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GREAT BOOKS, by David Denby

by Caitlin Burke

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Great Books traces a school-year in the life of a 48-year old film critic who, inspired by the canon debates of the early 1990s, elected to return to Columbia to observe the western culture and literature/humanities classes he first took as an undergraduate decades before. Great Books, however, is not a great book. A cross between a rambling monolog and lecture notes, Great Books is a commercial for Western Culture as narrated by an actor who wishes to assure you of his deep and personal belief in its value, and just as believable.

Perhaps a personal approach is needed here. Denby assigns special privilege to the untutored response, even as he describes the professors putting students through their paces so that their thoughts about the readings are organized and valuable. What is valued, ultimately, is not so much the immediate reaction as the personal point of view, although it is not clear that Denby understands this even as he reports it. And it is easy to agree with one of the professors -- the content of the viewpoint is not as important and whether the student realizes it is a viewpoint, is willing to support it, and can, in fact, support it with the text that generated it. In this subtle way, Denby does place some emphasis on a context-based approach to literature, an approach substantially different from the universal-meanings and "right-answers" approach enshrined by the classical "Defense of Canon" view.

Would that Denby took context a little further! While it is certainly true that the kinds of books generally included on lists of "Great Books" are interesting to discuss -- our culture evolved from, with, and around these works, after all -- Denby wants to use them as Exhibit A in a case against the "Academic Left", an allegedly monolithic group that appears to want to scrap Western Culture in favor of the Babel of multiculturalism. Ultimately, Denby's call amounts to a plaintive cry that these "Great Books" really are a good read, darn it, neatly sidestepping just about every single useful issue that has ever been taken with the institutional promotion of Western Culture.

Denby is especially, even painfully, clumsy when it comes to women. The subtitle of this book makes sure to list Virginia Woolf as one of the indestructibles, but buried in the book is a summary dismissal of Christine de Pizan as "not modern enough" for Denby, who wanted to read writers much later than this 14th Century French intellectual. Apparently, de Pizan's clear articulation of the problem of internalized sexism, combined with her offering of retellings of traditional anti-feminist stories from the point of view of the female characters demonized in them, was not modern enough for him. Nor, evidently, was de Pizan's formal opening of a several-century intellectual thread about women and literature, called the Querelle des Femmes by historians.

Christine de Pizan doesn't seem to hold a candle to Machiavelli in Denby's analysis. That said, such a view certainly reflects some of the traditional aspects of Western Culture, as do a couple of Denby's other memorable attempts to engage with women's issues. He makes sure to attend a section taught by Ti-Grace Atkinson, a lesbian separatist, whom he introduces thusly, "She was a tall and beautiful woman, stern, rather forbidding even." A stunning demonstration of exactly the kind of attitude that provokes lesbian separatists, to be sure, although I like to think of Atkinson howling with laughter as she reads that sentence to her friends.

But Denby's comments are not always so benignly comical. Denby is eager to parade his liberal qualifications. He is primly disapproving of this Academic Left that wants to burn our books, or whatever -- admittedly this mythical creature is never very well defined -- but he wants the reader to know that he is sophisticated about the world, he realizes that women and people of color have had a bad deal in a lot of ways. And he goes to a "Take Back the Night" group, where young women are talking about date rape, because, essentially, he is sympathetic to these women -- who, for the most part, just don't want to be vulnerable to rape. His sympathy does not prevent him from criticizing them, however: "I could not understand why women should not take some responsibility, some command and control over the many stages of the evening up to the point of 'no'." So we are right back where women started: it's something of an improvement over "she asked for it," but so much for taking back the night.

Interspersed among these personal interludes are descriptions of particular class sections that report the discussions of particular works. Denby appears to be attempting some sort of introspection in these sections as well, asking himself, for example, why he seems to have such resentment against what he sees as the naivete and reticence of the students in these classes. His conclusion seems to involve a dissatisfaction with his own performance in such classes in his younger days, and perhaps it is tempered by an, as-yet-unplumbed depth of dissatisfaction in his current abilities as well.

Great Books is occasionally amusing but largely painful and difficult, as well as slightly diffuse in intent. The book is very concerned with contemporary and personal events, although it does keep returning to the texts it purports to defend. However, while not actually dishonest, the author's analyses are not especially interesting either, ranging as they do from repetitions of standard interpretations to slight variations, chosen seemingly for their "interest value" rather than their fidelity to the texts involved. For sophisticated and experienced readers of literature, this book promises a great deal more than it can ever hope to deliver, but then this book does not appear to be aimed at sophisticated and experienced readers. Nor is it likely to inspire any.

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