Great Books

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  • Edition: Reprint
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  • Copyright: 1997-09-25
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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THE NATIONAL BESTSELLERAt the age of forty-eight, writer and film critic David Denby returned to Columbia University and re-enrolled in two core courses in Western civilization to confront the literary and philosophical masterpieces -- the "great books" -- that are now at the heart of the culture wars. InGreat Books,he leads us on a glorious tour, a rediscovery and celebration of such authors as Homer and Boccaccio, Locke and Nietzsche. Conrad and Woolf. The resulting personal odyssey is an engaging blend of self-discovery, cultural commentary, reporting, criticism, and autobiography -- an inspiration for anyone in love with the written word.

Author Biography

David Denby has been film critic of New York magazine since 1978, and is a contributing editor of The New Yorker. His reviews and essays have also appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the novelist Cathleen Schine. and their two sons.

Table of Contents


Reading Lists


1. Homer I
2. Sappho
Interlude One
3. Plato I
4. Homer II
Interlude Two
5. Plato II
6. Sophocles
7. Aristotle
Interlude Three
8. Aeschylus and Euripides Interlude Four
9. Virgil
10. The Old Testament
11. The New Testament
12. Augustine
13. Machiavelli
Interlude Five
14. Hobbes and Locke
15. Examination
Winter Break


16. Dante
17. Boccaccio
18. Hume and Kant
Interlude Six
19. Montaigne
20. Rousseau
21. Shakespeare
22. Hegel
23. Austen
24. Marx and Mill
25. Nietzsche
Interlude Seven
26. Beauvoir
27. Conrad
28. Woolf

Appendix: Earlier Reading Lists
Selected Bibliography


Chapter 1


* TheIliad

* Professor Edward Tayler tells us we will build a self

* The college bookstore; my lost attention

* Columbia students then and now

* C.C. begins: Anders Stephanson and the hegemony of the western calendar

* Professor Tayler teaches theIliad

* Achilles the hero

I had forgotten. I had forgotten the extremity of its cruelty and tenderness, and, reading it now, turning theIliadopen anywhere in its 15,693 lines, I was shocked. A dying word, "shocked." Few people have been able to use it well since Claude Rains so famously said, "I'm shocked,shockedto find that gambling is going on here," as he pocketed his winnings inCasablanca.But it's the only word for excitement and alarm of this intensity. The brute vitality of the air, the magnificence of ships, wind, and fires; the raging battles, the plains charged with terrified horses, the beasts unstrung and falling; the warriors flung facedown in the dust; the ravaged longing for home and family and meadows and the rituals of peace, leading at last to an instant of reconciliation, when even two men who are bitter enemies fall into rapt admiration of each other's nobility and beauty -- it is a war poem, and in the Richmond Lattimore translation it has an excruciating vividness, an obsessive observation of horror that causes almost disbelief.

Idomeneus stabbed at the middle of his chest with the spear, and broke the bronze armour about him which in time before had guarded his body from destruction. He cried out then, a great cry, broken, the spear in him, and fell, thunderously, and the spear in his heart was stuck fast but the heart was panting still and beating to shake the butt end of the spear.

(XIII, 438-44)

If I had seen that quaking spear in a shopping-mall scare movie, I would have abandoned the sticky floors and headed for the door. Exploitation and dehumanization! Teenagers neverreadanything -- that's why they love this grisly movie trash! Yet here is the image at the beginning of Western literature, and in its most famous book.

The quivering spear was hair-raising, though there were even more frightening images: eyeballs spitted on the ends of spears and held aloft in triumph, a blade entering at the mouth "so that the brazen spearhead smashed its way clean through below the brain in an upward stroke, and the white bones splintered." Homer records these mutilations with an apparent physical relish that suddenly gives way to bitter sorrow (this is one way the images differ from those in horror movies) and to a yearning for ordinary life, a caress of nostalgia slipped into the mesmerizing catastrophe before us. The exultant violence is shot through with the most profound dismay. The Greeks, camped outside the walls of Troy, are far from home, but home, and everything lovely, proper, and comforting that might happen there, is evoked in heartbreaking flashes. There is the case of

Simoeisios in his stripling's beauty, whom once his mother descending from Ida bore beside the banks of Simoeis when she had followed her father and mother to tend the sheep-flocks.

Therefore they called him Simoeisios; but he could not render again the care of his dear parents; he was short-lived, beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Aias, who struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.

He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some blackpoplar...

(IV, 472-82)

The nipple of therightbreast. Homer in his terrifying exactness tells us where the spear comes in and goes out, what limbs are severed; he tells us that the dead will not return to rich soil, they will not take care of elderly parents, receive pleasure from their young wives. His explicitness has a finality beyond all illusion. In the end, the war (promoted by the gods) will consume almost all of them, Greeks and Trojans alike, sweeping on year after year, in battle after battle -- a mystery in its irresistible momentum, its profoundly absorbing moment-to-moment activity and overall meaninglessness. First one side drives forward, annihilates hundreds, and is on the edge of victory. Then, a few days later, inspired by some god's trick or phantasm -- a prod to the sluggish brain of an exhausted warrior -- the other side recovers, advances, and carries all before it. When the poem opens, this movement back and forth has been going on for more than nine years.

The teacher, a small, compact man, about sixty, walked into the room, and wrote some initials on the board:





While most of us tried to figure them out (I had no trouble with the first two, made a lame joke to myself about the third, and was stumped by the fourth), he turned, looking around the class, and said ardently, almost imploringly, "We've only got a year together...." His tone was pleading and mournful, a lover who feared he might be thwarted. There was an alarming pause. A few students, embarrassed, looked down, and then he said: "This course has been under attack for thirty years. People have said" -- pointing to the top set of initials -- "the writers are all white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It's not true, but it doesn't matter. They've said they were all Dead White Males; it's not true, but it doesn't matter. That it's all Western civilization. That's not quite true either -- there are many Western civilizations -- but it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is this."

He looked at us, then turned back to the board, considering the initials "DGSI" carefully, respectfully, and rubbed his chin. "Don't Get Sucked In," he said at last. Another pause, and I noticed the girl sitting next to me, who has wild frizzed hair and a mass of acne on her chin and forehead, opening her mouth in panic. Others were smiling. They were freshmen -- sorry,first-year students-- and not literature majors necessarily, but a cross-section of students, and therefore future lawyers, accountants, teachers, businessmen, politicians, TV producers, doctors, poets, layabouts. They were taking Lit Hum, a required course that almost all students at Columbia take the first year of school. This may have been the first teacher the students had seen in college. He wasn't making it easy on them.

"Don't get sucked in by false ideas," he said. "You're not here for political reasons. You're here for very selfish reasons. You're here to build a self. You create a self, you don't inherit it. One way you create it is out of the past. Look, if you find theIliaddull or invidious or a glorification of war, you're right. It's a poem in your mind; let it take shape in your mind. The women are honor gifts. They're war booty, like tripods. Less than tripods. If any male reading this poem treated women on campus as chattel, it would be very strange. I also trust you to read this and not go out and hack someone to pieces."

Ah, a hipster, I thought. He admitted the obvious charges in order to minimize them. And he said nothing about transcendental values, supreme masterpieces of the West, and the rest of that.We're here for selfish reasons.The voice was pleasant but odd -- baritonal, steady, but with traces of mockery garlanding the short, definitive sentences. The intonations drooped, as if he were laying black crepe around his words. A hipster wit. He nearly droned, but there were little surprises -- ideas insinuated into corners, a sudden expansion of feeling. He had sepulchral charm, like one of Shakespeare's solemnly antic clowns.

I remembered him well enough: Edward Tayler, professor of English. I had taken a course with him twenty-nine years earlier (he was a young assistant professor then), a course in seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry, which was then part of the sequence required for English majors at Columbia, and I recalled being baffled as much as intrigued by his manner, which definitely tended toward the cryptic. He was obviously brilliant, but he liked to jump around, keep students off balance, hint and retreat; I learned a few things about Donne and Marvell, and left the class with a sigh of relief. In the interim, he had become famous as a teacher and was now the sonorously titled Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities -- the moniker was derived from Columbia's most famous English literature professor, a great figure when I was there in the early sixties.

"The Hermeneutic Circle," Tayler was saying. "That's what Wilhelm Dilthey called it. You don't know what to do with the details unless you have a grip on the structure; and at the same time, you don't know what to do with the structure unless you know the details. It's true in life and in literature. The Hermeneutic Circle. It's a vicious circle. Look, we have only a year together. You have to read. There's nothing you'll do in your four years at Columbia that's more important for selfish reasons than reading the books of this course."

Could they become selves? From my position along the side of the classroom, I sneaked a look. At the moment they looked more like lumps, uncreated first-year students. The men sat with legs stretched all the way out, eyes down on their notes. Some wore caps turned backward. They were eighteen, maybe nineteen. In their T-shirts, jeans, and turned-around caps, they had a summer-camp thickness, like counselors just back from a hike with ten-year-olds.Give me a beer.The women, many of them also in T-shirts, their hair gathered at the back with a rubber band, were more directly attentive; they looked at Tayler, but they looked blankly.

Tayler handed out a sheet with some quotations. At the top of the page were some verses from the beginning of Genesis.

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: And God

divided the light from the darkness....And God said,

Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,

and let it divide the waters from the waters.

"You may not believe that God created the universe," Tayler said, mournful, sepulchral, "but, anyway, look what God is doing in this passage. He's setting up opposites. Which is something we do all the time in life. Moral opposites flow from binary opposites. There are people you touch, and people you don't touch. Every choice is an exclusion. How do you escape the binary bind? Look, St. Augustine, whom we'll read later, says that before the Fall there were no involuntary actions. Before the Fall, Adam never had an involuntary erection." Pause, pause..."If Adam and Eve wanted to do something, they did it. But you guys are screwed up; you're in trouble. There's a discrepancy between what you want to do and what you ought to do. You want to go out and have a beer with friends, and you have to force yourself through a series of battles. After the Fall, you fall into dualities."

There were other quotations on the sheet, including one from John Milton, but Tayler didn't say right then what their significance might be. He looked around. Was anyone getting it? Maybe. Was I? We would see. Then he turned all loverlike and earnest once more. And he said it again.

"Look, keep a finger on your psychic pulse as you go. This is a very selfish enterprise."

By the time the action of theIliadbegins, the deed that set off the whole chain of events -- a man making off with another man's wife -- is barely mentioned by the participants. Homer, chanting his poetry to groups of listeners, must have expected everyone to know the outrageous old tale. Years earlier, Paris, a prince of Troy, visiting the house of the Greek king Menelaus, took away, with her full consent, Helen, the king's beautiful wife. Agamemnon, the brother of the cuckold, then put together a loose federation of kings and princes whose forces voyaged to Troy and laid siege to the city, intending to punish the proud inhabitants and reclaim Helen. But after more than nine years of warfare, the foolish act of sexual abandonment that set the whole cataclysm in motion has been largely forgotten. By this time, Helen, abashed, considers herself merely a slut (her embarrassed appearance on the walls of Troy is actually something of a letdown), and Paris, her second "husband," more a lover than a fighter, barely comes out to the battlefield. When he does come out, and he and Menelaus fight a duel, the gods muddy the outcome, and the war goes on. After nine years, the war itself is causing the war.

How can a book make one feel injured and exhilarated at the same time? What's shocking about theIliadis that the cruelty and the nobility of it seem to grow out of each other, like the good and evil twins of some malign fantasy who together form a single unstable and frightening personality. After all, Western literature begins with a quarrel between two arrogant pirates over booty. At the beginning of the poem, the various tribes of the Greeks (whom Homer calls Achaeans -- Greece wasn't a national identity in his time), the various tribes assembled before the walls of Troy are on the verge of disaster. Agamemnon, their leader, the most powerful of the kings, has kidnapped and taken as a mistress from a nearby city a young woman, the daughter of one of Apollo's priests; Apollo has angrily retaliated by bringing down a plague on the Greeks. A peevish, bullying king, unsteady in command, Agamemnon, under pressure from the other leaders, angrily gives the girl back to her father. But then, demanding compensation, he takes for himself the slave mistress of Achilles, his greatest warrior. The women are passed around like gold pieces or helmets. Achilles is so outraged by this bit of plundering within the ranks that he comes close to killing the king, a much older man. Restraining himself at the last minute, he retires from the combat and prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, for the defeat of his own side; he then sits in his tent playing a lyre and "singing of men's fame" (i.e., his own) as his friends get cut up by the Trojans. What follows is a series of battles whose savagery remains without parallel in our literature.

It is almost too much, an extreme and bizarre work of literary art at the very beginning of Western literary art. One wants to rise to it, taking it full in the face, for the poem depicts life at its utmost, a nearly ceaseless activity of marshaling, deploying, advancing, and fleeing, spelled by peaceful periods so strenuous -- the councils and feasts and games -- that they hardly seem like relief at all. Reading the poem in its entirety is like fronting a storm that refuses to slacken or die. At first, I had to fight my way through it; I wasn't bored but I was rebellious, my attention a bucking horse unwilling to submit to the harness. It was too long, I thought, too brutal and repetitive and, for all its power as a portrait of war, strangely distant from us. Where wasHomerin all this? He was everywhere, selecting and shaping the material, but he was nowhere as a palpable presence, a consciousness, and for the modern reader his absence was appalling. No one tells us how to react to the brutalities or to anything else. We are on our own. Movie-fed, I wasn't used to working so hard, and as I sat on my sofa at home, reading, my body, in daydreams, kept leaping away from the seat and into the bedroom, where I would sink into bed and turn on the TV, or to the kitchen, where I would open the fridge. Mentally, I would pull myself back, and eventually I settled down and read and read, though for a long time I remained out of balance and sore.

Other men may have more active recollections -- scoring a goal, kissing a girl at the homecoming game, all that autumn-air, pocket-flask, Scott Fitzgerald stuff -- but my sweetest memory of college is on the nuzzling, sedate side. At the beginning of each semester, I would stand before the books required for my courses, prolonging the moment, like a kid looking through the store window at a bicycle he knows his parents will buy for him. I would soon possess these things, but the act of buying them could be put off. Why rush it? The required books for each course were laid out in shelves in the college bookstore. I would stare at them a long time, lifting them, turning through the pages, pretending I didn't reallyneedthis one or that, laying it down and then picking it up again. If no one was looking, I would even smell a few of them and feel the pages -- I had a thing about the physical nature of books, and I was happy when I realized that my idol, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson, was obsessed with books as sensuous objects.

Obviously, it wasn't just learning that excited me but theideaof reading the big books, the promise of enlargement, the adventure of strangeness. Reading has within it a collector's passion, the desire to possess: I would swallow the whole store. Reality never entered into this. The difficulty or tedium of the books, the droning performance of the teacher -- I might even have spent the entire previous semester in a self-absorbed funk, but I roused myself at the beginning of the new semester for the wonderful ritual of the bookstore. Each time I stood there, I saw myself serenely absorbing everything, though I was such an abominably slow reader, chewing until the flavor was nearly gone, that I never quite got around to completing the reading list of any course.

And so it has been ever since. Walking home from midtown Manhattan, I am drawn haplessly to a bookstore -- Coliseum Books, at Broadway and Fifty-seventh, will do -- where I will buy two or three books, which then, often enough, sit on my shelves for years, unread or partly read, until finally, trying to look something up, I will pull one or another out, bewildered that I have it. I like toownthem: I had grown into a book-buyer but not always a book-reader; a boon to the book trade, perhaps, but not a boon to myself.

Reading, after eating and sex one of the most natural, central, and satisfying of all acts, had amazingly become a vexed experience. I read a great deal, sometimes I read all day long, but most of the stuff was journalism, essays, criticism, or novels that had been adapted into movies and that I needed to check out before writing my film reviews forNew Yorkmagazine, or books by writers whom I never missed (Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John le Carré) and whose work seems less like something new than a reacquaintance with trusted friends. But what did Iread?I mean read seriously? Reading Marcel Proust'sSwann's Waywas a rapturous experience not likely to be succeeded by the rest ofRemembrance of Things Past.At least, not in my present state of distraction. To read anything as densely, lusciously detailed as Proust, you have to set aside a special time, at least an hour of quiet, and though there were people I know who got up early to read Proust or even a decent new American novel, I can't get myself up early, and if I could, I would make coffee and read theTimesin peace before the boys hit the kitchen. My wife, whose life was certainly as disrupted and jangled as mine, still read a great deal, book after book, sometimes plowing straight through an author's entire work. But I no longer had the concentration or the discipline for serious reading; I had lost the habit of just falling into something the way real readers do, devouring it on the bus, in the tub, at a lunch counter. Movies more than satisfied my desire for trash, but when I picked up a serious book, my concentration often wandered after twenty pages. I wanted to read it, but vagrant thoughts came charging in, and the words from the book got caught at a bottleneck leading to my attention. My rhythm had changed. I was a moviegoer, a magazine-reader, a CNN-watcher. Following a breaking story on CNN, I would watch updates at certain points of the day, and then pick up the story again when a car alarm woke me in the middle of the night, then catch the denouement in the morning. This business of being "informed" could be almost nightmarish: If you stayed with a story long enough, you began to feel as if you were a ball rolling over and over, or the hands of a clock coming back to the same point.

Going back to school would force me to read the whole shelf in the bookstore. By going back, I would not be searching for my youth -- a ghoulish thought. Youth, I now saw, was the most overpraised time of life. You can't watch your own kids playing when you're young, or enjoy power, and the money you spend belongs to your parents. I dawdled and stumbled through the early part of my life and enjoyed the prerogatives of middle age, but I longed for...anotherchance,another time spent reading seriously, another shot at school. I was sick of not really knowing anything; I longed to submit myself to something larger than my career.

At the age of forty-eight, I stood in front of the shelves in Columbia's bookstore at 115th Street and Broadway, a larger and better-lit place than the store in my day, which was so tightly packed one never got away from that slightly sweet smell that new books have. I was absurdly excited. There they were, the books for the Lit Hum and C.C. courses: the two thick volumes of Homer; the elegant Penguin editions of Aeschylus and Hobbes, with their black borders and uniform typeface; the rather severe-looking academic editions of Plato and Locke, all business, with no designs on the cover or back, just the titles, and within, rows of virtuously austere type. They were as densely printed as law-books. I was thrilled by the possibility that they might bedifficult.I would read; I would study; I would sit with teenagers.

Can Achilles really be the first great hero of our literature? He seems a fool, an infantile narcissist. The first word of Western literature ismenin-- in old Greek, "rage" or "wrath." Homer means Achilles' rage, the kind of rage that has an element of divine fury in it and that destroys armies and breaks cities. But to us (though not to the early Greeks), Achilles' anger seems less divine than vain and egotistical. His war booty has been stolen by another man, and he sits sulking in his tent. Is the immense size of his anger not absurdly out of proportion to its cause? Yet Achilles dominates the poem even as he withdraws; his moody self-preoccupation is part of what makes him fascinating. He creates an aura, a vibration of specialness. We understand something of who he is from Marlon Brando's glamorously sullen performances in his youth. A greater destiny flows from Achilles' angry will than from the settled desires of simpler men.

He is very young, perhaps in his early twenties, fearless, tall, fleet-footed, strong, a compound of muscle and beauty with so powerful a sense of his own precedence that he is willing to let the war go badly when his honor is sullied. The Trojans, led by their stalwart, Hector, kill many Greeks and come close to burning the Greek ships and cutting off their retreat. Hoping to stem the tide, Achilles' tentmate and beloved friend Patroclus enters the battle. He dons Achilles' armor, and in that armor -- as a substitute for Achilles -- he is slain by Hector.

Achilles' withdrawal now comes to an end. Enraged, inconsolable, he prepares at last to enter the battle (we are deep into the poem, and we have not yet seen him fight), an event accompanied by a cataclysmic rending of the heavens and the seas. The sky darkens, the underworld nearly cracks open. Huge forces, unstoppable, move into place. Achilles begins to fight, expelling his anguish in a rampage. As Book XXI opens, he is driving the Trojans back toward Troy:

But when they came to the crossing place of the fair-running river of whirling Xanthos, a stream whose father was Zeus the immortal, there Achilleus split them and chased some back over the fiat land toward the city, where the Achaians themselves had stampeded in terror on the day before, when glorious Hektor was still in his fury. Along this ground they were streaming in flight; but Hera let fall a deep mist before them to stay them. Meanwhile the other half were crowded into the silvery whirls of the deep-running river and tumbled into it in huge clamour, and the steep-running water sounded, and the banks echoed hugely about them, as they out-crying tried to swim this way and that, spun about in the eddies. As before the blast of a fire the locusts escaping into a river swarm in air, and the fire unwearied blazes from a sudden start, and the locusts huddle in water; so before Achilleus the murmuring waters of Xanthos the deep-whirling were filled with confusion of men and of horses.

But heaven-descended Achilleus left his spear there on the bank leaning against the tamarisks, and leapt in like some immortal, with only his sword, but his heart was bent on evil actions, and he struck in a circle around him. The shameful sound of their groaning rose as they were struck with the sword, and the water was reddened with blood. As before a huge-gaping dolphin the other fishes escaping cram the corners of a deepwater harbour in fear, for he avidly eats up any he can catch; so the Trojans along the course of the terrible river shrank under the bluffs. He, when his hands grew weary with killing, chose out and took twelve young men alive from the river to be vengeance for the death of Patroklos, the son of Menoitios. These, bewildered with fear like fawns, he led out of the water and bound their hands behind them with thongs well cut out of leather, with the very belts they themselves wore on their ingirt tunics, and gave them to his companions to lead away to the hollow ships, then himself whirled back, still in a fury to kill men.

(XXI, 1-33)

Homer didn't have to tell his listeners that the leather thongs, tightening as they dried, would cut into the flesh of Achilles' Trojan captives. Nor did he have to explain why Achilles later kills a Trojan warrior, an acquaintance, who begs for mercy at his knees. But how is the American reader supposed to respond to this? He comes from a society that is nominally ethical. Our legal and administrative system, our presidential utterances, our popular culture, in which TV policemen rarely fail to care for the victims of crime, are swathed in concern. Since the society is in fact often indifferent to hardship, it is no surprise that irony and cynicism barnacle the national mood. By contrast, the Greek view was savage but offered without hypocrisy. Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of theIliadexperience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, nor as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful. We might say that Homer offers a conception of life that is noble rather than ethical -- except that such an opposition is finally misleading. For the Greeks, nobility has an ethical quality. You are not good or bad in the Christian sense. You are strong or weak; beautiful or ugly; conquering or vanquished; living or dead; favored by gods or cursed. Here were some of Tayler's "binary opposites," but skewed into matching pairs alien to us, in which nothing softened Homer's appraisal of quality.

Academic opponents of courses in the Western classics constantly urge readers to consider "the other" -- the other cultures, odd or repugnant to Western tastes, which we have allegedly trampled or rendered marginal and also the others who are excluded or trivialized within our own culture: women, people of color, anyone who is nonwhite, non-male, non-Western. But here, at the beginning of the written culture of the West (theIliaddates from perhaps the eighth century B.C.), is something like "the other," the Greeks themselves, a race of noble savages stripping corpses of their armor and reciting their genealogies at one another during huge feasts or even on the field of battle. Kill, plunder, bathe, eat, offer sacrifices to the gods -- what do we have to do with these ancient marauders of the eastern Mediterranean?

They looked awfully pale for college students. From where I sat, on the steps of Low Library, watching them walk around the campus on the second day of school, there was hardly a suntan in sight. Didn't anyone go to the beach anymore? I knew this was a city campus, but we've just had three months ofsummer.They didn't look all that happy, either; they looked serious, even a bit gloomy, and tense. Opening-week anxieties perhaps. Also, the tuition was a fortune (about $23,000 including room and board), and even though many of them received aid, they probably needed more money. They had spent the summer working, that was it, and working indoors. No time for the beach. Anyway, Columbia students never did look too healthy. One could not call it a debonair campus (the glamorous go elsewhere). They were smart, though, and serious and ambitious, and isn't that what I liked about them?

In my day, back in the early sixties, the College was heavily populated with city Jews and Italian-Americans, bookish, sallow young men (like me) preoccupied with Sartre and Kafka, Beethoven and the Modern Jazz Quartet, young men in green corduroy jackets or pea coats, who smoked unfiltered cigarettes, Camels or Gitanes, in the Bogart imitation fashionable at the time. We weren't the only students, of course. In fact, we were a minority, my friends and I -- English and history majors heading for careers in law, teaching, and journalism -- but we had created our own snobbish version of Columbia, which centered on such famous writers (and fairly recent students) as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and such English teachers as Trilling, Frederick Dupee, and Steven Marcus. There were also the students I thought of as Ivy League boys -- noble oarsmen, I called them -- who had a haughty but depressed air, as if they were disappointed not to be at Princeton. I was prejudiced against them, not only because their manners were different from ours but because they were so often in good shape. Now most of the male students were in better physical shape than we had been; they almost all had some muscle tone (infra dig among intellectual students in 1961).

More important, the students weren't all male anymore; women had been admitted in 1982 and now made up half the college. And the size of the minority population had grown. Walking into another Lit Hum section (I was sampling different approaches), I had nodded to a few students, and then a few more, and suddenly realized that the class was utterly unlike the ones I had sat in thirty years earlier. Out of a class of twenty-two first-year students, there were exactly four white males. Four! The students were from Europe, India, Singapore. O America! They were from everywhere. But why was I so surprised? Did Iwanta predominance of white males in the class? I did not. Still, an old-grad memory bank had been jolted. If you are a man over forty, you simply do not realize, until you enter a classroom, how pluralistic American university education has become.

"John F. Kennedy was killed on November twenty-second, 1963," the teacher said. "Is that an objective statement?"

The other required great-books course -- Contemporary Civilization, or C.C. -- was also getting under way. As the students listened to this opening sally, they looked blank. They were mostly sophomores, and were not about to make fools of themselves. Was it a tric

Excerpted from Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby
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