August 2002

Jen Crispin


Great Books by David Denby

Great Books by David Denby is by no means itself a great book, though it is entertaining enough, I suppose. Being the avid bookslut that I am, I am always fascinated by other people's lists of books. "100 Greatest Books of All Time," "100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century," "Sixteen Books to Read This Summer," -- I'm a sucker for them all. So it is no wonder that when I saw this book about the controversy over the dead-white-European-male-centrism of the "canon" lying in a bargain pile, I had to pick it up.

The premise of the book is certainly interesting. Started in 1991, when there was much public debate over whether the Western canon, as taught in universities around the country, oppressed female and non-white students by excluding works written by any author that was not white, European, male, and dead for a really long time. The author was disgusted by such arguments and evidently railed on about it quite a lot, because his wife was eventually driven to tell him to "put up or shut up." And put up he did. Denby enrolled at Columbia University and signed up for two full year courses, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations. By the time the year was over, he had read an impressive selection of works, ranging from Homer and Plato to The Bible, Marx and Engles, Austen and Woolf, Darwin, and Beauvoir. He then wrote about his reactions to the texts, his professors' approaches to teaching them, and the response of his classmates, which were predominantly in their first or second year of college.

As far as Denby sticks to his own reactions to the texts, I generally found the book to be very engaging. It was where he wandered off into all kinds of theories about how whole classes of people live and what they believe that started to grate on me. It's clear from the very beginning that Denby thinks the argument that students could be harmed in any way by being taught from an exclusively "Dead White European Male" canon is ridiculous. The fact that he believes this doesn't bother me, but the way he addresses the entire political Left and all liberals as if they all want to see the Western canon dismantled and abandoned got old fast. But this was just the beginning of Denby treating very large groups as a homogenous and offensive whole. Most of these arguments against what other people believe are dismissive, and are rarely accompanied by an explanation of what he, himself, believes. The one exception is Denby's obsession with the fact that he was once mugged (in New York City, where he lives, and he wasn't harmed, nor did he lose his wallet, only his cash). After dragging the issue through several chapters and a lot of presumptuous attempts to explain the motives of his muggers, he finally postulates that the solution to inner city crime is work. As if McDonalds opening fast-food chains in the ghetto would solve everything.

Now that I've gotten that rant out of the way, I can get back to what I actually did like about the book. I appreciated that he wasn't too proud to admit that some of the texts were difficult reading. I was also impressed with how honest he was about the prejudices and preconceptions he brought to many of the readings -- and the apparent joy he found in being proven wrong. I of course found a few books to add to my ludicrously long to-read list, but the most enjoyable part was reading his reactions to books I had already read, which were embarrassingly few and far between.

How to close? I enjoyed the book, but I also flung it across the room on occasion. If you're willing to wade through naive impressions of Take Back the Night marches and slanders against every political point of view, by all means, read this book. However I am of the opinion that the only reason this book was a New York Times bestseller is because it had the benefit of good timing and a unique premise. It offers interesting impressions but no new opinions. You want to know what it's like to read the Western canon? Email Jessa and ask her to make it the next Bookslut project. Until then (maybe even then, I'm not that cocky), you're better off reading them on your own.

Great Books by David Denby
Published by Touchstone Books
496 Pages