Thursday, February 23, 2017

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby

Books are my passion but there have always been significant gaps in my reading experience and that is particularly true when it comes to the great books:  The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Confessions of St Augustine, Don Quixote, King Lear etc. Fortunately, the noted film critic David Denby has read these books.  First in 1961 as an 18 year old undergradate at Columbia University and then in 1991 at age 48 Denby went back to Columbia to retake these core-curriculum courses.  He writes about his journey in Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World published in 1996.

Denby states in the Introduction to Great Books that he decided to go back to Columbia because college had changed in the thirty years since he'd first been a student.  These great books courses were now under attack for not being diverse. Many in academia complained that not enough women writers were on the curriculum and practically no writers from outside Europe. Denby sympathised but he didn't want diversity to come at the expense of bumping Homer, Milton and Shakespeare from the list.  Denby says the debate also affected him because he had gotten out of the habit of reading serious literature and as he looked back he had trouble remembering many of the classics he had read. Were the critics right? Were these books obsolete?

So in Great Books we accompany David Denby back to college for one year.  We listen as professors teach these classics,  poking and proding their students to get the most out of these texts and apply what they learn to their own lives and today's world. Mostly though we learn about David Denby's reaction as he rereads these books this time in middle age with much more life experience behind him.  Great Books is part memoir and Denby is a very good writer, insightful and opinionated with a deep knowledge of the arts, history and the culture.

As for my reaction I did struggle to understand many of the writers Denby quoted in Great Books.  Alot of it was beyond me.  The ancient Greeks for example.  One needs a professor to go through Homer's lyric poetry at least I did. Ditto for the writings of Plato and Aristotle.  But then my interest picked up when we got to Sophocles' play Oedipus the King and as I continued to read Great Books I found more classics I would like to check out: The Confessions of St Augustine, the Decameron and I was particularly impressed by the last two chapters where Denby discussed and quoted passages from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.  These were two writers whose novels I had not read before but I want to now.

Denby said that one can read Great Books chronologically or you can skip to the chapters that interest you.  I read Great Books from beginning to end and I am glad I did.  It was a struggle and alot of it went over my head but I felt by the time I got to the last page I had been on a worthwhile journey.