Great Books, Great Ideas

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Denby
Title: Great Books, Great Ideas
VTR: 8/6/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is David Denby, film critic for New York Magazine, and a contributing editor for the New Yorker. Mr. Denby’s new book, published by Simon & Schuster, is simply enough titled Great Books. It recounts how my guest revisited Columbia College in 1991, 30 years after its humanities and contemporary civilization courses had introduced him, as a Columbia freshman – just as many years before they had introduced me as a Columbia freshman – to great books that neither of us as callow youths could possibly have imagined would these days alternatively be reviled as incarnate an iniquitous oppression and adored as a bulwark of the West.

Probably I ought to ask Mr. Denby now, How come? How come this change?

DENBY: How come the status of the books has changed?


DENBY: Well, we’ve gone through an extraordinary cultural upheaval here in the last 25 years or so in the universities. And many of the great works of the past have now become associated with a kind of oppressive social hierarchy which has marginalized women and people of color and so on. And I find this a very odd way of dealing with great works of literature and philosophy, but the books in courses like Columbia are now considered sort of guilty by association with power, as if any art that had survived had somehow, was complicitious in imperialism or sexism. In response to this, conservatives like William Bennett and many, many others have tried to rebuild the Western classics as a kind of bulwark of American values and patriotism which would keep communism or fundamentalism or anything else that frightens us at the door. I don’t think this is a proper way to read the books at all. Either of those ways strike me as political and manipulative and completely out of touch with what the experience of reading the books is.

HEFFNER: But in going back to Columbia, going back to the campus …

DENBY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … having the experience that you and I both had, how did you find the students dealing with this notion of the canon?

DENBY: They are, I would say, generally not interested in those ideological issues. They, first of all, they come out of a media society. Many of them are not habitual readers. We’re not talking about intelligence here; they’re very, very bright kids at Columbia and many colleges, of course. But they’re not obsessive readers the way I remember kids at Columbia 30 years ago and many other universities. So they have to be brought into it. Now, they’re hungry for this stuff. They’re hungry for big books and big ideas and big experiences. And these political issues really are not appealing to 18 and 19-year-olds. These are mainly freshmen and sophomores taking these courses. I think that that hits at the graduate level when, you know, you’re trying to find a little turf as a graduate student that you can stand on and you’re very much subjected to fashion. It’s one of the great shocks for me to discover that as a journalist me and my friends, other journalists, were more concerned with standards and with history and with tradition and with values than many of the academics.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute. Run that by me again.

DENBY: That journalists now are often more obsessed with maintaining cultural standards and so on than many of the academics who are at the cutting edge in the universities.

HEFFNER: How do you explain that?

DENBY: Well, they’re fascinated by pop culture, they find the work of the past oppressive, as I just said, because it’s excluded certain people. I don’t think it necessarily has to exclude certain people. It depends how you teach them. But that’s the sort of ideological slant we’ve had here in the last 25 years.

HEFFNER: Now, is this an argument against younger academics? Because you must be talking about younger academics.

DENBY: Younger academics have to make their way in a marketplace of ideas. It’s shocking in a way how cynical graduate students can be. They really have, you know, if there’s a certain fashion blowing, they have, if they want the approval of their professors and they want to be hirable, they have to read all the French theory if they’re in literature. Increasingly they’re reading more and more theory and less and less literature. And I have to admit it, I mean, it may sound arrogant, but part of the impulse for this book was that, just as war is too important to be left to the generals, I was beginning to think literature was too important to be left to the professors. And not all professors. The professors that I sat with at Columbia were wonderful teachers. But I’m oppressed, we’re all oppressed by this whole notion that literature has become so professionalized, the way that you study literature, and people are so afraid of classics. And what I wanted to do with this book, to say, No, you can read these things. You know? I mean, yes, you need a little help.

HEFFNER: Yes, but isn’t that the point? You give a great deal of help.

DENBY: I give help, and I received help. I mean, I sat in classes with 18 and 19-year-olds. And these courses at Columbia are all taught in sections. As you know, there are no lectures. And they’re intended to be seminars for freshmen and sophomores. And, you know, the teachers … I don’t think you can do this by yourself. I’ll put it that way. I think you can do it with a group though. And, you know, we have reading groups all over the country keeping literature going. Mainly women. Reading novels together, you know, groups of women picking one book … I wish men did it too. I mean, men seem to be engaged more in professional reading or just, you know, John Grisham, pleasure, leisure reading, light reading. But you can read classics in a group. You have to, you know, organize yourself a little bit. One person has to be responsible to work up a little background for a text. Now, who was Plato? You know? Get one person to give a little talk, and then you can do it. And it’s amazingly satisfying.

HEFFNER: Well, look, the Great Books Foundation, after the Second World War, certainly made that clear.

DENBY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You’re suggesting then that perhaps that impetus, that the thing about reading groups for the great books, as you call them, had diminished over the decades since the war?

DENBY: Yes, I think so. People sit and watch television, or, you know, they do a lot of other things, or they want to read contemporary fiction. You can’t blame them for that. But I was beginning to feel a little stale. I think that was the other thing. And I think a lot of people are sick to death of the information … I want to write a piece called To Hell with the Information Society. I’m sick of information. That’s the sheer amounts of stuff that doesn’t mean anything that’s piling in on us on all sides, makes us all feel inadequate and guilty that we’re not, you know, up with everything. And I was feeling … I mean, I love journalism. I’ve been a journalist for 25 years. I’m a movie critic. I think the movies are declining, but that’s another issue. I love going on television and talking to you. But I was also feeling oppressed by being within this media bubble all the time, and I was feeling a little stale as a writer. I felt that I no longer knew what I knew, that stuff was slipping away from me. And that was why I wanted to get back to the basics. And I wanted to get back to those texts which are the foundation of our civilization, which we forget.

HEFFNER: You know, when I went to Columbia more than 50 years ago … It was more than 50 years ago that I took humanities there, which is … What do you call it now?

DENBY: Lit Hum.


DENBY: Literature Humanities. Shortened to Lit Hum. Everyone calls it Lit Hum. The most distinguished professors call it Lit Hum.

HEFFNER: Terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible.

DENBY: Sorry. Sorry.

HEFFNER: Humanities A I’ll continue to call it.

DENBY: All right. Humanities A.

HEFFNER: There were very few students, very few of us who didn’t identify with the thoughts that you’re expressing now, the importance of this canon. What about today?

DENBY: I don’t think they know much about it. I mean, I went to a pretty good high school, I was prepared for it. I read a lot of this stuff in high school before I got to Columbia, then read it again. I don’t think they’re reading much of it in high school. They may read a little Shakespeare, they may read a novel by Dickens, but, you know, many, even good high schools, the literature teachers are assigning less and less because the kids won’t do, won’t read long novels, they won’t read long poems. So …

HEFFNER: I didn’t even read Dickens, our mutual friend, when it was assigned to me by Jacques Barson at Columbia. (Laughter)

DENBY: (Laughter) It’s a long book. It’s a great book though.

As I said, they’re not habitual readers, and they haven’t been introduced to a lot of literary modes. And it hits the first book that they read is the Iliad, which is a 15,800-line poem. And it is very difficult. It’s not difficult line by line, but I mean it’s difficult to concentrate through that kind of effort. And I found it difficult, you know, at the age of 48, when I went back, and did it. In a way, a lot more difficult than at 18, the concentrating part of it. And so a lot of it is very alien to them. A lot of it is difficult. Even though this is, you know, inscribed in our civilization, I think all these students in some way have been dispossessed. And I mean the white students just as much as black students. It seems to me that they’re all very far away from literature.

HEFFNER: It was so interesting to me …

DENBY: They’re all coming out of a media society.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting to me, when I read that point, made in a number of different ways in your book, that this was clearly not a matter of male/female, black/white, Hispanic/Caucasian, whatever …


HEFFNER: … that you were talking about displaced persons, the generality of the student body.

DENBY: Yes. Culturally lost, I think, growing up in this media miasma, not really knowing what’s important, you know, what values important, why literature is important. The whole thing has to be taught to them from the ground up. You know, why Jane Austen matters. I mean, now that she’s so popular as a movie subject, maybe there’ll be a new vogue of Jane Austen. But I’ve discovered that the girls were interested, and the boys weren’t. The men didn’t understand why these marital comedies, you know, set in 1805 were important to them, when they really, really are very important. And the whole social life as a trial, you know, as a moral trial, which is what Jane Austen’s about, that that’s important, has to be taught to them from the ground up, that comedy is a great instructor, that our delusions are the way to knowledge. All those kinds of basic things. It has to be, that art has to be recreated for them.

HEFFNER: You say that comedy is a great instructor. I wondered, as I read Great Books, I wondered whether difficulty was a great instructor …

DENBY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and I wondered whether the difficulty in dealing with these assignments was a great instructor.

DENBY: They are good at some of the most difficult texts. This is what surprised me. Like some of the most abstract texts like Haagel and Kant, the German philosophy, metaphysics. Because it was a kind of puzzle, and their minds would apply to it. But when it was behavior that was very strange to them, like Daido sacrificing herself after her lover leaves her in Virgil, in the Aeneid, the women were outraged by that. There’s a political element there that deeply offended them. The woman who would die for love. That they had trouble with. They had trouble with tragedy, as the notion that you make certain choices in life that you can’t take back. You know, they come out of: A) a media society, and B) a therapeutic society, where all these things can be, you know, worked out.

HEFFNER: I don’t understand that point, therapeutic society.

DENBY: Well, they think that everything, if you make mistakes that, you know, it can be rectified, it can be rectified through understanding, through therapy of some sort or other. And the notion that a choice is irrevocable, that once you go down a certain path you cannot take it back, which is what tragedy is about, that you are defining yourself through certain, you know, overwhelmingly powerful choices, that’s very hard for them to accept. They were deeply offended by it. It frightened them. I mean, it frightens 18-year-olds at any time, the notion that your identity isn’t going to be open forever, I think. But particularly now. And they do have a fate, each one of these kids. They don’t know that yet. You know? That they’re one person; not another. And there are some things you can’t take back.

HEFFNER: Well, you say One person; not another. And one of the themes here was indicating to the students that they were becoming, in dealing with these great books …

DENBY: Right.

HEFFNER: … who they were going to be …

DENBY: Right.

HEFFNER: … what they were going to be …

DENBY: Right.

HEFFNER: … really had to do with reading and parsing.

DENBY: It’s the old-fashioned, humanistic ideal: you have to make a self. You know? You have to become the hero of your own life. How do you do that? Well, one of the ways you do it, as Professor Taylor, one of my professors in the literature humanity course, says, is by reading the works of the past, and you sort of match yourself against Homer and against Sophocles and against Shakespeare and so on. And you don’t, you know, you partly inherit the past, and you partly make it up. And one of the ways, the mediating factor is great literature. I mean, you can’t get that from anything else. These books push you. They’re not idly selected, Columbia’s list. I mean, everyone has their own list. I don’t want to make a fetish out of Columbia University …

HEFFNER: Oh, you may. You may. I’m a Columbia man.

DENBY: Easy for the two of us, as we’re old grads. But, you know, there’s no royal road to heaven, right? There are many ways of being educated, and there are plenty of people who have never been to college, who are self-taught, and who are marvelously educated, better than either of us maybe. But Columbia’s way is to choose certain books that force that question we’re talking about, the question of identity. It’s no coincidence that they’ve got Oedipus Rex, who discovers, you know, that he murdered his father and slept with his mother; and they’ve got King Lear, and that they’ve got Pride and Prejudice, which is all about making mistakes and your perceptions of other people, and so on, all the way through the course.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting, therefore, that one could conjure up … No, that implies a level of indifference. Not conjure up. But work at drawing up other lists with not one of these books on the list?

DENBY: Oh, sure …

HEFFNER: And do accomplish the same personal thing that you want accomplished?

DENBY: Yeah. Maybe. Yes, you probably could. There’s something like 135 books have been on Columbia’s Lit Hum list since 1937 in one combination or another. I mean, there are, say, 20 texts each year. So many, many other things. I mean, there are fashions, you know, in the university, as in every other place. And there is also Columbia’s list, despite the fact that this is, in some eyes, a conservative program of humanities study, has been affected politically in recent years. Rabelais, for instance, who, the great celebrator of the body, late Renaissance French writer, gone. In his place, Boccaccio, who I think is more subversive; but that’s another story. Virginia Wolfe and Jane Austen were not in the list when I took the course and when you took it. Thank God they’ve got some women in there now. Sappho, a problematic case, because Sappho, great poet, the Seventh Century BC, or Sixth Century BC, just after Homer, survives only in fragments. Most of her work, there were like eight or nine books. Plato talked about her as one of the muses. I mean, she was very, very famous, and the stuff was not saved. It perished. We don’t know exactly when. I mean, it may have been sitting around, you know, on papyrus, as late as the Byzantine Empire, and then, when the castle’s burning, you save the epics, you don’t save the lyric poems. Anyway, Sappho has survived only in quotations from other people’s work. So, do you teach her? You know? Because she’s a woman or not? They decided to do that because she’s marvelous even in fragments.

HEFFNER: But the initial impetus was the woman.

DENBY: Was the woman, and to prove that a woman could exist in the classical world as a great poet, yes.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back to this question of the politics …

DENBY: Yeah. Sure.

HEFFNER: … of the politics of choice here. How did Columbia manage to hold onto its own in the face of the political attacks over the past generation?

DENBY: Well, they’ve got some problems. I mean, some of the younger faculty, graduate students and so on, are not crazy about teaching these courses. I mean, they don’t advance your career in any way. They don’t feed into any specialization, because the whole point of them is that you have people teaching all sorts of texts. And some of the younger faculty are not enthusiastic. But then a strange thing happens. They teach it once grudgingly, and because it’s expected of them, because they’ll maybe want to make a few extra thousand bucks, and they get all caught up in it, and they find it fascinating. And they get all caught up in the drama of trying to get kids to respond to this stuff.

HEFFNER: The best experience I ever had academically was – and I felt sorry for my students – was, when three years after graduation, I taught the other course, the other great course, the Contemporary Civilization course.

DENBY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And I didn’t know enough to teach them. I mean, my teachers had been the greats of Columbia in those years. And I’ve often wondered about this notion of using the equivalent of section leaders and graduate students for the great courses.

DENBY: Well, they’re taught by all kinds of people. I mean, they may be taught by a second- or third-year graduate student; they may be taught by a professor who has been tenured for 25 years. I mean, it’s partly the luck of the draw if you’re an undergraduate. And I’m not saying graduate students aren’t good. You may have been a great teacher. You may just have felt inadequate because you weren’t up on everything.

HEFFNER: I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know enough.

DENBY: Right, but you’re never ready for any experience in life, right? You plunge in and you do the best you can. Sometimes your anxiety leads you to do better.

HEFFNER: Well, let me – we don’t have all that much time left – I do want to get back to this political question.

DENBY: Okay.

HEFFNER: We know that on other campuses, incredible uproar.

DENBY: Right.

HEFFNER: And almost until the present day, there was backing and backing and backing away by faculties, by administrations.

DENBY: Yeah. Or the watering-down of courses, like Stanford’s Western Civilization course, which now has a little bit of everything and is a kind of potpourri of a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Columbia’s has stayed. Their notion is that this is not going to determine your identity, but you have to have a base underneath your feet, something to stand on. In other words, if you’re an African American student, you’re not going to, your identity is not going to be weakened by reading Homer and Plato and Aristotle. If anything, it’s going to be strengthened. You’ll be able to see yourself more clearly if you are in opposition to this stuff, you’ll be able to define yourself. And I’ve spoken to a lot of students, you know, who have gone through these courses and then in no way is their identity as African Americans or Asian Americans or women lessened by reading these white male texts.

HEFFNER: Of course, when I read Great Books and I read what you write about the students, I realize what a strangely limited group my class is made up of. I mean, the complaints about the nature of the student body in recent years, certainly valid when you look back 50 years before.

DENBY: When you went, they were all white males.

HEFFNER: Yeah. Yeah.

DENBY: Yeah. Yeah, it was a shock to me. I walked into one of these sections the first day and there were four white males out of 24 kids. I mean, many of the men were from Asia or from Europe, and there were many, more women than men in this particular section. The computer sort of gave us a lot of women in that group. But it was this, you know, here I remembered the old sections being all, virtually all, with maybe one Asian and one African American student. And it’s very exciting now to sit in these groups which are made up of so many different people. I mean, it’s much richer. It’s much better, really.

HEFFNER: You say exciting. Of course, tears came to my eyes almost when I read about your being so bold or so foolish as to go and take an examination.

DENBY: Ah, yes. Well, people who knew about my project kept saying, you know, Are you going to take the exam? They kept egging me on, like, you know, and the hidden question was, you know, How’s he going to do? And I thought it was a no-win situation, because I was 48 and I was talking about sitting with kids who were 18. If I did better than them, you know, I would feel like a cad; and if I did worse, I would feel like an idiot. So I didn’t want to do it. But then, I thought I had to do it, for the book, you know, it’s an experience. And I started cramming a few days before the Lit Hum exam. And then I read everything over again. And I thought, well, should I now read criticism and secondary text. And I went into the exam, the kids were all perfectly relaxed. That’s that they do: they take exams. You know, when you’re grown up, one of the reasons you want to get out of school is never to have to take an exam again. I found I froze, you know, I couldn’t write, then I started grasping the pen so hard my hand turned into a kind of claw. I had to beat it out to make it work again. And I finally got home and drank a bottle of scotch, you know, woke up in the middle of the night. I had a kind of nervous breakdown, in other words. It was the classic, adult anxiety dream. If you actually put it into effect, it turns out to be even worse than your nightmare.

HEFFNER: And you were a brave man.

DENBY: I also taught a class. Professor Shapiro, one of the Lit Hum teachers, could see that I was competing with them. I kept raising my hand, you know. I thought I would sit there quietly and observe. That was my original idea. No way. I got more and more excited. I mean, I was like a kid again. And the professors, you know, welcomed my interventions, as one of them put it, which gives it a kind of formal sound that I certainly didn’t … So Shapiro said to me, All right. Why don’t you teach the Jane Austen class. He gave me 40 minutes. And I think I made every error that every beginning teacher … I mean, I sort of, if they didn’t give me the answer, I gave it to them, I ran to the answer right away, because I’m a critic, you know, I want them to hear the right thing and to say the right thing. And that’s not what it’s about. Seminar teaching is all about patience and drawing things out of people so that they feel it’s their own.

HEFFNER: And despite their involvement with the training by media, what did you come out from the experience with in terms of your feeling about higher education in America? Not just Columbia.

DENBY: Well, I think that the higher education has to repair or fill in all the holes that are there. And I’m very upset that kids, you know, most kids don’t even take courses like this. And the reason that there’s such a fight over reading lists wherever there are such courses is the fear that they will escape from serious reading altogether. In other words, they will go into their major subject and prepare for some specialization, for law school, for medical school, for business, or for academic specialization, and thereafter they will do specialized reading and all the rest will be John Grisham and Steven King. That’s why we fight over these lists so much. Now, if the courses do their work, you become a serious reader in the sense you have a kind of reading life that should last you forever. That’s the ideal.

HEFFNER: But if they do their work depends a great deal upon the seriousness with which administrations take the notion of real assignments for students, it seems to me.

DENBY: Well, they take them very seriously at Columbia, and, I assume, at many other schools. If you don’t do the reading, you’re not going to get through these courses. It’s going to be pretty obvious.

HEFFNER: Yes, but don’t you find that among people you’ve spoken with about this experience that kids don’t expect, college kids don’t expect to get real assignments as we had in humanities, as they have in Lit Hum?

DENBY: They may not expect it, but they get it. These are very demanding reading lists. And they may not want to read that hard, but they do it. They do it. And then they get caught up in it. It expands, you know.

HEFFNER: We have just less than a minute left. But you say, you’ve said frequently, they get caught up in it. You make it sound – I hope you’re right – that learning is its own reward, in a sense.

DENBY: That’s the ideal. That’s the ideal.

HEFFNER: And it worked?

DENBY: I think it works for many of them. You can’t generalize, because some kids just put their heads down and go through a standard course and just do the best they can. But others you can actually see an awakening there. People’s responses in the beginning of the year were fragmentary and naïve, become more and more self-assured. Then when you see them the next year, when they’re sophomores, dealing with the philosophy and political theory courses, they are much more self-assured.

HEFFNER: Well, maybe somebody will let me go back and teach Contemporary Civilization.

DENBY: That would be fun.

HEFFNER: David Denby, thank you for joining me today.

DENBY: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And everybody read Great Books.

DENBY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Your book, and the great books.

DENBY: And the great books.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Comments on this program can be sent to this address, or via e-mail to:

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, Good night, and good luck.

One Response to “Great Books, Great Ideas”

  1. Tsewang Gyatso says:

    It is really enriching and informative. I like reading. I try reading classics and I haven been lost many times, and never improve understand great literature. I am very slow reader, and wishing to improve, so that I can read more.
    I am Tibetan living Queens, and encouraging reading in my community. Especially, younger generations.

    Thank you

    Tsewang Gyatso

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