of distinction.  Learning and depths of pleasure are inseparable for me.  I needed one to reach the other, and I find them complementary.  And, yes, I know that this puts me in another class of rare bird, but it’s a class I would have been left out of if the access to undergraduate education was not so readily available.   

My copy of this book is a review copy, but I will be buying multiple copies to give as gifts to thoughtful book-lovers.  It really was a pleasure to read.

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Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life

Stephanie Staal

New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

Reviewed from an advance reading copy from Library Thing

A great book about books for International Women’s Day: Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life.   Very much along the lines of David Denby’s Great Booksthis is a memoir by a freelance writer–mired in the daily details of being a wife and mother–about going back to Barnard College to take the Feminism 101 course she took as a 19-year-old student.  Equal parts memoir and reportage from the classroom, the book tackles the question of the place of the great books of feminism in this writer’s life and in 21st century sexual politics.

I was immediately hooked by the book when I read Staal’s eloquent expression of the tensions of the maternal and feminist self.  Remembering herself as a student, she writes,

We were, all of us on that graduation day almost two decades ago, poised to take over the world.

Life, however, is not lived by directive, and there has been much talk in recent years of the false promises of feminism, the disillusionment and disappointments, the lash and backlash, especially for those of us who married, who became mothers–or perhaps it has always been thus?  Each generation, I suppose, forges new paths over the same old terrain.  The role of feminist has never been easily reconciled with that of wife and mother, particularly in the public eye, but neither, it’s true, has it rested easily in the privacy of our own homes.  Parental love and professional ambition make for uneasy allies.  And for my generation–women empowered by feminism as our due course–the contradictions strike at the heart of who we are, or at least the way we see ourselves.  The same women who grew up believing we could have it all now understand the toll of the transformations into wife and mother, the ambiguities and compromises they raise, the pledges broken both to ourselves and to others, the stark realization that perhaps we are not the heroines we once thought we were. (x)

I am drawn powerfully to descriptions of maternal ambivalence, to stories that weave the mourning for a lost self into the narration of motherhood.  (Rachel Cusk’s lapidary A Life’s Work is my touchstone in the mother memoir category, a must read for its astounding articulation of the division of self after childbirth.)  The knots of our various selves are, indeed, difficult to untie, and Staal’s approach throughout is a wonderfully grounded examination of the struggle between professional ambition, the fulfillment of a feminist self and the duties of love.  She negotiates the tensions with the wit and wisdom grounded in the practical questions of who washes the dirty socks (a fight over which is one of the best passages in the book.)

Even before I became a wife and mother myself, I had heard how this particular story unfolded.  Like many women who came of age between the second and third waves of feminism, I had been taught that throughout the ages, the transitions into marriage and motherhood were the vulnerable points at which we might lose our voices, might cease to be the narrators of our own lives. … I found myself in the midst of an identity crisis much like our feminist foremothers had described, feeling especially disquieted given that I, perhaps naively, had not quite expected it would happen to me. (5) [funny note: the wordpress spell-check does not like foremothers and suggests forefathers instead!]

   Pride goeth ever before the fall.  Staal’s solution: “I turned to books.”

My bookshelves are three books deep, and piles of books spread and teeter on every open surface of my home.  If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience.  To me, books are like magic: They inform the mind and transform the spirit.  I have finished a book and felt so bereft at taking leave of its characters that I have immediately turned it over to begin again from page 1.  In a special section, old favourites, their pages by now soft as worn cotton, lure me again and again, sometimes just to savor a passage or two for a moment’s inspiration. (10)

Quite by chance, Staal picks up a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique during a trip to a bookstore with her toddler, and it brings back a self that had gone into hibernation with motherhood.  Going through her undergraduate notes for her Feminist Texts course that night, Staal lights upon a plan to go back to Barnard and reread the foundational texts of feminism.

What follows is a richly textured reading of those texts, Staal’s various selves (in her undergraduate teens, her bustling twenties and married-with-child thirties) shading the already complex politics of sex and gender.

After rereading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, she writes,

I still felt angered by the severe limitations placed upon women during Gilman’s lifetime, but at the same time, the landscapes of absolutes that once dominated my thinking had been rubbed down by experience. (95)

She follows up on a notable silence around Gilman’s autobiographical fiction.  While the story is based on Gilman’s experience of marriage to Walter Stetson, whom she eventually divorced, the story less often told is of her second, happy, and thirty-year marriage to George Gilman.  Staal includes this story, not to reinforce a retrograde happy ending–she lost custody of her daughter in her divorce and mourned that loss to the end of her days– but to underscore the real complexity of the hardships and difficult choices in marriage and motherhood, then and now.

I appreciated the effects of the wear of experience on Staal’s readings.  As I usually do, I found myself wanting more memoir, more of the author.  I could certainly have done with much less reporting of other students’ opinions from the classroom.  If the book has a weakness, it is the length of the passages of classroom dialogue.

Of course, Staal does not find an answer to the intractable problems facing the have-it-all generation of women to which she belongs, but she does find a good story, and it’s well told.

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Perfectly Corking

Speaking of classics, have you ever read “Hamlet”?  If you haven’t, do it right off.  It’s perfectly corking.  I’ve been hearing about Shakespeare all my life, but I had no idea he really wrote so well; I always suspected him of going largely on his reputation. (62)

from a letter from Jerusha Abbott to the anonymous patron of the orphanage who sends her to college

from Daddy-Long-Legs

by Jean Webster

a perfectly corking epistolary novel about a foundling who goes to off to college and finds herself

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Bruce Meyer, author of The Golden Thread, and finalist for the TVO’s Best Lecturer competition, will be discussing the ways in which Homer, Virgil and Ovid have affected our ideas of romance, the afterlife, war and home.

Forest Hill Branch of the Toronto Public Library.

Saturday, November 6 at 10:30 a.m.

Saturday, November 13 at 10:30 a.m.

Saturday, November 30 at 10:30 a.m.

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Christopher R. Beha

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About, Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else

New York: Grove Press, 2009.

When Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins released their Great Books of the Western World, Alex Beam reports, Adler boasted that the set measured 62 inches, two inches more than the five-foot shelf of The Harvard Classics.  Really? When I think of the myriad ways in which to artificially and arbitrarily ensure that mine is bigger than yours, I have to laugh.  Of all things on which to base a comparison of sets of great books!

Interestingly, his boast foreshadows the rather masculine form of stunt journalism, reading through these sets of books in a set period of time.  (Is that fair?  To call it masculine?  There’s Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, and Robyn Okrant’s Living Oprah.  But conquering sets of books seems to be male terrain.  There is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21, 730 Pages by Ammon Shea.  Then there’s The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs’s book about his reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and his Year of Living Biblically, about, you guessed it, living by the 800 or more rules in that book.) 

David Denby did the great books project well, by going back to school rather than simply holing up with a great pile of books.  By being part of a community of readers, his re-reading of the classics has a wonderful dynamism and depth.  His book also predates the other examples of stunt journalism I mention above, and it has a leisurely feel to it that distinguishes it from the other races to read/do/write.

Christopher Beha, by contrast, reads his way through the whole five feet of the Harvard Classics over the course of one year, but alone and as a direct consequence of feeling adrift in his life after moving back into his parents’ apartment.  In one of my favourite passages, he describes his boomerang angst:

Of course, as a necessary condition of our post-belated age, one can never merely feel adrift or turned against oneself.  One must also hold certain awkward feelings about these feelings.  One must recognize such malaise as banal and used up, as a kind of American consumer indulgence.  One must stand detached even from one’s sense of detachment, alienated from one’s own alienation. (3)

Wonderful insight.  We are so worldly that we no sooner have feelings than we dismiss them as clichéd.  Nothing can be felt as new, as insight, but as always already yesterday’s news.

Perhaps that is the appeal to immersing oneself in a set of the classics for a year.

The set of Harvard Classics appeared in 1909, and they were edited by Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard for four decades spanning the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of World War I.  He wrote, “It is my belief that the faithful and considerate reading of these books … will give any man the essentials of a liberal education, even if he can devote to them but fifteen minutes a day.”  The idea was to democratize higher education at a time when only 3% of the adult population finished undergraduate education.

Beha’s grandmother owned a set, and he remembers investigating their contents, tentatively, as a child and young man.  Unlike the Great Books of the Western World, the canon established by Eliot was never revised.  This was a one-time-only offer of what constituted the great, and his grandmother seems to have taken that on faith.  When he tells his mother and aunt about his plan to read them, he is thrilled to hear their stories about their mother’s discussions of individual books from the set.  The books were not just decoration, and Beha knows that his own reading of them is not simply about acquiring knowledge, rather, “I had started reading them with the idea that they might bring me closer to her.  Perhaps this is the knowledge we are always after, though it’s destined to remain out of reach: the knowledge of those we have lost.” (120)  Indeed, much of the narrative is given over to his discussion of his relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents and aunts, and they make charming secondary characters.

Unlike the Great Books of the Western World, Eliot’s set of classical texts is not ordered chronologically.  After working his way through the first several volumes, which appear to him to have been ordered randomly, Beha has a revelation:

All the knowledge I might gain from reading these books, Socrates seemed to be telling me, would be worth little beside the knowledge of how little I still knew. … The earliest parts of the Harvard Classics were trying to turn me into the person I needed to be in order to read whatever came next.  (30, 33)

I am particularly fond of this trick: let the book tell you how to read it, let the book define you as its reader.  I performed this trick in many graduate school papers, and with considerable success with Britomart and The Faerie Queene. 

But, and by my use of the word trick you may have guessed where I’m going with this, it is a trick, and its novelty does wear off.  Beha did not capture and keep my attention in the same way that Denby did, and again, I have to put it down to too limited a canvas.  Beha devotes very little space to discussing the actual works he reads, and it is a lack that weakens the book.  Denby goes back to the classics because he knows that these books have formed him but he no longer remembers why.  He wants to steep himself in the books again.  Beha’s pace is much faster, and more shallow as a result.  By the end of his book, we know that Denby has worked the classics back into the fabric of his life.  Beha, on the other hand, has been on holiday from his life:

It must seem an odd thing for one to “realize” about books at such a late stage in the game.  But somewhere in my months of checking titles off a list I had forgotten the simple fact that great books were meant to be reread.  In many ways, this is precisely what makes them great.  It felt invigorating to be reminded of this truth, to be reminded that I could live with these books for as long as I wanted, that I never had to return to the cultural landscape I’d left behind for the most of this year.

But a certain sadness came with this realization.  After all, one wants to go home. (216)

Home is a world where no one else reads Wordsworth, whose “Tintern Abbey” inspired the insight.  Home is where no one else partakes of the Great Conversation, and because Beha does not want to be a “scold” and prescribe a course of the canon to his contemporaries, his reading of the classics is cast as, well, a stunt, an exercise with a limited shelf life.  It can be bracketed off and left behind.  I prefer Denby’s model of excavating, re-inhabiting and reviving books that can continue to live in us, to enrich our lives.

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In 1952, Mortimer Adler was on the cover of Time magazine.  It was the year in which The Great Books of the Western World set was officially launched.

Time also devoted two covers to Robert Hutchins, in 1935 and 1949.  Images from the Time archive.

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Alex Beam

A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

New York: Public Affairs, 2008.

I’m afraid that I did not wholly enjoy this one.  Too much snark by far.  Curiously, David Denby, whose Great Books I simply loved, has written a book called Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining our Conversation.  I’m with Denby.  It ruined the book.

Alex Beam has a hate on for Mortimer Adler, one of the founders of The Great Books Foundation: 

to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still trying to awake. (5)

Who knows, maybe I would hate him too after watching hours of him on television by way of research for my book.  Unfortunately, Beam’s snide remarks about Adler just intrude too much into his own project, effectively kidnapping his book from him.   I found myself waiting for (and dreading) the next attack on Adler as I read rather than being able to focus on the history that Beam writes. 

It’s a shame, really, because the history of the great books is a fascinating one, and I am grateful for what I gleaned from Beam’s book between the jabs at his subjects.

There is wonderful material here about the evolution of post-secondary education in America, about the astounding financial success of the Encyclopedia Britannica set of The Great Books of the Western World, about how that financial success turned eggheads into media stars and Time magazine cover material, about the equally astounding plummet in sales, about the personalities involved in shaping what America read, both in university and at home.  Those personalities include Mark Van Doren, his son, Charles Van Doren (who famously cheated on the quiz show Twenty-One), Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Orson Welles, Gertrude Stein, Kay Graham, Susan Sontag and Clifton Fadiman, father of Anne Fadiman, patron saint (as declared by me) of books about books. 

Chapters include the history of groundswell of the Great Books movement, both in colleges and adult education programmes, the printing of the great books as a set, and the sales strategy of the Encyclopedia Britannica team. 

In the 1930s Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, hired Mortimer Adler away from Columbia, in New York, where he taught the core curriculum both at the college and to the general public,  in order to help him establish a similar program at the University of Chicago.  They founded The Great Books Foundation, and at The University of Chicago, The Great Books of the Western World seminar team taught by Hutchins and Adler, was immediately and immensely popular. 

Chicago suddenly became the most talked-about university in America.  In 1935, Time magazine splashed Hutchins’s face on its cover and spared no horses hailing the “golden boy of U.S. education. …Time-Life founder Henry Luce was a college classmate of the “prodigious Yaleman Hutchins,” as Time called him.  Luce’s stable of magazines, Time, Life, and Fortune, would churn our generally uncritical agitprop on Hutchins and Adler and the Great Books for decades. (49-50)

Their seminars became spectacle, and “Hollywood bigs like Orson Welles, Ethel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish found their way to the Hyde Park seminar room” (53).

In the age before mass market paperbacks, the Great Books movement gathered momentum before the books became widely and cheaply available.  The Great Books groups needed, well, books.  Adler and Hutchins collaborated with William Benton to publish the books with Encyclopedia Britannica, but sales were initially slow.  Hutchins had been reluctant to use Encyclopedia Britannica because he feared that the books would become merely “colorful furniture.”  Once they gave in to using the sales model of the foot-in-the-door salesmen, however, sales skyrocketed.  As Beam points out, stellar sales were not always because of what was between the covers:

The Federal Trade Commission busted Britannica not once, but twice, for deceptive sales practices.  The salesmen used a variety of tricks—among them, trying to pass themselves off as assistant professors from the University of Chicago. … In one version of the charade, the salesmen would claim to be contacting potential scholarship students on behalf of the university. (107)

Even with the troubles with the law, the 1960s was the decade of the Great Books’s ascendency, but its legacy is still tainted:

Over time, the Great Books made plenty of money for the University of Chicago, just as Benton had promised.  Britannica, the business Benton had begged the U. of C. trustees to invest in, eventually returned $60 million to Chicago, almost doubling founder John D. Rockerfeller’s $34 million worth of donations.

The university’s official history has this to say about “Benton’s folly”:  “The Great Books of the Western World was a financial disaster, until it was sold as Hutchins feared it would be—by door-to-door salesmen touting ‘culture’ to an insecure American middle class.”  (114-115)

The Great Books never seem to have overcome that taint of the middlebrow:

the Great Books became the “colorful furniture” that the acerbic Hutchins feared they might.  He had always had his doubts.  “A classic,” he liked to say, “is by definition a book no one reads.” (192)

Beam provides evidence to the contrary.  One of my favourite chapters is “The People of the Book” in which Beam profiles a handful of ordinary people whose lives were transformed by their reading of the Great Books, including one Thomas Hyland, who gives us all license to buy more books:

When he died in 2003, Hyland had amassed a library of 63,000 books.  In his will, he asked for them to be redistributed in a three-day estate sale, with paperbacks priced at ten cents and hardcovers at three dollars.  Maybe news was slow on the weekend of January 31, 2004, but five Denver television stations covered the sale, broadcasting pictures of hundreds of buyers lined up outside of Hyland’s split-level home to carry off bagfuls and, in some cases, rolling containers full of books.  (145-146)

My other favourite chapter is the chapter on St. John’s College, a four-year undergraduate college with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the curriculum is all Great Books all the time.  It’s my favourite chapter because Beam so clearly enjoyed his time there; indeed, he declares his pleasure in writing about it.

The college’s famous, two-hour-long evening seminars often repair to the coffee shop afterward, and then spill into the dormitory corridors.  “We talk about our souls,” sophomore Clint Richardson told me amidst the clattering of the college’s only dining hall….  In our conversation, Richardson, a graduate of Michigan’s East Lansing High School, used the adverb eidetically  in the presence of three classmates.  It was obvious that I was the only person at the table who would be heading for the dictionary, to learn that eidetically means something like “visually.”  Welcome to the republic of learning.  (167)

Now, what does this say about me as a reader?  Am I a flake who only wants to read love-ins?  Far from it.  I loved Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book for how she wrestles with falling out of love with her childhood idol, C. S. Lewis, and there are places where she skewers him.  I simply do not want to trip over passages of mean-spirited caricature with quite so much regularity as Beam provides.

I do recommend this book as a history of the great books; just be warned that you will have to walk around unrelenting attacks on Adler and many muddy puddles of snark.

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I am reading A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam.  (Full discussion of which coming soon to a blog near you.)

I laughed out loud today after reading this wonderful bit of history from the 1940s:

Dr. Jules Masserman, scientific director of Northwestern University’s Foundation for Psychiatric Research, lashed out at the Great Books in the journal Diseases of the Nervous System.  “It is regrettable indeed that certain teachers of our youth revert to this form of medieval scholasticism at a time when old errors should be left to moulder in the dust of history, ” Masserman wrote.  The Great Books were a form of escapism known as “substitute behavior,” he insisted.  “Other forms of evasion,” he said, are “preoccupation with trivia of fashion, the spurious excitement of spectator sports, the false hopes of reckless gambling, the diversions of profligate sensuality, or the numbing haze of alcohol and drugs.” Masserman scoffed that the books are selected by “intellectual betters and so attempt to solve all the unprecedented problems of today by the ancient artifices of Aristotle or the pert platitudes of Plato.”

Dr. Masserman forgot to take his alliteration medication.

Profligate sensuality, forsooth!

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David Denby

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.

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At last

Got your coffee?  Click play.  Relax.  Establish the mood.  There is a soundtrack for this post. (And so that it does not stop while you read, I have put links at the bottom of the post.)

I very quietly turned 40 last week.  (Well, except for the part where the live band and a contingent of Terry Fox Run participants at Simcoe Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake sang “Happy Birthday.”  But that only lasted a minute.  Otherwise, I very quietly turned 40.) 

At last. 

I’ve been looking forward to this milestone, and my true love made it happen in the best possible way. 

He sent me 40 emails in the weeks leading up to my birthday, with topics like “Literary Prize Winners in 1970” and links to amazing photo albums he created of fountain pens and post it notes, two of my passions.  He took me away for a weekend sans kids, and we saw a play in which typewriters are characters.  The Age of Arousal by Linda Griffiths at the Shaw Festival.  (Go see it!!  Very funny.)  I had a delicious reunion with my three boys on the Sunday morning, and we walked along the Niagara River.  For the second year running, our entire clan did the Terry Fox Run in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and then we had a scrumptious picnic lunch.  Best of all, my true love went into my email address book and onto facebook and asked my friends and family to send him a message with a memory or an anecdote, then he made them all into a book.  Reading such a wonderful collection of others’ memories was a treasure beyond words. 

I have never understood the dread of getting older.  I only dread being the centre of attention, which is why I wanted a quiet celebration.  My 30s were about many new beginnings: getting married, having three amazing boys, earning my Ph.D, becoming a professor and a writer, learning, learning, learning.  I hope never to stop doing that, and I am so looking forward to my 40s.  Can’t wait to see what it will bring. 

One thing it has brought is new friends.  I met two people on Thursday with whom I already felt well acquainted from their blogs.  Kerry invited Julia and me over for pie, which was luscious, and for real, in-person conversation, which was also luscious.  I have lengthened my TBR list, I have much to look forward to in getting to know these women better, and I have deepened my appreciation for their wonderfully rich reading lives.  It was the perfect threshold for my much-anticipated (by me) return to sanity.

At last.  I have had time to pull myself out of the vortex of the back-to-school merry-go-round.  I have had time to unfurl and can now write about David Denby’s glorious Great Books.  (You still playing, Etta? Croon on.) 

You know how sometimes you find a book, and it is everything you want it to be?  Or it’s what you wish you had done?  David Denby went back to school to study the Great Books, and he made a book out of it.  And I will have a post about it up on Monday.

In the mean time, I am also celebrating knowing the other 3 mothers from 4mothers1blog.  We met in a writing class one year ago, and their friendship has been one of the most amazing gifts of the last year of my 30s.  We started a blog about parenting together and were thrilled to see it make the freshly pressed list on Friday.

Blessings abound.

Post-it note art

Fountain pens

Age of Arousal



freshly pressed


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