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

3.8 of 5 stars 3.80  ·  rating details  ·  496 ratings  ·  60 reviews
As September rolls around, do you find yourself longing to go back to school despite the fact that you graduated years ago? Would you remember how to read critically? Could you hold your own alongside today's college students? Would you find the Western literary classics culturally relevant and applicable to your life?

At the age of 48, David Denby, film critic for New Yo

Paperback, 496 pages
Published September 25th 1997 by Simon & Schuster (first published January 1st 1996)
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Emily Alp
Jul 26, 2007 Emily Alp rated it 3 of 5 stars 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...more
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
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
Nicolas Shump
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...more
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
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...more
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...more
Ben Atkins
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
(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...more
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
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
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.
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
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
Emily January
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
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...more
I really enjoyed this book! David Denby is a film critic who writes for the New Yorker. In the book, he writes of his return to Columbia University (in the 1990s) and re-enrolling in two courses - Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. The books (and times, of course) since the 1960s have changed quite a bit, and in other ways haven't changed at all. Denby struggles a bit with the 'classics' and asks the same questions every one is asking these days about the relevancy of the class...more
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
Mar 17, 2014 Mark is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Checked it out of the library today. It's a refreshing approach to great literature, and I am looking to Denby to help me plan my reading. What should I read next? What are the possibilities? With limited time, how can I increase the odds of not wasting it? Can anyone lend some insight, or at least empathy?
A great book with which to finish the year. Denby adds a lot of value to his survey of the Great Books at Columbia with his own reflections; alternately witty and thoughtful. Reading a book about a guy reading books (Denby) who is watching others read books (Columbia students) that sometimes have authors writing about other books (Virgil talking about the Greek tales) makes this my most meta reading experience of the year. Denby's sentences have both the wit of his New Yorker reviews with the ri...more
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Denby writes very capably about the experience - the challenge - of reading literature. I found myself disagreeing with him almost constantly, but that's part of the purpose of the book: he struggles with the literature and comes to his own conclusions, just as we are supposed to. The final chapter on Virginia Woolf is particularly fine, especially the section on A Room Of One's Own. I rarely keep books once I have read them, but I will keep this one, if for nothi...more
A book about books. I really enjoyed this - with his essays on authors like Homer and Woolf I got to revisit books I love, and also learn about authors I haven't read yet like Montaigne and Hegel (but are now on my list because of him...okay, so I'm probably never going to read Hegel). He thoughtfully deals with the "great books" debate that was so fierce in universities in the 80s and 90s and has since died down a bit. The first and last thirds of the book were more fun to read for me because I...more
Interesting story of movie critic going back to Columbia and studying the clasics 30 years after he was a student there. It makes you want to go back and read them yourself. Denby's enthusiasm is contagious, and the book is very entertaining as long as he stays in the background, observes and comments. Eventually, he couldn't help injecting more of himself into the classes that he is observing and into the book that he is writing. The book suffers as a result. Still, it was an interesting idea n...more
The New Yorker film reviewer Denby goes back to school in an attempt to read more of the "great classics" of Western Civilization (ala Harold Bloom). As he reads each books, he gives his thoughts on the texts, how they relate to his life, how his beliefs have changes since he originally read them in the 60s, etc. Ultimately, the book argues that while we should be more inclusive with the books we study, we shouldn't throw the "dead white men" out with the bathwater-- they're "classics" for a rea...more
Jeremie Arthur
Among the most enjoyable and edifying books that I have read in recent years. The author, a critic for the New Yorker magazine, returns to his alma mater (Columbia University) intending to take part in its Western Civilization courses that utilize the Great Books curriculum. His literary experiences and insights, as well as his interactions with "classmates" at Columbia, make for interesting reading. I strongly recommend this title to anyone interested in the Great Books literary canon.
An interesting set up. Denby goes back to his alma mater to retake 2 seminal classes which teach "great books". One of the classes is taught by a more conservative approach (his Lit Humanities class), the other by a fairly liberal one (his Contemporary Civilization course). He talks about the books, classes, returning to Colombia, the "kids" in his classes, and his life as a student now compared to his rememberances of being a student in the early 60's. I couldn't resist.
Pondering Pig Newton
I was enjoying Denby's book immensely, but htne I put it down and it was due at the library and I returned it and have been inspired enough to take it out again. Denby goes back to Columbia, his alma mater, as a 48 year old man in the early 90s to reread the books of their required Great Books course. It's fascinating to read his take on the books compared to the students, but also to see how much of our world has changed in just 20 years.

In 1990, at the height of the academic storm over the "Western Canon", David Denby, then a 45-year old movie critic, went back to Columbia to revisit the "Great Books" courses and see for himself whether they still had relevance in modern America. Denby writes in an engaging journalistic style, and does a superb job of bringing the works to life, and reminding us all of why they are important. A brilliant effort.
Very literary exploration of the "great books" all Columbia undergraduates read. Denby questions and affirms most of the books on the reading list, mixing his personal experience with observations about the literature and his fellow, and much younger, students. This is dense reading and best done in small chunks. Denby has me wanting to read Montaigne and loving Conrad all over again.
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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
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