Great Books

David Denby, Author Simon & Schuster $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-684-80975-5
Does a great books canon exist? Left-wing critics denounce the notion of a canon, while right-wingers often use it to assert unquestioned Western supremacy. This superb book suggests an answer. Denby, the film critic for New York magazine, returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, after 30 years to retake the two core curriculum courses, grapple with the world's classics and regenerate his own lapsed reading habit. It is a heartening portrait of (elite) American education and a substantial--sometimes enthralling--read. His teachers are committed pedagogues, the students a diverse (religious faith separates more than does ethnicity) and thoughtful lot. But the students are young, and the book's richest moments are when the mature Denby engages with the texts. Reading the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, he feels anxious, recognizing the ironic truth ""[W]hat we avoid, we become."" Hobbes's comments on the state of nature lead Denby to muse on insider trading and the time he was mugged. He contrasts Beauvoir's call for female liberty with the ""Take Back the Night"" antirape march on campus. Denby steps aside to interview academics and analyze the debate about the canon; he acknowledges that white male critics too long ignored the likes of Virginia Woolf, but resolutely argues for the seeking out of all great books, not merely ones that represent excluded groups. Why? Because the ""Western classics were at war with each other,"" and learning to read Hegel and Marx, or the Bible and Nietzsche, is no lesson in indoctrination but the beginning of ""an ethically strenuous education"" and ""a set of bracing intellectual habits."" Author tour. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/02/1996
Release date: 09/01/1996
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