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Great Books

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.

These discussion points are intended to bring theserelations, the assumptions behind them, and thestrengths of Denby's argument, as it is developed, intofocus.
Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. Denby writes: "Anyone with eyes and ears knows that there is only one 'hegemonic discourse' in the lives of American undergraduates, and that is the mass media...everyone lives in the media." How does this liberate literature? Has the concept been misapplied to literature, "as if art were responsible for America's social problems"? How does Denby reconcile this to his "real life" occupation as a movie critic?
  7. Denby writes, "Reading seriously might be a way of finding the edges again." What does he mean by edges? How do they "help us escape the prison of our own cliches" and our estrangement from humanity?
  8. In his subjective response to great works, Denby might be taken literally to represent only Jewish, white, middle-aged males. What does he offer as defenses of this approach? Does this method illuminate the texts for us? How does Denby escape his literal identity and speak across cultural, ethnic, and gender gaps to all of American society? Is Denby, at age forty-eight, capable of "innocent" readings?
  9. Within the virulent political and academic climate of the debate surrounding the role of great literature in higher education, Denby suggests that his book is "an adventure book, a folly." Why? What does he hope to achieve with his "naive" addition to the debate?
  10. Apply Denby's assertion that the "political line of argument is inseparable from the aesthetic performance embodying it" to Great Books.
  11. Denby calls feminism "the only successful revolution of the 20th century." How would Virginia Woolf respond? Why does Denby choose to discuss Virginia Woolf as the final author rather than Joseph Conrad? How does she resonate Denby's entire work? What is the "something else" she has widened the canon with?
  12. Analyze Denby's bibliography. How would you describe it? What, if anything, do the texts represent? Is it an arbitrary selection?
  13. Final exam -- Why does one read great literature?

Recommended Readings
The following suggested reading list is divided into two main sections: GREAT BOOKS, in which the texts that Denby studied at Columbia are grouped under broad genre. Within genre, the works are listed chronologically, with the year of publication following the title. Subject headings are intended to facilitate selection rather than to define or categorize texts. SECONDARY LITERATURE constitutes the context of the contemporary debate.GREAT BOOKS EPIC POEMS
HOMER, The Iliad and Odyssey (700 B.C.)
VIRGIL, The Aeneid (30-19 B.C.)
DANTE, The Divine Comedy (1310-1320)
GOETHE, Faust (1819-1821)
AESCHYLUS, The Oresteia (458 B.C.)
SOPHOCLES, Oedipus Rex (430-426 B.C.) and Antigone (442-441 B.C.)
EURIPIDES, The Bacchae (405 B.C.)
SHAKESPEARE, King Lear (1605-1606)
BOCCACCIO, The Decameron (1351-1353)
CERVANTES, Don Quixote (1605-1615)
AUSTEN, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
CONRAD, Heart of Darkness (1899)
WOOLF, To the Lighthouse (1927)
PLATO, The Republic (375 B.C.)
ARISTOTLE, The Nicomachean Ethics and The Poetics (350 B.C.)
The Old Testament (1000 B.C.-100 B.C.)
The New Testament (100)
AUGUSTINE, City of God, (413-426) and Confessions (397)
DANTE, The Divine Comedy (1310-1320)
MACHIAVELLI, The Prince and The Discourse (1532)
MONTAIGNE, Essays (1580)
HOBBES, Leviathan (1651)
LOCKE, The Second Treatise of Government (1679-1683)
HUME, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1745)
ROUSSEAU, The Discourse of Inequality and The Social Contract (1762)
KANT, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and Critique of Pure Reason (1781)
WOLLSTONECRAFT, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
HEGEL, The Philosophy of History (1831)
MARX, The Communist Manifesto and The German Ideology (1845-1846)
MILL, On Liberty (1859)
NIETZSCHE, The Genealogy of Morals (1887)
WOOLF, A Room of One's Own (1929)
DE BEAUVOIR, The Second Sex (1949)
SAPPHO, Verses (612 B.C.)
DE PIZAN, The Book of the City of Ladies (1400's)
WOLLSTONECRAFT, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
AUSTEN, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
WOOLF, To the Lighthouse (1927) and A Room of Ones Own (1929)
DE BEAUVOIR, The Second Sex (1949)
The Closing of the American Mind, ALLAN BLOOM
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, HAROLD BLOOM
Language & Thought, NOAM CHOMSKY
The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy, FREDERICK CREWS
The New York Public Library's Books of the Century, ELIZABETH DIEFENDORF, Ed.
Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, DINESH D'SOUZA
"Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels," Harper's, JONATHAN FRANZEN
The End of History and the Last Man, FRANCIS FUKUYAMA
Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.
Homer to Joyce: Interpretations of the Classic Works of Western Literature, WALLACE GRAY
A Critic's Notebook, IRVING HOWE
Our Country, Our Culture: The Politics of Political Correctness, EDITH KURZWEIL and WILLIAMS PHILLIPS, Eds.
The Great Tradition, F. R. LEAVIS
"Politics and the English Language," Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, GEORGE ORWELL
Sex, Art, and American Culture, CAMILLE PAGLIA
The Opposing Self, LIONEL TRILLING
United States: Essays, 1952-1992 GORE VIDAL
"Against Identity," The New Republic, LEON WIESELTIER
"How One Should Read a Book," The Second Common Reader, VIRGINIA WOOLF
Casey Kelbaugh

David Denby has been film critic and staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998; prior to that he was film critic of New York magazine. His reviews and essays have also appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in New York City.

Joyce Carol Oates The New York Times Book Review A lively adventure of the mind....The tone of the one of unqualified enthusiasm: energy, vigor, intellectual curiosity, and what might be called an ecstasy of imaginative journalism.

Jane Smiley Chicago Tribune Books He sustains a variety of tone, subject matter and approach that keeps Great Books alluring and readable throughout...I was torn between getting out a copy of the book he had just discussed and reading it and going on with Denby. In every case. I went on with Denby.

Tracy Kidder What Mr. Denby has written is a book filled with keen literary and social observation, which captures the excitement of exploration and discovery. This is a wonderful book.

More books from this author: David Denby