GREAT BOOKS by David Denby


My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
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 In a coup of cultural journalism, a prominent film critic returns to the Ivy League classroom as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars. For this book, Denby, film critic for New York and a contributing editor at the New Yorker, 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 Homer and Sappho to Nietzsche and Conrad, all the time maintaining and meditating on his intensely cosmopolitan yet family-centered life. When Denby reads Plato, or for that matter Austen, he contemplates how the ``media fog'' to which he contributes as a film critic envelops his fellow students; when he reads Woolf, or for that matter Virgil, he considers the transformations wrought in his own lifetime by feminism. Denby's book will be easy to poke fun at--or to poke holes in. Academic leftists will note how after much anxious criticism of some vague group called the ``cultural left,'' an interview with an actual radical professor discovers only a sensible, if gloomy, argument that the great books are too hard for today's underprepared undergraduates. Conservatives will snort at Denby's epiphanies over a feminist critique of Aristotle's Politics. But Denby's mission is precisely to counter such pessimism and cynicism, and to capture the potential of such epiphanies, by honestly recording his own intellectual experiences. Such exposure takes real courage. And Denby's courage pays off: His thick description of what learning and teaching the great books actually means to us today puts to shame the facile speculation that has heretofore dominated culture-wars journalism. When Denby puts himself on the line as a student and as a person by actually reading the classics, his audacious humility amounts to a kind of greatness of soul. In important ways, this is one of very few truly good books on the culture wars.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-684-80975-3
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1996


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