Great Books

Stephanie Zacharek reviews David Denby's book "Great Books:My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World".

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published September 10, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

It's 100 percent admirable that David Denby decided to return to Columbia University (which he'd first attended 30 years earlier) to reacquaint himself with the school's core curriculum, basically a big gulp of Western culture by the likes of Homer, Plato, Augustine, Kant, Marx and Virginia Woolf. And it's understandable that someone with a job like Denby's -- he's the film critic for New York magazine -- would want to seek refuge from the media's giant maw. But "Great Books" -- Denby's snooze of an account of what he read, what he thought of it, what the other students thought of it, what this or that professor wore on a given day, and so on -- tries so hard to sell the monster classics that it bogs down. What's more, it's not just a paean to great works: it's also Denby's thinly veiled grumpfest about the culture that surrounds him.

Denby spends the bulk of this mighty tome leaping through his newly rediscovered forest of knowledge like a randy satyr. "Ah, yes. Zeus raped... Leda, who escaped in a cloud to... the underworld, where she gave birth to twins, Paris and Narcissus, both of whom emerged from her head eating golden apples and were so beautiful that Sisyphus, yes!, Sisyphus started at them in wonder...," he writes, trying to retrieve one intact myth from his memory bank. But his sense of wide-eyed wonder grows tiresome before long.

Part of Denby's mission here is to defend those great books against the academic left's charges of exclusion and cultural elitism, and he certainly gives it the old college try. But after the first 40 pages or so, you might find yourself resorting to some of your own old college tricks: skimming, skipping chapters, asking a brainy friend what the hell's going on. Although Denby's reasoning is solid, and the delight he takes in these books often charming, there's no avoiding the snooty superiority packed around his arguments like lard. He keeps reminding us that, as a film critic, he's not above seeking pleasure in pop culture, but he seems to shrink from that pleasure, too. "I read it without stopping, right through meals, on the street, at home late at night... and not a single movie image interrupted the continuous pleasure," he says of "Pride and Prejudice" -- as if movie images, any movie images, were merely unwelcome intrusions on the purity of great art. The great books may have enriched Denby's vision, but they've also got him looking out at the rest of pop culture through a pince-nez.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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