By David Denby
(Originally published in the New Yorker, Sept. 6, 1993; reprinted in The Best American Essays 1994, edited by Tracy Kidder and Robert Atwan)
Thirty years after he earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University, Denby returned to re-enroll in its Core Curriculum, a survey of great books of Western Civilization. The experience resulted in his Great Books (1996), which became a New York Times bestseller.
The book compares his experience of the “great books” as a young man and as a middle-aged one. In the process, it contrasts the college student discovering who he is and the older man, settled in a bourgeois life, who is rattled by rereading Aschilles’ realization that we all die, with or without honor, and must invent our own lives in our own heroic vision.
Denby also explores the debates over whether such courses should continue to be taught in modern, multicultural times. The discussion of what should be included in such courses and why speaks volumes about our society and culture and its own heroic vision.
The article provided food for a rich and engaged book club discussion that covered:
- Our own experiences encountering “great books.” Several members spoke of intensely influential teachers in high school who had changed the course of their lives by introducing these great books. By contrast, others of us had experience in similar courses where all the great knowledge of Western civilization was so badly taught that it had no more impact than reading Little Women.
- The futility and brutality of war. Trojan War lasted much longer than the passion of Paris for Helen. We discussed the parallels in Vietnam, the two Persian Gulf Wars and the American involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such involvements speak loudly of our national “heroic vision.”
- The status of American education. Denby writes of Professor Edward Tayler’s efforts to patch together students’ incomplete and inarticulate responses to questions to reach an understanding of Homer’s literary construction. Do we need classes to read these great works? Would we be better served by a European model of education where it is paid for, but only for those who can pass entrance exams? Maybe there are times in our lives when we are better able to understand certain works or need to revisit works to understand them in better depth; education should be a lifelong process.
- The thoroughly modern concept of creating our own heroic vision for our lives. Alfred Tennyson wrote about the aging Ulysses:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Few of us actually accomplish “heroic” things in our lives. As we age, Tennyson’s idea “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” felt heroic.
The Author: David Denby
David Denby (1943- ) is an American journalist and the film critic for the New Yorker magazine.
He holds a bachelor’s degree (1965) and a master’s degree (journalism, 1966) from Columbia University.
In 2004, he wrote a memoir, American Sucker, recounting his experiences diving into tech stock investing to buy out his ex-wife’s half of their Upper West Side apartment. (The ex-wife was Cathleen Schine, a novelist, essayist and literary critic.)
Allan Sloan notes in his New York Times review, “O.K., Sharp Film Critic, Not-So-Shrewd Investor,” “Mr. Denby is even smart enough to realize how paradoxical it is that he not only has a good, prestigious job, but that he is also in a position to make money by relating how he lost money in the stock market.”
His book, Snark (2009), focuses on the vicious humor that marks contemporary speech.
Early in his career, Denby was among a number of devotees of film critic Pauline Kael, known informally and sometimes derisively as “the Paulettes,” according to Wikipedia. He wrote for The Atlantic and New York before coming to the New Yorker in the mid-1990s. Currently, he shares film-reviewing duties with Anthony Lane at the New Yorker.