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

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  953 ratings  ·  106 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 1996)
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Emily Alp
Jul 26, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Feb 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
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
Oct 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Carol Storm
I loved reading these books when I was at Columbia, and I certainly agree with David Denby that people from all backgrounds can benefit from studying what are generally regarded as the key texts of Western Civilization, i.e. Aristotle, Homer, Plato, the Bible.

Since I agreed with most of Denby's ideas it was hard for me to understand why I disliked this book so much. No, wait! I think it's because David Denby is a lightweight pretending to be a heavyweight, a privileged insider pretending to be
Jun 22, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
May 14, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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
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
Apr 02, 2016 rated it liked it
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
Oct 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant. If you want to be a well-read person, this is a great guide to the 'canon', to get you started.
Nov 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 12, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2010
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
Mary O'Donnell
Dec 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.

Ericka Clouther
This book lists many classics, some that I've previously read, and some that I stopped to read before continuing with Denby. The commentary on the books is not amazing and veers off into memoir, but it's motivational and gives it the feeling of actually attending the class. Overall, I really enjoyed it.

First Semester:
Chapter 1- The Iliad by Homer (read previously)
Chapter 2- The Poetry fragments of Sappho (read 2018)
Chapter 3 & 5- The Republic of Plato (also read Apology, Meno, and Euthyphro 2018
Benjamin Atkins
Feb 12, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Richard Jespers
Nov 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Emily January
Aug 10, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Kimberly Anderson
Jan 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
Disappointing. I was hoping for a new reason to take another look at the "classics." He didn't offer me a good one and in fact made me less interested in going back to these and I ended just being irritated by his "rich white male" perspective.
Chris Via
Nov 03, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016, of-books
This book was extremely relevant for me, though our degrees of separation are at different scales: I am a 32-year-old, married, full-time professional, who is getting ready to pursue my PhD in English soon (in my "free" time). And I often daydream about going back and taking old survey courses now that I've got more experience and so on. So, I lapped this book up, sentence by sentence, living vicariously through Denby. Alas--halfway through I became a bit bored. But, overall, Denby keeps it inte ...more
Aug 28, 2019 rated it liked it
The book will undoubtedly give you an excellent idea of what Western classics are, which are most prominent and how they should be taught. The author presents an excellent perspective, mostly because it is based in actual experience, due to the fact he went back to college and took his classical literature courses again. In doing so, he recounts classroom conversations, opinions gathered outside class and draws from his newly developed deepened understanding of and relationship with the literatu ...more
Feb 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I started into this book because I wanted to challenge myself, wondering how far I could get. After all, what could be very interesting about a middle-aged New York film critic going back to school (Columbia University) to re-take courses on the classics--you know, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare . . . works that he was required to read as a freshman thirty years earlier. I read most of those myself, way more than thirty years ago, and I won’t say they were my favorite lite ...more
It took me way too long to read this book but that was not entirely Denby's fault.

I came very close to giving this book 5 stars, but unfortunately as much as I enjoyed it, as illuminating as it was there, were nonetheless sections where his opinions were too blinkered, too myopic. He saves himself by both admitting and even questioning how who he is, his privilege of class and race, may be affecting his judgement, but he still falls short of overcoming that privilege. And he also dovetails into
Jun 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
It was interesting -- I think it was kind of a time warp for me. It was written in 1996 by a guy who was 48 at the time (which I am now), going back to school when I was a college student. He grapples with the politically correct university that was emerging then, the stamping out of great works to make room for more diversity, the political grappling over whether the western canon is even worthy of study any more. These issues have all accelerated since then, so it was cool to think of his argu ...more
Mary D
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club
Read this for book group. Denby returned to college to take the Great Books courses. He briefly goes over some of the courses with snippets of text and his reaction as well as those of some students.

It did inspire me to do some additional reading of a few of the texts discussed but there is no way I have the brain power to understand something like Hegel - even the overview went over my head :( The discussions on Marx, Mill and Woolf were my favorites.

I did enjoy hearing how Denby had trouble
Pancho Pickett
Nov 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Well written but I had hoped for more detail, more commentary about the books in the course. A lot of personal reflection, which was to be expected, but the side stories sometimes felt like filler material. The last chapter seemed like an eternity and ended rather abruptly. But the points he made were spot on, and I highlighted many pages.
Jessica Morgan
Feb 05, 2017 rated it liked it
The book is not for the lazy reader. Still, I enjoyed making the effort. It is probably the only way I could ever afford to attend classes at Columbia University and take a guided trip through philosophy classics.
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Thirty years after graduating from Columbia, a New York film critic returned to his alma mater to study the Great Books. Denby's love song to literature inspired me to spend 10 years (a Homeric period: Trojan War--10 years; journey home--10 years) studying the Great Books.
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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.” 6 likes
“Just because a book is a classic doesn't mean it has anything to do with real life. Homer's ILIAD is taught at Columbia precisely because most Columbia professors have never seen combat. Daily life on the Columbia Campus involves no bloodshed, no sacrifice, and no possibility of recognition. Indeed, for most college students daily life is less like Homer's ILIAD and more like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW by Larry McMurtry. But who wants to read a book set in Texas?” 4 likes
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