The Paula Gordon Show
Models For A Life

Film critic and writer David Denby fantasized about going back to school but this time, "getting it right." What separates him from countless others with the same dream is that he DID it. Denby returned to Columbia University where, thirty years before, he'd taken the "core curriculum" literature and political philosophy courses. At 48, David Denby entered the classroom with freshman students, did again what he'd done at 18. What he discovered on his adventure is that some things are even better the second time around.

Denby had two more items on his agenda. He wanted to make sense the "culture wars" being waged inside and out of today's universities, arguments over what our young people should be reading. And then there was his soul -- he feared his very "self" was drowning in the media bath he helps create. From Plato to Boccaccio, Virgil to Virginia Woolf, Odysseus to King Lear, Denby was in hot pursuit of answers to The Big Questions (which , he learned, Montaigne had framed nicely centuries ago).

Denby's love of movies survived the experience, continues unabated. But movies, he came to understand, do not shape self or form character. What movies do brilliantly is create sensations, elevate excitement. In fact, Denby privately believes movies with their fast cuts and spacial dislocation may just be driving us crazy. All the more reason to reconnect with our cultural moorings, learn again to be A Reader, participate in the creative process of reinventing oneself. Movies and the mass media may affect your style, but they do not alter your conduct. Book do that. Great books do it best.

Reading -- the physical act of embracing big ideas, struggling to come to terms with them, developing the intellectual muscles to take on the Big Issues and come out the other side with one's own answers, however tentative -- Denby rediscovered, is the ultimate... entertainment!

As to the "culture wars," Denby is now clear that most of the arguments against reading great literature, whatever the source, are "ideological nonsense." He observed all students, not just minorities or women, dispossessed of the Western tradition by information glut. And from that sorry discovery, Denby makes a dramatic return. He comes again to celebrate education! Education ultimately must deepen pleasure, he maintains. But learning to love the great classics is not a natural act. It must be learned. And it needs a teacher -- whether someone in a classroom or reading in the company of provocative friends.

As to Denby’s soul? When he restored himself to the status of Reader, reconnected to the foundations of our Western culture, Denby also saved his media drenched soul from drowning in today’s popular culture. Turns out, Life's Big Questions are as central as they’ve always been. And the answers to those questions are more critically important than ever.

[This Program was recorded October 21, 1997, in New York City, NY, US.]


David Denby

David Denby's book Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, published by Simon & Schuster in hard and soft cover, is enriched by having been film critic of New York magazine since 1978 and a contributing editor of The New Yorker. His reviews and essays have been published widely. He lives in Manhattan.

Excerpts 3:01 secs

Conversation 1

David Denby tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russsell about the origins of his adventure back to Columbia, where he took again the "core curriculum" literature and political theory courses he had taken as a freshman in the early 1960s. He describes his three-fold motivators: fulfilling his fantasy to return to college but this time to "get it right;" examining first hand the "culture wars" raging inside and outside America's academic institutions; and attempting to rediscover his sense of self which was drowning in today's media bath.

Conversation 2

Denby tells how education and creation of "self" intertwine. ÊOne does not learn about one's self by looking at movies, which are geared to generating sensations and are not reflective. Denby describes his own private theory of how the movies -- with their fast cuts, loss of spatial coherence and overstimulated level of excitement -- are driving us crazy!

Reading with other people was vital. Describing the students with whom he studies, he finds today's them nicer than students in the 1960s. The downside to this "niceness" is a blandness which is challenged by those who teach the great literature and the literature itself, from Virgil's Aeneid to Hegel and Kant.

Conversation 3

We need to avail ourselves of both movies and great works of literature and philosophy, appreciate the issues of style and the sensuous raised by movies. W also need to celebrate a host of things about which Americans can be duly proud, without being a Western chauvinists: from the Bill of Rights to the idea of an individual soul with inalienable rights and the eternally radical idea of the American constitutional experience. He makes a powerful case that reading the core curriculum inculcates habits, not a particular doctrine. He gives examples from his experience with other students, offering a telling example in which Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Boccaccio join forces.

Conversation 4

The Great Questions bring Denby's personality together, enriching his work as a movie critic, not diminishing it as he had feared. He did gain a renewed distaste for all things second rate.

Columbia, in addition to requiring the core curriculum, also challenges students with course work focused on other cultural experiences. He gives a range of examples for why young people must have a broad grounding in the underpinnings of Western traditions if they are to function as successful adults in the world at large.

At 54 years old, Denby finds what he read profoundly relevant. He believes that young college students need some guidance from informed adults about what constitutes an adequate education. He examines the paradox of what one does and does not "get out of" reading these works.

Conversation 5

Denby describes the need to emerge from "the haze of second-handedness" in this information-driven society. ÊHe sees his work as "critic" as one of moral spectator and urges parents to teach children to be critics of television and movies, giving examples.

Without a basis in the Western tradition, Denby believes people get trapped by the current cliches of the media. He makes a strong argument for returning to the once-common idea that "moral seriousness" is an important part of education, from which he believes ALL students have been dispossessed.

Conversation 6

Education should be directed toward deepening pleasure. People have to be taught the ideas contained in the great works of literature and philosophy, they do not come naturally. Art and the pleasure of rigorous thinking is the greatest entertainment of all. Denby urges people to read, in the company of others, toward the end of creating a society which speaks to The Great Questions. In addition to rediscovering himself, Denby found these ideas "absolutely central to us now."


David Denby cordially invited us into his home and life. The reigning cat made us feel particularly welcome. We thank the entire Denby household for their courtesies and good humor.

Additional Links:
Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World is published by Simon & Schuster in both hard and soft cover.

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