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Great Books

3.82  ·  Rating Details  ·  718 Ratings  ·  83 Reviews
At the age of forty-eight, film critic David Denby, dissatisfied with his life within the media bubble, went back to Columbia University and took again the two famous courses in Western classics (Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization) required of all students--courses he first took in 1961. In recent years, collections of literary and philosophical masterpiec ...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published 1996 by Simon & Schuster
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(showing 1-30 of 2,263)
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Emily Alp
Jul 26, 2007 Emily Alp rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: kind of
This is an interesting read if you want to get an idea of what the prominent Western classics are and how they are taught at Columbia college in New York.

Denby goes back to retake his classical literature courses and recounts conversations in class, reflections outside of class and his deeper relationship with the characters in the classics.

Throughout the work there is strung a theme of defense against those who call Western works courses elitist. I didn't buy it and found that Denby talked in c
David Miller
I am enough of a romanticist to buy Denby's central point, that the "great books" of Western Literature are valuable for aesthetic and instructive reasons. Indeed, when describing his response to the classic authors in those terms, the writing is fun and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, there is more to this book. Much of it is devoted to Denby's social/political commentary, which might best be described as the ultimate middle class white man's perspective on the culture wars of the 1990s. Not all of it
Sandra Strange
This book should be required reading for every English/literature teacher, and really is a good book for anyone interested in the most important writinigs of Western civilization. It sounds a bit ordinary: a journalist decides, as an adult 20 years out of college, to go back and repeat his Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities classes required for freshman at Columbia. And then he writes about what he reads and what the class and its professor discuss about all of these basic texts ...more
Apr 02, 2016 Beth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
My thoughts on this are a mostly incoherent mess that I emailed to Katie and got out of my system. This is partly very dated, partly very timely, partly suffering from that "critic unable to view without imposing his own opinion, when really the professor and the students are much more interesting" thing that Lit Up, the author's most recent book, also had.

And there's this, from one professor in the book:

ABCDEF... that's your cultural baggage, what you bring to a book. You know wh
Jan 25, 2014 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can relate to Denby’s Great Books. I’ve been meandering through them for a few years now. But Denby is a little more structured in his approach. He returns to Columbia University to attend classes on the classics and what comes out is a travelogue through the Western Canon. It’s not an attempt at scholarly reflection. It’s about connecting with these monumental works in a way that gives them personal meaning and dimension. There are some insightful observations about the works themselves, but ...more
Nicolas Shump
Jun 15, 2012 Nicolas Shump rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A well-written account of Denby's decision to go back to Columbia University to re-take their "Great Books" program. The best parts are when he relates the books to people and events in his life. Thinking of Hobbes after being mugged on the subway, memories of his mother when reading King Lear, etc.
He spends too much time dichotomizing his perspective as a middle aged man to that of his young classmates. He is also took quick to discount the leftist revisions of the canon. I don't think he cont
Tim Weakley
The author, David Denby, spent his professional career as a film critic. Good for him. People need to be taught what is a good film, and what causes a film to fail. Unfortunately he thinks his skills translate into writing a book about great works of literature and philosophy and they don't quite.

He begins well. He goes back to school and audits the same two courses by several professors to get an overall look at what passes for a great work at Columbia thirty years after he originally went the
I listened to this as an audio book and as such it was charming to have a survey of some great books. I doubt I would have had the patience to read it- if I were going to read something about these books I would either read something of higher quality or read the books themselves.

I think Denby was fair in his analysis of his fellow students and himself, but I still found myself irritated by his discussion of his fellow students. Criticizing young people with zero life experience or education is
May 14, 2012 Jennifer rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
(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 fascinated by other people's lists of books. "100 Greatest Books of All Time," "100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century," "Sixteen Books to Read This Summer," -- I'm a sucker for them all. So it is no wonder that when I saw this book about the controversy over the dead-white-European-male-centrism of the
Jul 21, 2009 Robyn rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was pretty disappointing. I waited six years after graduating from Columbia and nearly 10 years after commencing Lit Hum to revisit the material via Denby's experiences. I found his take to be a combination of saccharine, patronizing, and dated (it's nearly 15 years old). Don't even get me started on his chapter on Simone de Beauvoir and the perils of Take Back the Night. I'm so glad that I didn't go anywhere near this prior to seeing the Core (which I adore) for myself, and I will continue ...more
Mary O'Donnell
Dec 07, 2013 Mary O'Donnell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book came out about the same time that my (adult) daughter started at Columbia. I think that I became aware of the book because I loved Denby's reviews in the New Yorker. It was such an incredible opportunity to share his and my daughter's experience. I love this book because it opened me up to so many different writers and enhanced my knowledge.

Brilliant. If you want to be a well-read person, this is a great guide to the 'canon', to get you started.
Richard Jespers
Feb 15, 2015 Richard Jespers rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Over four hundred and fifty pages, this one took me a long time to read, but it was worth it. Denby, former New York Times critic and now New Yorker film critic, writes of his reading experiences when he audits a couple of literature classes he had taken at Columbia University in the early sixties. I read this book rather belatedly, as it was published in 1996, but it’s never too late to learn of someone’s love affair with literature. There are so many things I could talk about: the number of ma ...more
Nov 15, 2008 Eric_W rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
At age forty-eight, Denby, a theatre critic for New York magazine, decided to return to Columbia University and retake two courses, Literature of the Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, both required of all Columbia graduates. His motivation was to force himself to read through the "entire shelf," not to rediscover his youth, " most overpraised time of life," but to get a second chance at school. He was " of not really knowing anything." The result is a fascinating intellectual journey thr ...more
Ben Atkins
Jul 21, 2013 Ben Atkins rated it really liked it
A thought-provoking work that becomes more engaging as it progresses. I initially picked this up out of jealousy. Having embarked on a personnel exploration of classic literature 4 years ago, the thought of being able to explore these works in the context of college classes at Columbia is very appealing. My expectation was that I would really enjoy the first half of the book covering mostly works that I had read over the past few years and "endure" the second half covering works I was less famil ...more
Emily January
Aug 10, 2011 Emily January rated it really liked it
Denby's exploration of the Western Canon is engaging and thoughtful. I found myself reliving my own experience with required Humanities and Classical Civilization classes as an undergraduate. Despite Denby's claim that his book is not an academic venture, he definitely inserts himself into the discourse. Sometimes, these frank discussions are enlightening. Other times, his attempts at literary analysis are embarrassing. I found this especially true in the chapter on Conrad in which Denby openly ...more
Mar 02, 2011 James rated it it was ok
David Denby, a prominent film critic returns to the Ivy League classroom as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars. For this book, he spent an academic year attending Columbia University's famous ``core curriculum'' classes in the great books, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. Denby recreates how he read, pondered, and discussed classic texts from the ancient Greeks (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Euripides, and Sappho) to Nietzsche, Freud, and Conrad, all the time main ...more
Jul 06, 2007 Mads rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was once stranded with just this book in my bag--and how I loved it. I'm familiar with Denby's work in New Yorker but I have to say that I love Anthony Lane's movie reviews better than Denby's, although I remember a particularly incisive article that Denby wrote about Charles Darwin. Because of this book, I re-read the Iliad very very closely and realized how awesome it really is. It was only in my second reading that I realized that the Iliad's first word is "rage." Bloody, brutal thing that ...more
Sep 29, 2014 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
In the fall of 1991, film critic David Denby returned to Columbia University, his alma mater, to retake the university's two required humanities courses: Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. These are two of those "great books" courses that several universities continue to require their students to take, despite continued criticism from some groups that the courses are too full of works by dead white guys, and biased too much toward Western (i.e., dead white guy) civilization at ...more
Bill Yates
Oct 19, 2015 Bill Yates rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Denby's retake of a course at Columbia University in Western classics brought back memories of an almost identical course that I took at San Jose State University as a freshman and sophomore. Coincidentally, Denby and I were in the humanities courses at the same time during our first two years of college. It was a required course for all students at Columbia, but was only offered to honors students at San Jose State. Denby's comparisons of the themes in the literature to themes in his own life w ...more
I have been working on a personal list of the classics to read (or re-read) so I can fill in the holes of what I'm afraid was a rather pathetic education in literature in my formative years, at least until a certain teacher reawakened my love for reading as I was about to graduate from high school. As well, I think some books are just easier to understand after having gained some life experience, so books I impatiently put aside twenty or thirty years ago deserve another chance. When I come acro ...more
William Schram
David Denby, a film critic, decides to go back to school and take some courses that he took in 1961-1962 at Columbia University in New York City. As he reads through the "Western Canon" as it is called, he recalls events of his life and re-examines ideals that he held as a young man. Of course he compares them to his own current state, since he has nothing else to go on, and feels disgust for his old self in some cases. In other cases he finds new authors and entertains novel ideas. They changed ...more
(Originally published on my blog:

Oh, those middle class problems. For me, the only thing more ridiculous than people claiming that gun ownership is a right rather than a class privilege is the complaining that goes on about the courses in higher education. Much as one has to have time and money to invest in an automatic weapon, people such as myself don't have the luxury to consider going to school in order to learn things. Yet political arguments are constantl
Apr 06, 2014 Peter rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays-bio-etc
The scene that drove the book for me is the subway mugging experienced by Denby himself. The scene is reminiscent of the scene in Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” where a black campus activist threatens a shooting. Taken alone these scenes might signify nothing more than middle of the road crime and/or anger, but when confronted directly by a writer, seem to trigger a program in the brain for protection, for stricter adherence to the rules of law and order, to disgust with a perceived ...more
Jan 13, 2013 Yu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading this book is like having a gluttonous diner while you are ravenous. I was rushing myself to have it all at once, but then it stuck. There was something that I could not comprehend, like Kant, Hegel and so many other more contemporary authors, not mention those earlier ones. It was exciting on one hand, because I was revealing myself to it and couldn’t have been more eager with the intention on raising consciousness. But, it was very frustrating too on the other hand. I remember how I cra ...more
This book challenged and affirmed my thoughts on the Western Canon – the much-maligned, desperately loved canon. From my blog:

A review from Amazon: "As a former classics major, I have followed the debate over the western canon with a great deal of interest. But after slogging through Harold Bloom's The Western Canon for over a year and a half, this book was an absolute delight. I totally agree! I've been slugging through The Western Canon for a few days, not a year and a half, and I'm finding De
Michael Dixon
Aug 23, 2015 Michael Dixon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It never fails that this time of year (the fall) I start to think about this book again. I read it shortly after it came out and enjoyed it in a just barely adult way. Having attended one of the great books colleges and having read most of the canon in my late teens I was intrigued by the concept and the execution. Now, annually I remember that read, and the original encountering of the material and wonder if I should re-read the book, or better yet the books themselves.
Mark Valentine
Jan 17, 2016 Mark Valentine rated it it was amazing
Denby's book does it all. He has written a sophisticated Cliffs Notes, respendant with insight, of the great authors. This is more than Durant's Story of Philosophy, more than Ivan Doig's Winter Brothers (which combines memoir with biography), more than a view from the back of the classroom of some of the best teachers. I am informed and inspired. This is good reading from a good writer.
Aug 13, 2015 Peter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an enjoyable read, particularly towards the end when things start coming together for the author. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to awaken a few memories of reading some or all of these books years ago. Also good for anyone heading to Columbia. Denby writes well.

Rene Schlegel
Aug 03, 2014 Rene Schlegel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book about books, certainly with much influence from John Erskine, replaces what it describes: Lit001. Kind off. Therein lies its efficiency. Its inefficiency is that you want to write most of the canon mentioned here. A delightful read.
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David Denby is an American journalist, best known as a film critic for The New Yorker magazine. Denby grew up in New York City. He received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1965, and a master's degree from its journalism school in 1966.
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“Whether white, black, Asian, or Latino, American students rarely arrive at college as habitual readers, which means that few of them have more than a nominal connection to the past. It is absurd to speak, as does the academic left, of classic Western texts dominating and silencing everyone but a ruling elite or white males. The vast majority of white students do not know the intellectual tradition that is allegedly theirs any better than black or brown ones do. They have not read its books, and when they do read them, they may respond well, but they will not respond in the way that the academic left supposes. For there is only one ‘hegemonic discourse’ in the lives of American undergraduates, and that is the mass media. Most high schools can't begin to compete against a torrent of imagery and sound that makes every moment but the present seem quaint, bloodless, or dead.” 4 likes
“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.” 1 likes
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