Great Books

David Denby's Great Books is a profoundly sophomoric book, if that is not like saying, "Deep down inside he's shallow." As a profoundly sophomoric person, I found it irresistible.

Denby returned to Columbia University, where he had been a freshman in 1961, to once again take the core-curriculum courses, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, and to observe the changes thirty years later and his reactions thereto. One is tempted to see this at least in part as a rebellion against the fact that life doesn't give do-overs, a regression somewhat less pernicious than what would inspire a formerly Black singer (not to name any names) to fool around with 12-year-old boys. Indeed, at one point a young woman instructor calls to ask him not to return, to say that he doesn't belong there and he is interfering with her relationship with the class, and "I bit my tongue in fury. She was right."

But if he does seem out of place in the class and does at times commit the quintessentially sophomoric solecism of breathlessly announcing discoveries to an audience that already knew them (I cast no first stones), he has a story here, reporting from before and after the changes wrought by the curriculum wars.

He perceives bigger changes than I do. A near contemporary of his, I faced a canon of heterosexual white male stuff like Remembrance of Things Past, Invisible Man, and Pride and Prejudice. If Pride and Prejudice was not the quintessential work of Required Reading, it was only because that title went to Silas Marner. My prep school class failed to read the latter Mandatory Classic (and thus I never have) because of a rearrangement under which the 10th grade read it when we were 9th graders, and vice versa. We saw ourselves, and were perceived, as either a preternaturally lucky group or one that had dishonorably evaded one of those burdens of the sort people mention under the heading of Facing Real Life.

But Denby had actually been spared Pride and Prejudice. He reports that the male contingent in his 90s class despised it. Unsurprising, that; males, at least through college age, do not like the book. My prep school class and I loathed it, and that greatest of eternally arrested late adolescents, Mark Twain, said that one can begin a good library by leaving out Austen. Twenty years later, I reread Pride and Prejudice, for a class, and found it pleasurable. Denby's reaction was stronger: Reading it for the first time, he fell in love with it.

He falls in love with some books, dislikes others, and usually manages not to sound like someone who writes "How true!!!" in the margins. In general, he concludes that while he can't go along with those who condemn the whole Great Books idea as intolerably elitist, he thinks the course profits from adding more representatives of marginalized groups, such as women. I must say I find this a tiresomely wishy-washy approach, even though I completely agree with it. In fact, when I state my own views in this matter, I bore myself.

I have come across an interesting example of Women Left Out. Carole Breakstone is studying the 17th-century author Margaret Cavendish, and at her suggestion, I have read an Imaginary Voyage called The Blazing World. It has some of the bizarre invention one prizes in such works: The spider-men are mathematicians; the lice-men geometricians; and the magpie-, parrot-, and jackdaw-men are the orators and logicians. The book is available as a Penguin Classic, the Penguin-men are publishers and you might want to give it a look. It is not a Major Masterpiece, but it is not obviously inferior to the similar works of Thomas More, Tommasso Campanella, and Cyrano de Bergerac that are trotted out in all the histories of sf, where Cavendish is not mentioned.

There are always people ready to hire superstars from the group under discussion, and consider themselves wondrously tolerant for so doing. A group hasn't made it until there are equal opportunities for its mediocre and just OK members, too. I hear that a woman named Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale) is alleged to write Women's Trash, but specifically aimed at Black women, and to be doing quite well thereby. If so, it's about time.