In the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.
But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.
Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.
Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.
It’s interesting to compare this list with other canons compiled by different sources and authors. Harold Bloom, for example, has a list that stretches much longer and starts from the Gilgamesh epic and finishes much later than the Columbia list. The 60-volume Great Books of the Western World was another attempt to compile a canon (I’ve found these titles in yard sales and used bookstores).
And everyone’s list will be personal, influenced by his or her own background, education, social status and experiences. My own list, for example, would include Kerouac, Thoreau, Chaucer, Ginsberg and Frank Herbert – none of whom get even a mention in the Columbia canon (nor is Beowulf listed). There’s no point in railing over these omissions, however.
No such list will ever be definitive, and in fact every one is really an arbitrary statement, so the interest for me is how Denby himself finds the books. A New York Times review of his effort notes that even though raised in a different age, the popular culture of incessant media prattle and display has dulled his ability to read effectively and for any prolonged period, something he struggles to overcome:
Though Mr. Denby comes to revel in his two semesters of intensive reading and thinking, at the outset he discovers to his alarm that he has been so conditioned by television, films, popular culture that it’s difficult simply to sit still for prolonged periods and read. (Yet how much more engulfed by the media are younger people, like his son, Max, a young teen-ager, whose world is a cacophony of television, video and audio tapes, comics, computer games, Nintendo systems — a disposable pop culture: ”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.”) But the beauty and power of Homer’s verse win Mr. Denby over; and so through the Greek classics to the Bible, to medieval, Renaissance and modern times, ending with Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf (in the core course called Literature Humanities) and Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud and a miscellany of 20th-century political thinkers, including Lenin, Foucault and Simone de Beauvoir (in Contemporary Civilization).
His book and his conclusions have not gone uncriticized. Columbia itself has a reprint of a caustic and derogatory review by Helen Vendler. She notes:
His book is naive, amateurish and a folly. The author’s “adventures” among masterpieces suggest that one is more impermeable at the age of 48 than at the age of 18. Try as he may to suggest that he is growing and changing as he re-encounters the Great Books, his account suggests a man coming into the field with his mind made up.
Personally, I disagree with her: the book is about personal impressions and experiences, not an academic study or a political screed on the nature of the exclusive, male-dominated pro-Western nature of the book list.
What is, to me, most important here is in comparing Denby’s personal notes on some of these books to my own impressions – I cannot claim to have read them all – and thus to enhance my own understanding of the works and the authors. And also to see how he assesses authors or books I have not read to determine when or even if I will pick them up. I don’t give a hoot whether he has or makes any academic point.
What is also important is that writers like Denby and Bloom continue to celebrate the great works, to keep them alive and present them to a new audience. As Denby found in his own experience, it’s easy to get sucked into the pop culture world and lose sight of the more important cultural artifacts outside the streaming, gossip-hungry, gawking modern media (including social media) that turns the trivial into spectacle. It’s a reminder that we have more important things to do in order to keep ourselves civilized and cultures. Like turning off the TV and reading.