David Denby
David Denby
Great Books:  My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
ISBN: 0684809753
David Denby "Great Books"
Mr. Denby discussed his book, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, published by Simon and Schuster. Mr. Denby attended courses on Western civilization at Columbia University in 1991, thirty years after he first studied there, in preparation for the book. Mr. Denby outlines the curriculum of the course and recounts how the literature covered in the class has shaped both his personal and professional life. He talked about his experiences during this time as well as the role of such works in higher education.
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TRANSCRIPT
David Denby "Great Books"
Program Air Date: December 22, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Denby, author of "Great Books," what's it all about?
Mr. DAVID DENBY, AUTHOR, "GREAT BOOKS:" Well, I went back to school. I was pushing 50 and beginning to feel that I was getting a little stale; spent my whole life--professional life in the media and getting a little depressed by how secondhand my experience seemed. At the same time, my wife and I were reading--'89, '90, back in there--the culture wars debate and feeling that it was hollow and--and that the--both left and right were too far from the works of the Western tradition themselves.

Here we were hearing from the left that the Western classics disempowered everyone except white males; and from the right, a sense of these books as a kind of arm--part of our armature and kind of nationalist, almost chauvinist, like the Star Wars or something like that. And I thought, `Well, what does this have to do with reading Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dante, Hegel, Kant--anyone you want to mention--Virginia Woolf?'

And I was carrying on like this and my wife was getting increasingly bored with my descanting every night like that in the living room. And, finally, she said, `Look, you know, put up or shut up. Go back to school--go back to Columbia. They have courses like this required of all students. You took them, 1961. It was then 30 years ago. Go back, do it again.' That's how it started.
LAMB: What year did you do this?
Mr. DENBY: I did this '91-92--academic year '91-92. It took three and a half, four years to write the book and get it out. So it's been awhile since I actually read everything again.
LAMB: Where do you live now and where did you live then?
Mr. DENBY: Sam--same place on West End Avenue in Manhattan. We're about two miles south of Columbia, down the west side, not very far away from--I haven't gone very far in 35 years. So I'm a New Yorker. My regular gig is New York magazine film critic, and I'm in the media up to my neck. I don't mean to say that I--I'm somehow, you know, apart from this thing that we do. I am certainly not and I--I love journalism. I love appearing on television. It's all very pleasurable, but it wasn't enough. And I--I was pushing 50 and beginning to feel, you know, `Where's the rest? Who am I? What do I know? What have I inherited? What do I want to pass on to my children?'--those kind of questions.
LAMB: What's your wife do?
Mr. DENBY: My wife is a novelist, Cathleen Shine. She's published four novels and she's working on a fifth one. And she's a great, great reader. And she was a kind of provocation because she got--she reads right through an--an author's work. She'll read two or three hours a night. I mean, when she got into "Trollope," the marriage was almost over because you know how many volumes of "Trollope" there are.

And I'm a kind of scattered reader, like a lot of journalists. I skim. I mean, Dr. Johnson said that's the way to read, but I--I'm not so sure. I think you should read straight through if you can. I skim. I read essays. I read a lot of journalism. I read novels that have to be made into movies. And I had lost my adolescent rapture, tha--that--that intimacy we have with books when you're 14, 15, 16 and, you know, you sit there on your bed--if you're drawn to books at all--and--and--for hour after hour and you look up and there's--there's the--there's the afghan that Grandma knitted. Well, there's a red thread, there's a green thread--all right, back to the book. Another hour. Like that.

I can't do that anymore. I bound out of my seat after 25 minutes. I mean, all these little imps of distraction coming up from my unconscious, twirling themselves around the text, interrupting--I don't have it. I don't have the concentration anymore. And I--I mourned that and I wanted to regain it. And I also thought, `If I read these--of--a selection of books like this, they're very, very powerful works, many radical works in the sense of pulling at the roots of things.' And I thought, `I will come into confrontation with myself in some way that I need.' That was--thos--that was the impulse.
LAMB: Max and Tommy?
Mr. DENBY: Max and Tommy, my sons, 13 and--and nine; and also poised on the edge of this culture. And I--I've--I've writ--since writ--finishing this book, I've written a piece for the New Yorker about: What are we doing to our kids? I mean, there's so much pop culture, not that I didn't watch a lot of television. I did. But there's so much more of it, so many different ways of selling products. Are we turning our kids into consumers, you know, before they even get--have a chance to develop their souls? Are they consumers rather than citizens? There are so many ways that they are sold, so many screens surrounding them. Individually, none of these things seem to do any damage and you could make a case that it's all rather stimulating and everything. And, of course, I write about movies which is my regular trade. But it--it does upset me quite a lot.
LAMB: When you originally went to Columbia...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: What years were you there and what did you study?
Mr. DENBY: '61 to '65. I was an English major. They had a great English department. Then I went to journalism school also at Columbia. So I--I did that route. And this--it's interesting how different the students are. First of all, they were all males in 1961 and mostly white. And now it's 50 percent acro--across the gender line--50:50 and about 30 percent minorities.

I would say the classes are more interesting and more stimulating because of the multiethnic mix. I think it's an improvement. I think they are not readers, however, the way we were. We're not talking about IQ here; they're very smart kids. But I don't have the sense of intellectual obsessions. In the early '60s Columbia students, in particular--maybe all undergraduates in schools like this--had a kind of--cranky obsessions. They were interested in--I don't know--existentialism or Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler or Martin Buber and Paul Tillich or something--or bebop jazz--I don't know. You know, name your own. I don't get--unless I'm missing it, I don't get that sense anymore that they have those intellectual obsessions that the--that we had and that--and that they are habitual readers.

On the other hand, I think they're a lot nicer than we were. They--I don't--I didn't pursue them into their dormitories and their fraternity houses and I have no idea the--the way they talk there. But in class, I would say, because it's multiethnic, they are very polite and very eager not to tread on one's--each other's toes.

Now the problem with that is that a certain kind of blandness creeps into conversations. Conversations stop short of any kind of cultural or sociological generalization at all. They're--they hate the kind of trash talk they hear on bad ra--AM radio. And that--that's the last way they want to sound. So they go to the other extreme of blanding themselves out. That--that's the ba--downside of it.
LAMB: How did you go about doing this?
Mr. DENBY: Well, I didn't--I didn't formally enroll or anything like that. I--I went and saw the dean and I explained my project to her, and then she said, `Fine, just ask permission whenever you enter a class.' Now these--there are no lectures. There are two courses. One is a literature course that starts with Homer and goes right up to Virginia Woolf--used to be Dostoyevsky, in my day, then for awhile it was Joyce--the last Joyce.

Now Virginia Woolf--interesting shift in taste right there; fine with me. And the other is a social theory course that begins with Plato's "Republic" and goes through Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Rousseau, Marx, Darwin, so on--right up to the present. The--it's all taught in sections. That's the whole point. No lectures. Make them think on their feet, play them off against one another. Seminar time. Teach them what a discourse is, how to frame an argument, not indoctrinate them in any particular idea at all--not at all. But just what they are--you know, what--framing an argument might be. So I would go seek out the teacher in advance and explain.
LAMB: You had a teacher that taught you 30 years before?
Mr. DENBY: I did, yes. I ran into him on the first day and I was sitting in the literature humanities office, and he walked in and pretended to remember me. And he may have remembered me--this is Edward Taylor, an extraordinary man, and remembered--pretended to remember something I said on a paper 30 years earlier. I--I don't know. And I said--I said, `Oh, you're teaching this?' He said, `Come on.' That was that. Never left his room. I was there for nine months. And this was the literature humanities course, which he teaches as if the whole thing were a giant poem, as if he had the whole thing in this head. He's been doing it for 30 years. I...
LAMB: Was he any different?
Mr. DENBY: Well, I didn't take this course from him. I had taken a course in 17th century poetry. Yet he tends to be very mysterious and say odd things and put the students off balance and then draw them in slowly. No, he's just--just better.

And then another teacher was a young man named James Shapiro who was--had a completely different style. He would do a kind of mock, naive routine. At the beginning of each week, as we took up a new text in the literature course, he would ask the students whether they liked it. `Do you like Homer?' I mean, do you like--you know, I was sort of stunned by this the first few times he did it.

And then as their responses came out and so--and they would--were encouraged to be very candid. And they would say occasionally callow or naive things. He would then take those responses, turn them inside out, open them up, play the students off against one another, embarrass them, tease them like that. And it isn't easy. And I know it isn't easy what he does because he asked me to try it.

I kept raising my hand. I thought I was, you know--we're told in journalism school, `Sit there with your Steno notebook and shut up,' right? `Don't make yourself part of the story.' That was my original intention. I found it impossible. I was too excited, brimming over. And so--not in Taylor's class, but in Shapiro's class and in the social theory class, I was going, you know, `Me. Ma--may I speak?'

So Shapiro, sensing my need or perhaps feeling a little bit crowded--I--said, `Would you like to teach?' And I--I now know he was setting me up because he has written an article describing what it was like having me in the classroom. And I said, `Sure.' And it was Jane Austen, two weeks down the road, and I thought, `Well, that should be relatively easy,' because we'd been reading epic poems--Homer. And we'd been reading Sophocles and Euripides and we'd been reading ph--philisophical dialogues--Plato and Montaigne--rather difficult essays. And I thought, `Well'--and--and Shakespeare. `Well, now at last we'd gotten to the--to the novel.' The one--the--you know, the form of the bourgeois era, the thing that all students know. And this is before the Jane Austen movies. There'd been three--right?--in the last year. And I thought--but, still, I thought, `Jane Austen? Everybody loves Jane Austen.'

So Shapiro did his thing. He said, `Did you guys like it?' And it was very apparent that the girls liked it; the men didn't. And then he turned the thing over to me. And I--I was angry. I was furious at the men. I thought they had to--you know, they had to love Jane Austen or else they'd never grow up. They had to realize how important Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of "Pride & Prejudice," was because she's a kind of student.

And Jane Austen--it's--it's--it's a love story. It's basic rom--romantic comedy plot that people have been stealing from for 200 years. But it is about knowledge and perception: how do we read one another's characters, how do we read letters, how do we read each other--how do we read ourselves?--"Pride & Prejudice." And she's a kind of ideal student. And they're--they're, of course, students too.

So I bullied them and I lectured them and Shapiro's getting sort of tense and nervous and drumming his fingers and glaring at me. And after about 40 minutes, he called me into the hallway and he said, `You know what you were doing?' I said, `I think I was oversteering the ship.' We agreed this was a nice way to put it. And what he was too kind to say was that I was doing the the mistake--making the mistake that all beginning teachers make: running to the answer out of fear of losing control.

And he said, `Look, it's a seminar. That's the whole point. You can't just give it to them. It's not--and then they'll just feed it back to you on the exam. No, bring it out of them. They they'll possess it.' Pull it out of them, then they'll possess it; be their's forever.' So that--it's not easy. It was...
LAMB: You had another teacher too?
Mr. DENBY: I had Ander Stephanson who was my nominal academic leftist, a Swede from the socialist tradition but delightfully counter-cliche; wonderful teacher and it turns out he utterly believes that every society has the right to inculcate his leading values in its young students. And he would--spoke the talk, the--the contemporary academic jargon, and yet was very gentle with his students, nev--never indoctrinating anyone of--the notion that, you know, radicals are taking over the university and turn--turning out copies, I think is absurd. I don't--only a very bad teacher would do--would do something like that.

Of course, there were--it was clear what his values were and what his politics were, but there was immense freedom of discourse and he was very respectful of, say, the religious students and conservative students. All he wanted them to understand was that--that their attitudes were not just given to them. They weren't in--in nature; that they were something that had been constructed.

This is big left academic form--formulation: that the construction of social attitudes--right?--by--by capitalism, by the market, by society, by a whole series of other things. What they actually believed--and it was not his interest to argue the matter, but he just wanted to frame an argument. And we did--we had some powerful conversations there.
LAMB: Did you go to class all the time?
Mr. DENBY: I went to class...
LAMB: I mean...
Mr. DENBY: ...all the time.
LAMB: ...did you ever skip a class or cut a class?
Mr. DENBY: I don't think I skipped any classes. I didn't always stay up in the reading, however. It was hard because I kept doing my job as film critic...
LAMB: At the New York magazine.
Mr. DENBY: ...as--as film critic of New York magazine. And I have two children and an interesting wife and a normally busy, middle-class, New York life. No busier than anyone else's but busy enough.
LAMB: You say that you--I mean, I've read you in--in the book saying that you were a member of the SDS out in Stanford?
Mr. DENBY: I was. In 1969, yes.
LAMB: Threw--threw tomatoes at Ronald Reagan?
Mr. DENBY: I threw a tomato at Ronald Reagan at Sacramen--in Sacramento in--in--at some sort of--we went--we--Stanford SDSers went out to the valley with--with our Cal--University of California brothers to protest a--to--a slight intuition increase at this magnificent state university.
LAMB: Then I saw later that you called yourself, at one point, a neoconservative?
Mr. DENBY: Well, I have--no, I wou--would not call myself--I would say I--I'm a Clinton liberal. But I--that whole chapter, which is--that--the affair of the tomato, which is buried in the Rousseau chapter, is--is a very rueful look back at my abortive non-career as a '60s counterculture radical. I mean, I wa--I was a middle-class intellectual, or whatever I am, from the start and all of that was opposed.

But a few of the conservative reviewers of the book have seized on that one passage as if I were still throwing tomatoes at--at Ronald Reagan. And that's not the case. No, that's a highly ironic look backwards.
LAMB: The moment I think in the book that--that got my attention more than any other was your mother.
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: Have you heard that before? I mean, that is a st...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah. That chapter. Yeah.
LAMB: The--the--King Lear and your mother.
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: Why the comparison?
Mr. DENBY: Well, you certainly read these books differently when you're 47, 48 than when you're 18, 19. I mean, if--Lionel Trilling, a great Columbia teacher and critic, used to say, `The book reads you.' Turn it around. It finds you not terribly interesting at 18, perhaps it finds you more interesting at 35 and more interesting yet at--at 50.

And when I read "King Lear" at 48 when w--this time around--my mother had died just a couple of years prior to the beginning of this project, and she was this great businesswoman in New York and very loving person. But she--she got real tough after my--difficult for me after my father died and she quit her business and became Learlike in her demand for more love than I could possibly give her at any one moment.

And I didn't always handle that situation well. And I--so I had gone through--this is--and this is part of what the play is about: that Lear begins by demanding a--a--some kind of show trial of affection from his three daughters. He's an old man not failing in any way. As far as we can see, he's intellectually, certainly, all there, tre--tremendous drive and energy. But he's tired. He's 80. He wants to give up the kingship. Then he poses this terrible trial of affection among his three daughters, which doe--you know, `Who loves me the most?' Not a question we should ever ask our children. And two of them lie and betray him and the one who truly loves him, Cordelia, keeps herself silent.

So as I was reading the play, I kept thinking about my mother and myself and I--I--you know, and I thought, `Well, is this going to be vulgar to bring the greatest play in the English language, by common consent, into relation with my own troubles with my mother?' And I thought, `It's just--there's no law that says you can't do this,' you know? It just depends how you do it. And tha--and that's what that chapter's about, the--the yoking of those two and going back and forth between my personal experience and the classroom and the play itself and the way that Professor Taylor taught it.

Now I noticed the students had some trouble with that play because they still--are still subject to their parents' power. They haven't gone through yet that thing we all have to go through, where we have to be the ones to take care, you know, and to make arrangements. And we don't want it necessarily, but the power passes to us in some cases. And it's very difficult. No human being is--is prepared, I think, for that transformation in relationship to your parents.
LAMB: You describe in some detail how your mother died. Was that...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: ...a tough thing to write about?
Mr. DENBY: Yes. And mu--my father, too. They both died in New York very suddenly, and I discovered my mother's body when I came back from a trip. And that was--it was hard. Yeah, the whole--the whole thing was hard. But reading the play was so powerful, actually, it was a kind of catharsis for me, personally. It is--I mean, it's also an astounding work of poetry. Let's not make this thing out in--into just a therapeutic exercise. I think it's--probably is Shakespeare's most powerful play.

The star--the family falls apart and the whole universe cracks. I mean, there's a kind of bending and cracking of the whole st--the whole state and the whole universe. The animals begin attacking the human masters, everything turns upside down. It's quite remarkable. I--but it begins in this banal thing, `Which of you loves me the most?' The demand for love fro--you know, from an aging parent, so that was--that was one of the most powerful experiences of the whole year.

Then there were others. And I don't mean to imply that the 30 years difference between me and the students always lay to my advantage. It didn't, necessarily. We--we got to--earlier in the year to the book of Job, a great Biblical poem. And Job loses everything. Here's this middle-class--mo--equivalent of a modern middle-class man. He's fabulously wealthy, powerful guy with--with sheep and goats and--it all goes.

And I thought of myself, not that I'm wealthy, but I'm thought of--the drive to succeed and to build your family as a kind of a fortress, which is very much a kind of modern American thing--and how I was like him. And I was angry at the students at first because they made mild--what seemed to me mildly pious remarks about this story being just about spiritual testing and--they had no sense of what Job had lost, and I did. And I was having awful fantasies of the roof falling in on--on my family and that sort of thing.

And then in the second class I listened a little more closely and their remarks got a lot stronger, and I was--I was embarrassed because I thought, `No, I'm--I'm the one getting this thing wrong.' The last thing that this Biblical poem should be is an--is an inducement to--to any kind of self-pity, which is what I think I was feeling...
LAMB: You said that...
Mr. DENBY: ...at the moment.
LAMB: ...you were surprised at how much you liked Jesus.
Mr. DENBY: Yes. Jesus--not that I had not read the Gospels before; I had read them three or four times. But--I don't know why, but it struck me--it struck me this time in--in a different way. And I use the word witty, which may seem blasphemous, but i--but it--not if you--if you mean by wit s--an extraordinary intellectual comprehension and also the ability to reverse the situation and--and pull the rug out from under his opponents rhetorically, morally, spiritually, every other way.

And I sort of fell in love with--with Jesus and the Gospels. And I had to clear away all the dreck, you know, and I s--think of all the movies I've seen and--and all of the sort of sentimental representations of Jesus in our culture, how incredibly tough he is, how incredibly strong he is and smart, as well as the--you know, spiritually magnificent. So that was--that was a revelation. Almost...
LAMB: How--how--how religious are you?
Mr. DENBY: I'm not religious. I'm a secular reader. And--and I was fascinated by the--by the religious students. I--I wound up admiring them much more than I thought I was going to. The--a lot of them were very strong and--first of all, the other students were fascinated by them because they believed something, you know? So few of today's students do. They have a kind of derisive attitude towards everything. I think they ha--I think there's a--kind of ironic habits of mind built into growing up as a consumer, as I said, and that everything is for use and then discarded and nothing really matters.

For instance, a lot of them had trouble with Greek tragedies where people die because of what they learn about themselves or they die for a principle or--or the "Aeneid" or Queen Dido--her lover Aeneas leaves--leaves her--for a mighty reason, to go off and found Rome, right? And after he dallies in Carthage for awhile, the queen--she kills herself. Students couldn't understand that. They had a lot of trouble with that: dying for a principle.

And I--I'm--I'm glad that they were forced to read these things because they should know there's a grander life than contemporary American life; that there has been. And so when--there were students who believed something, had a literalist conception of the Bible. The other students were both respectful and a little skeptical and would try to, you know, argue. And it was very interesting.
LAMB: You said that the names of the teachers are their real names but that the names of the students aren't.
Mr. DENBY: That's right.
LAMB: Why did you chose not to put the...
Mr. DENBY: Well, I thought it was not fair to drag someone at a tender age, 18, a vulnerable point, into my spiritual adventure. They might be embarrassed by something they said 10 years from now and it wasn't fair, I thought, to--to actually name them.
LAMB: But I wrote down about 25 names as I went through this and I thought it might be interesting just to go through the names that you used and just tell us a little bit about these students if you could--can you remember them all?
Mr. DENBY: If I can remember.
LAMB: Well, it's...
Mr. DENBY: It's been awhile.
LAMB: Let's start with Noah Marts.
Mr. DENBY: Noah Marts is actually a good friend. And he's a graduate student now back at Columbia and--he's in history.
LAMB: Not his name?
Mr. DENBY: No, that is not his name. Oh, I'll say his name because he's a published writer. His name is Adam Shatz and he's--he's published articles and he is a budding historian and writer, I would say. And he was one of my heroes among the students because he was extraordinarily well-read. There was the exception to the rule. From a small town in Massachusetts, had read his way through the--his high school library by the time he was 16 or 17. I mean, you know--and that is--is a rarity at any time but particularly now. Yeah.
LAMB: What about Manuel Alone?
Mr. DENBY: He is a blind musician of Puerto Rican descent. He lives in New York. The Times has subsequently written a long piece about him and...
LAMB: Did they give his real name?
Mr. DENBY: They did, which I'm no--I will--I'll try to remember in a second. And he--he studied by reading the books either in Braille or by having them read into a scanner. Scanner would read--would then speak the--the words in a kind of bland, stentorian tones. I did go visit him in his room and--and he had theories about everything and drove the rest of the students crazy but--at times, but he was remarkably articulate. And, in fact, Noah and Manuel were the two students that--you've just named, pseudonymously, were often at odds with one another.
LAMB: Sally.
Mr. DENBY: Drawing a blank on that.
LAMB: Model.
Mr. DENBY: Oh, she...
LAMB: Red hair.
Mr. DENBY: Yes. She--she was a conservative student from a small coal town or former coal town in Pennsylvania. And it was interesting--and took a very hard line about everything. And it was interesting to watch her transformation. She was a freshman through the year as--I think literature actually opened her up and--not softened her, but gave her a more complex view of life as the year went on.
LAMB: How did you--by the way, h--here's--Lee--Leora Cohen?
Mr. DENBY: She was a Jewish student who was--who was fighting some of the Christian texts...
LAMB: She orthodox?
Mr. DENBY: ..during the year--yes. It's fascinating toward that...
LAMB: How did you invent these names?
Mr. DENBY: I just found equivalents to the actual names.
LAMB: Rob Lilienthal?
Mr. DENBY: He is--has actually been very successful as a graduate student in California and has named a little--a comet or something already. These people are now 23. When I caught them they were either in--18 or 19. So--and I obviously latched on to some bright ones because just among this little group here--and I don't know what happened to the woman I called Sally. You've named three or--three or four people who have distinguished themselves already at a very--at a very early age. So, God, if anyone looked at me as an undergraduate, sa--they would n--not have thought I would have amounted to anything because I doubt...
LAMB: Did you...
Mr. DENBY: ...I said much.
LAMB: Did you ever sit in the classroom and say, `These--this--that kid is just not bright at all' or do you have to be bright to get in this school in the first place?
Mr. DENBY: You have to be pretty bright. Some are very quiet and turn out to be great exam performers but just don't much feel like talking. And, yeah, this is true in any class. There are going to be--I--as I said, I don't think I talked very much. In any class, there's going to be about a third who don't say much, and occasionally an instructor will try to pull them out. And if he can't, there's no point in--you know, but what you don't want is voluble, unimaginative students dominating a class. And I saw, you know, instructors cut off students occasionally.
LAMB: This program will be eight years old in April, and you're the two--391st BOOKNOTES guest.
Mr. DENBY: Wow.
LAMB: And we thought it might be interesting--as--as I was reading this thing, I saw all the names of all the people that you read, I think.
Mr. DENBY: Oh, yes.
LAMB: We plugged in the computer and went back over all the transcripts, and you know, they have word--word recognition on there, so we counted...
Mr. DENBY: Oh, my God. Yeah.
LAMB: ...we counted--you know, most of the books on here are political in some way or another, but we counted the number of references to all the people that you write about, and we're going to roll this on the screen right now.
Mr. DENBY: Right.
LAMB: If you look up on the screen, you'll see it. And you can see that number one there is John Locke.
Mr. DENBY: Locke--74--how interesting. Well...
LAMB: We'll just go all the way through and come back...
Mr. DENBY: The basis of our civilization...
LAMB: ...we'll come back to Locke and then Marx, the Bible...
Mr. DENBY: The Bible; Plato, 28; Shakespeare, 24; Lenin, 21; Aristotle, Homer, Malcolm X...
LAMB: These are mentions.
Mr. DENBY: ...Adam Smith, Virginia Woolf--yeah.
LAMB: Thucydides, Hegel...
Mr. DENBY: Oh, Thucydides, six. We got--we're heading down towards the bottom here. Cicero--well, that's understandable. Voltaire, Calvin...
LAMB: And the--these names are mentioned...
Mr. DENBY: Oh, Nietzsche--now that's a surprise.
LAMB: Yeah, it's low.
Mr. DENBY: Hannah Arendt, Goethe, Hobbes, Montaigne--well, we'll get Montaigne in there again.
LAMB: Let's go back to Locke--John Locke.
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: He's number one, far and away, more than anybody else.
Mr. DENBY: How interesting. Well, Locke, 17th century British philosopher, wrote a treatise of government--second treatise of government, the one we read, a small but incredibly densely woven pamphlet about the--the relationships of property, what constitutes a society. He creates this philosophical fiction of the state of nature--how do we get out of it--and so on. And a lot of it--a lot of our notions of the--what holds us together, property and mutual respect for one another's right to exist, and also our notion of rights that--very important for Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers that, you know, Locke provided a kind of de facto justification for revolution. It was at the time of the glorious revolution in England that he wrote this.
LAMB: You say, actually, that he was--Locke was Thomas Jefferson's master.
Mr. DENBY: Yes. People have debated this. Some people feel that that's not true. But I think that's the general consensual notion that Jefferson took a lot in the Declaration of Independence from Locke. And you know, I would--I would try to use these people as well as learn from them, but also try to understand my own experience. And with Locke and Hobbes, who worried how we get from a state of nature and--to a civilization and what could propel us backwards, I thought about something that happened to me, which is being mugged on the way to work.

It had happened 15 years earlier, something like that, 1981, and I was held up by two young men at the top of the steps coming out of the subway at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in New York. And I--I played that experience through these texts because we seem to be at a time in this society when things are f--not falling apart, but where we're at odds with each other and we wonder if there--is there a generally agreed-upon notion of truth? Is there an--is there an agreed-upon notion of what rationality is and what its uses are? And I d--I kept doing that. I kep--I--I had forgotten all--that--that experience, and it kept coming back.
LAMB: You--you--in that chapter, you--you put Hobbes and Locke in the same chapter, but in all of these BOOKNOTES, we've only had Hobbes mentioned once.
Mr. DENBY: Well, Hobbes is so--sort of the primal conservative in the sense that hi--he came--comes before Locke. And his notion was that if we're not impressed by fear, that we will be at each other's throats; that man is by nature acquisitive and greedy and--and aggressive and ambitious and will take away his neighbor's property if he can possibly get away with it. And, therefore, when we climb out of a state of nature, we make--this is--again this philosophical fiction--we make a kind of agreement to give up our freedom in return for which we get protection. And I don't think Hobbes cared terribly whether Oliver Cromwell or Charles II or whoever was ru--running England, as long as it was run as--as not--not a libertarian and believed in--in f--that fear keeps us honest.
LAMB: Now you--you--James Madison came in second, but you only mentioned him on one page.
Mr. DENBY: Well, because our--our section did not read the Federalist Papers, but there were other sections that did. And I think, by the way, that since these--the--the idea of these courses is what has come from Europe to the United States and an influence to civilization that it would be an excellent idea for all sections to read the Federalist Papers. I would also even consider in the literature course, perhaps, in the last week doing a week on Emerson and Whitman.
LAMB: The other...
Mr. DENBY: There are no American--not many American texts here.
LAMB: The third one was Marx in our list, and you...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: Tell the story about the Kolikowski.
Mr. DENBY: Well, Lesa Kolikowski, a Polish historian of Marxism and a kind of liberal in the f--in the '50s--that is, an anti-Stalinist in Poland--who wanted Marxism with a human face, you know, and socialism with a human face, and was defeated and left and went to Oxford and then to the University of California and wrote--and has written a big three-volume history of Marxism, came to Columbia just as we were reading Marx, within a few weeks. And it was--it was after the f--the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending of Soviet communism.

And he was incredibly derisive towards Marx, to my astonishment, and just ridiculed him. And so it--it made me think, `Is there a reason to continue to read this--these texts by Marx? Do they have the same relevance that they would have 20 years ago?' And the conclusion I came to was just from the selections that we read, the early, so-called `humanist' Marx bef--prior to the communist manifesto around 1844, when he was very young, it's extremely worth reading and has certain insights into the nature of living in this kind of a civilization that we need to hear, we need to know.
LAMB: You said--you said that when he was speaking that some of the faculty got up and walked out?
Mr. DENBY: Yeah, because it's--on any--at any major American university, there are going to be a lot of people who sort of cut their teeth on Marx and who con--still consider him absolutely essential, whether communism has fallen or not, and they were offended, I think, by Kolikowski's blanket dismissal. And, I--I mean, the--the prophetic side of Marx is all drivel, but the a--side that's analyzing the nature of capitalism and early industrial capitalism is still very much worth reading for students, and I think some of them liked it. So...
LAMB: You say...
Mr. DENBY: ...no one is going to be indoctrinated, believe me.
LAMB: Are there--and this is this is kind of a thread you write about...
Mr. DENBY: Sure.
LAMB: ...all through here about professors. Is there still across the country in schools--is that the last place where they still believe in Marxism?
Mr. DENBY: I don't know how many of them believe in Marxism. It's just the notion that this has been extraordinarily powerful and is still interesting, and that it's--it's a text worth reading. There--there are--that--that it's an--it's a tool of analysis, let's put it that way, without--that you can't do without. So...
LAMB: In the same chapter, you have John Stuart Mill.
Mr. DENBY: Absolutely. And Mill is--has sort of defined our values of free speech and free--freedom of conduct, so long as it doesn't impinge on anyone else's liberty, and is central to Anglo-American civilization. It's a little bit depressing to read Mill--his great pamphlet on liberty. It's very tough-minded and much more complex, I think, than he's given credit for. But it's depressing because Vic--Vic--in Victorian England, the churches were very powerful and there was a very strong sense of shame. And he just took for granted that that's why he was able to say, `We should--there should not be any break on conduct as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else.' He was able to say that because of the power of shame. And--and when you read Mill, you think, `God, all of that has vanished.'
LAMB: When did you have time to read?
Mr. DENBY: Well, it was rough. I had to--I would read late at night. I would read while the kids were taking a bath. I would read on the subway, or try to, which was ridiculous; you can't read Plato on the subway. I--I g--got a little room at Columbia under the rooftop of Hamilton Hall. I would read before going home for dinner. And I was constantly falling--falling behind, like any student, and would catch up in--in big, you know, bursts. Yeah.
LAMB: More than once in here, you would say, `I don't understand a word of what that guy just said.'
Mr. DENBY: Right. And I tried to be candid about the difficulties of this because some of these books are very difficult. And the German philosophers, Kant and Hegel, whom I had not read much of before, were very difficult and I had to change my habits, really, to--in order to read Hegel. And I discovered reading him aloud was actually very helpful because Hegel's "Introduction to the Philosophy of History," the book that we read--this is 100 pages only and it's known as easy Hegel. And I would say, `Easy for whom?' This is--these are lecture notes, and they--he--the book was put together by--and many other Hegelian texts were put together after he died by colleagues and students. And they have a kind of incantatory, repetitive but--but incantatory eloquence that is much more apparent, and even the meanings, I think, more apparent if you read it aloud. So I would declaim that you cannot be embarrassed; you've got to learn to read aloud. Of course, any poetry sounds better read a--read aloud.

Homer was never meant to be read on a page, of course. It was chanted. Homer--it's not even clear that Homer wrote anything down. It's not clear--entirely clear to us whether or not he had written language at his disposal. It--he taught other people these enormous--if there was a historical Homer--these enormous poems, and then they went--they were--they were chanted rhapsodes of early--early rappers who entertain people for the three nights, say, chanting the Iliad or the Odyssey.

Anyway, Hegel also sounded better aloud, and I began to understand him at last by reading it--declaiming it against the late-night traffic on West End Avenue. And that was a lot of fun. It was like climbing a mountain and ca--and then falling back and falling back and then climbing up and falling back. It was--it was difficult, but I felt every muscle straining. And when I finally got to the point where I thought I understand--stood the--a good bit of the "Introduction of the Philosophy of History," I f--I f--I was very, very happy. That was one of my high points. I mean, I don't--I don't mean to make this sound like some endurance test, this whole year. It was great. I was--I was thrilled. I was--I felt like I was pressing up against the frame of my life every day, and I think that's what I needed at that point.
LAMB: Who is new--and I--you say that...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: ...there are some 130 authors overall, that they come in and out of this "Great Books"...
Mr. DENBY: In the liter-in the literature course, at one time or another, in different combinations, yeah. I think at any--in any year, there were 25 texts. But...
LAMB: I mean, of all the ones that you've read...
Mr. DENBY: Right.
LAMB: ...the new ones that got you excited that you hadn't thought about.
Mr. DENBY: Boccaccio. I'd never read Boccaccio. We only read Rabelais. There was a--there was a pes...
LAMB: Who was Boccaccio?
Mr. DENBY: Boccaccio was a great humanist, comes after Dante in Florence, and--and did everything. He wrote early kind of psychological novels, and he was a scholar of Dante. And he also--during the--he wrote this extraordinary collection of stories, "The Decameron," about young aristocratic men and women who leave the city of Florence during the Black Plague and entertain themselves up in the hills in a very decorous way: They tell dirty stories. Now their--their conduct is impeccable--personal conduct. There--there's a frame around the stories. And they're not being prigs; they're keeping certain possibilities alive while this awful plague is going--is going on. Now not all the stories are erotic, but many of them are.

And I had never read them before except, perhaps, in Playboy, I had read--stealing the magazine from under the counselor's bed when I was maybe 13, back then in the early f--middle '50s. And you know, after looking at Jayne Mansfield maybe for an hour, I--I think I barely remember occasionally looking at--at some Boccaccio in Playboy because they had these--something called `Ribald Tales'--I don't know if you remember `Ribald Tales.' They would take some classic erotic tale. And I went back and looked at Playboy, and I see that the editing sort of killed the fluency of the style. So I have no idea what I got out of it. I probably just went back to Jayne Mansfield.

But that was the only time I had read Boccaccio before, and--and it was how great a storyteller he was, how complex these little stories are and how frankly liberating they are in today's terms because Boccaccio had a secret that he let--you--you sense immediately that--that women were interested in sex. You weren't supposed to say this, perhaps, or they weren't supposed to admit it. Women initiate many of the intrigues in--in these tales that lead to earthly paradise.

And that was a surprise. And some of the young men in the class--in--in different classes--I--I traveled around because I was curious how people would respond--were a little bit huffy about--about Boccaccio, found--found--they--I mean, I heard words like `debauchery' and--and things that you would not expect a 19-year-old to complain of. And I think this--that--Boccaccio's been in trouble, you know, mo--through most of the 600 years since he--he was--been banned and proscribed and so on and on for adultery--for the--but I wonder if it isn't--the sexual activity of women, if that isn't the real reason.

So I found this--in our dr--sudden dreary sexual climate of today, where there's so much suspicion and anguish back and forth across the gender line, I've found this--here's a guy--a re--a real old-fashioned hedonist who doesn't think that sex is power; he thinks it's pleasure. That was--that was a--that was an eye-opener.
LAMB: You wrote in the Machiavelli chapter, `In America, a grown man or woman reading...'
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: `...at home during the day is not a person to be taken seriously.'
Mr. DENBY: That's because I was chased from room to room, not intentionally, but simply, you know, the--that normal activity of the household chased me from the study to the bedroom to the--from the bedroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the nanny's room, where I would sit on a bed with underwear sort of hanging down on my shoulders and try to read St. Augustine.

So, yes, I no--I don't think it's hard to find a place to read in the city of New York, an incredible modern metropolis. Unless you go out into the park, you really can't find anywhere where there isn't music playing. Some of the--the big corporate atriums--or do you say, `atria'? I don't know--but those vast glass-enclosed spaces. You'll be sitting there, and it'll be nice and then, you know, the--a sheen of Muzak will come through the plastic trees, and there goes--or if you go into a coffee shop and, you know, take that really strong-boiled coffee at the bottom of the pot, you know, then you're going to read Locke at last, and then someone in the--you know, who runs the coffee shop will turn on either ea--some easy listening station or a talk radio program. It's just so hard to find anyplace to read in this culture.
LAMB: How did you go about writing a book that you thought a general population would read about all these people?
Mr. DENBY: Well, I th--I've sort of said already I think the point was to make it as accessible as possible. After all, I'm not a scholar; I'm not a literary critic. I'm a movie reviewer. I can read a little bit; I can write a little bit. And I thought I--I have some talents for exposition and I have some feeling for pleasure. You can't be a movie critic if you don't in some way believe in pleasure, even in shallow, immediate pleasures. You can't be a movie critic without being a hypocrite, that is, if you don't believe in those things because that's what movies are giving us.

It's not that they can't go deeper; they can, and some do. But I thought that if I can connect the kind of excitement you get from a movie to the deeper pleasures you get from literature, if there's some connection between the immediacy and--and reflection, then I--I can attract--I can take someone by the hand and pull them into the labyrinth of one of these texts. Now these, I have to admit, are--are not--are rudimentary readings because there's no space, you know, to really develop an elaborate interpretation. But what I--I was very eager to capture the experience and the varieties of reading in this late 20th century period when I--reading has become problematic in some ways.
LAMB: What's been the reaction?
Mr. DENBY: Well, there's--there's been a very wide reaction. There's some, you know, incredibly flattering reviews from very nice people: Joyce Carol Oates and Sir Frank Kermode. And--and the conservatives, on the other hand, have--have been on my tail because even though the book is quite conservative in its--in its belief in the canon and the necessity of reading these books, I--I don't always approve of the ways people like William Bennett, Lynn Cheney and Roger Kimball and so on--other people--talk about literature, which strikes me as philistine.

And I think that--I think--I think it should be said that the conservatives pointing out that something was wrong in the way the liter--the--the universities were--were--were preserving or failing to preserve the lit--the literature and ph--and philosophy of the past--when they said that in 1980 and '81, they--they did a service. There's no doubt about it. But I don't--I think now it's enough culture war. There are too many people who are not interested in culture. They're interested in culture war. And if you don't agree with them on every point--and this is where I got clobbered--then you're dismissed altogether.

And I--I--I find that stuff unilluminating. I try to listen to both sides; I try to be as even-handed as possible. I interviewed left-wing teachers and gave them a long platform. I try to give the conservative case. I make what I think is the conservative case in some ways for reading literature. So I--I'm very bored by partisanship in--in--in culture. I don't think it--it--it's--it's proper.

And then there's been another attack by Helen Vendler of Harvard on the grounds that this is simply not the way to--to talk about literature. And--and she--and she's applying that--a kind of standards that would be appropriate for a graduate seminar in poetry, say, to what I'm doing, which is to--it's just to discover how freshmen who have never read seriously before are reading. So I think she's apply--misapplying a kind of very narrow and orthodox university way of studying literature, to what I'm do--talking about, which is a whole spectrum of reading. I'm not approving of everything that's said or every--every--every way that these books are taught here. I'm re--a reporter, and I am reporting on the life in front of me.
LAMB: How many of these books do you think you'll sell?
Mr. DENBY: Well, I don't know. There are about 70,000 in print at this point, and I'm told it's selling steadily. And it's not a best-seller, but it's selling steadily all over the country. And there have been four foreign sales. So it's--I mean, it--it has touched a nerve, I think. It's been widely written about.
LAMB: When you travel, what are the...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: ...what do you often hear from people when they've read it and they...
Mr. DENBY: `How do we do this?' they say. Well, there's two kinds of things. That's one thing: `How do we do it?' And, in other words, `We can't go back to Columbia; we don't have the time,' or any--any school. And of course, there are a few universities that have--all over that have wonderful programs that--where you can read classics like this. But suppose you can't do that. And the answer is you form a group. There are already thousands of reading groups in the country, mainly women, who are keeping fiction alive. Men think when they get together, they have to talk about politics or sex or--or sports, you know. This stuff is a lot more powerful than what they're talking about.

But the way to do it--mixed company would be best, a group of like-minded friends; that is, curious people who--who want to know what's in this stuff, who either never read them or haven't read--read them in 30 years. And then someone has to play teacher because you can't read a 15,693-line poem, the Iliad, without some expectation of class discussion, I think, at the end of it. I don't think you would--many of us would. I don't think I would have.

So there has--there has to be that group, and someone has to--to work up some background. `All right, we're doing Nietzsche next week, the "Genealogy of Morals"--it's an amazing book, not difficult to understand line by line, but very difficult emotionally to deal with because it does nothing less than challenge the whole basis of Judeo-Christian civilization. And some things went wrong thousands of years ago when we left the pagan and barbarian--barbarian ethos. We've been infected by pity. This is very, very difficult to deal with.

Someone has to work up some background. Who is Nietzsche? Where does his book stand in his canon? What were the other books related to? It's not hard. I mean, you know, it's fun, actually. You can just use the introduction, perhaps, to the translated volume, do a little work and then just get the conversation rolling, just to get people to talk to one another, and then it will take off because you already find each other interesting and you're probably already having conversations, not in a group but one--one--on a one-on-one basis. That's how you do it.
LAMB: How many "Great Books" courses are there around the country?
Mr. DENBY: I don't know. I decided not to--to file a report of this--this--you know, the status of Western classics. Let other people do that. I just wanted to report on this one experience. Certainly, this stuff has receded a great deal from--I mean, Columbia and Chicago are still doing it, and there are other places where it's an elective. Stanford has its version, which caused a big brouhaha a few years ago because it in--mixed in Eastern texts as well as all the Western texts. And those that oppose it feel it's now a smorgasbord which doesn't--doesn't stand for much of anything.

So there are varieties of courses. But certainly they are not as popular as they were 30, 40 years ago. And I think most of the arguments against them are hooey--the notion that--for instance, that you're going to lose your identity if you're an African-American or Asian-American by reading a collection--a selection of Western classics. It doesn't work that way. People aren't assaulted in their identity by reading a great work of art. I mean, art doesn't oppress people. Art is what we need more of in this culture. If anything, it strengthens your identity.

And I spoke to a number of--quite a lot of African-American students and went to meetings in which s--in which sometimes protest against these courses was registered. And, well, you can't generalize, but some would say, `Look, you'd have to ba made of stone not to be turned around, really, really knocked over by one or two of these books in each semester in each course.' And when those who--those who opposed them and said that it was part of a white oppressive Eurocentric tradition, when you got to the reasons that--of--for their problems with the West, and it turns out what--they were complaining about wa--was the failure in s--in justice, racism and slavery, failures of--of equal rights and so on.

Well, those notions are Western notions, that each of us has a soul, either spiritual or secular, and a self-worth developing and saving; that we should believe in representative democracy and representation. Those are all Western notions. In other words, they criticize the courses in terms that they got from the courses or--or from the culture itself.
LAMB: Are they required courses, by the way?
Mr. DENBY: They are required. So I thought, `Well, that's fine. The books have done their work then.' In other words, they're going to take the stuff, mix it with their own identity, remake it, reuse it, use it any way they want, but it's not going to wipe them out. I mean, that--that's just melodrama. I don't think it works that way.
LAMB: How did you go about actually--you know, the notes and all that in the class? And did the--did all the students there know you were doing this?
Mr. DENBY: Oh, yeah. No, I would introduce myself and make a little speech. And they would look at me oddly because there was Daddy, and then who was this other person, you know? Sort of rogue uncle, or who was he? But after a while they accepted me.
LAMB: Did you take notes?
Mr. DENBY: I took very, very careful notes, as much as I--I tried bringing in a tape recorder a few times and it--it's not for me. I'm--I--my training is to take notes because you edit as you go and then you--then you--you wind up throwing out most of it because there's no way, you know, of--of using everything that happens in an hour and 50 minute class.

These accounts of classroom discussions are highly edited and I've cr--you know, created a kind of narrative. When I do go into the class, I kind of make a drama, bring out students and clashes between different students and different points of view and my own point of view and the teacher's point of view. And that is a drama--dramatic structure that I slightly imposed. I mean, I didn't make up anything, but I may have rearranged the order slightly because this...
LAMB: How'd you...
Mr. DENBY: Go ahead.
LAMB: How'd you write? I mean, over the--you say it took four years to write it?
Mr. DENBY: I--I tried to feed as much of the notes into the computer as it happened, as I had time for, but wasn't able to because I was writing movie reviews all--you know, week after week. So I then waited till the year was over and sat down and wrote a very long chapter on Homer, which wound up in the New Yorker, which was a great help having s--having people respond to the work and getting some response--feedback right at the beginning of the project as--and it just took another three years to write and rewrite. It's quite long.

And I left out a lot of people, and I feel very bad about it. I didn't do any of the scientific text. I didn't--I didn't do Descartes' discourse on method which is so--so important. And I didn't--I ducked Galileo and Darwin who I love--whom I love, and I--I feel badly I didn't do Freud because it was a can of worms I decided not to open. So I ducked a few things and a few times I just didn't really respond. I don't think Goethe’s Faust, part one, really works in translation--any translation that I've read. To me, it sounded--seemed bombastic and crass and W.H. Auden had said that Goethe was a master of every form of German poetry from the highest to barracks, barroom, so I believe him. But it just didn't work for me.

And--and there were other cases where I reported failures of--and when we read Dante's "Inferno," not having any Italian, reading in translation, we, I think, were reduced in one of the classes to a rather doctrinal reading of the poem rather than a poetic reading. And there was a very striking moment when the teacher asked an Italian student just to read the first can--the beginning of the first cantor of "The Inferno." And she read and she didn't read with any great emphasis, but it was so beautiful I thought, `Oh, God, this is corny. This is like something in a movie. It can't be happening.' But I think we all felt kind of grief at that moment because we knew that, you know, we were not able to link sound and meaning. And we were missing--we were missing so much of it.
LAMB: Any of the students or the teachers...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
LAMB: ...that y--read this book t--and feed it back to you what they thought?
Mr. DENBY: Well, Columbia's reaction's been generally pleasant. A few of the younger teachers have been a little bit upset because they don't like to have their picture taken. And, in fact, I'd say many of us, you know, can be self-conscious in a situation like that. If you--you know, you're very--it's a tender time for them. They did agree and I don't think they're--they regret it, but their--aspects of the picture that may, perhaps, make them a little bit uncomfortable. I'm sure, you know, every reporter, also, has had this experience when, you know, you write down exactly what someone says and put it in the paper and they say, `I never said that.' You've got it in your notes, or you've got it on the tape recorder. People are sometimes upset by what they sound like when they think, `Oh, how will colleague X respond to that? How will colleague Y respond to that?' But I hope it's useful for teachers that--different ways of teaching these books.

I hope there's--one thing--you said what had people said to me when I went around the country. High school teachers came to readings often and said things like, `I can't get them to read. They will read John Grisham and they will read Terry McMillian'--very popular black author--`but that's it. What do I do?' And--and I--I w--I would say, `Well, if that's all they'll read, let them read that. But then try to work back. In other words, if it's--if it's Grisham and they're interested in--in detection and the law and so on, try to work back to Poe and well--and from there maybe to Dickens' "Bleak House." That's a big jump from John Grisham, but at least you can salvage a level of interest and work back. And if it's Terry McMillian, go back to Zora Neale Hurston, great black writer, or if they're interested in romance, go back to Colette and from there to Flaubert. So that's another thing many people said.
LAMB: One of the teachers told you not to come back?
Mr. DENBY: Yes. A young, woman teacher--I blew that one. I--I--I asked one question in the class and she called me and said, `Look, this is not going to work. Students don't like it.' Apparently the students had complained afterwards and I bit my lip in fury because, of course, she was right. And it was a certainly tactical error to say anything on the first day. But I sort of--I was bubbling over, kind of ebullience. I couldn't--I should have controlled myself, but I couldn't. Others didn't mind, so she w--yeah, she threw me out.
LAMB: Next book?
Mr. DENBY: I don't know. Someone suggested I write a book about Asian classics, which I think would be impossible because it would not be an act of repossession. But I would--I would like to read Asian classics, let's put it that way and see if I can learn something about another culture now.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called "Great Books" by David Denby, who writes film critic--criticism for New York magazine and is a contributing editor to The New Yorker. Thank you.
Mr. DENBY: Thank you very much. It was great fun.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.