Consorting With Great Books

A few years ago, a favorite professor of mine, Dr. R., suggested that I read Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (1996) by David Denby.  It’s an account of Denby’s return to Columbia University as a middle-aged film critic to retake two courses: Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization.  These two courses are required for all students at Columbia, something I applaud, and Denby had taken them as an undergraduate in 1961.  Denby’s account is funny, interesting, and educational.  It’s a fascinating read that I highly recommend.  However, it’s not a quick read; it is one to be savored and mulled over slowly.

great books cover

I mentioned that Denby’s book is educational. That word also describes my friend Hugh Curtler’s blog, which you can read at  He’s a retired professor who taught humanities and philosophy at Southwest Minnesota State University almost four decades.  Part of his teaching load included a “great books” course at his university, and today I asked him to share his thoughts and experiences of that time.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Emily has been kind enough to invite me to write a guest blog.  She suggested that I write about my experiences reading and teaching some of the Great Books.  I begin by admitting that, despite the critics who would dismiss the concept of “greatness” out of hand, I think there really are “Great” books—namely those that have stood the test of time and, regardless of when they were written, still have important things to say to us.  They are also well written, for the most part. Some not so much.  But they still speak to us if we are willing to listen.

My introduction to the books came as an undergraduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. I ended up there because I had a state scholarship and had to go to a college in the state of Maryland.  A friend recommended St. John’s. I loved to read and heard they read a lot at that college, so it sounded good to me.  Little did I know!  I had no idea what to expect, and my first couple of years were a struggle.  The entire curriculum is built around the reading of what they liked to call “the 100 great books,” which were discussed by groups of students and tutors sitting around tables in seminars and tutorials.  It was a rigorous program and there was indeed a great deal of reading.  I managed to survive, and after a year’s hiatus teaching in a private boys’ school in New York, I entered Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where I took my M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy. Upon completing the degrees, I landed a job teaching undergraduate philosophy at the University of Rhode Island.  After a couple of years there, I answered an ad for an opening in a new small college in Iowa that would allow me to teach not only philosophy but also what they called “Humanities.”  The latter focused on reading exceptional books in a two-year course of study that all students were required to take.  I brought my love of the books with me but learned a great deal about how much you can and cannot ask undergraduate students to read—if they are not committed to the St. John’s program!

That college ran into financial difficulties, and I went north to Minnesota to another new college, a state college that became a state university by an act of the legislature several years later.  I was able to start a philosophy program there and incorporated many of the great books into my syllabus.  Again, I learned by hook and crook how much one could ask typical undergraduates to read.  I later convinced the university faculty to institute a one-year requirement in the “Humanities,” and I built that around the great books as well.  Most of the faculty who taught in that program did not teach the great books (never having read them themselves, I suspect); they went in other directions.  In any event, we were one of the few state educational institutions that had students reading great books at all.

Clearly, when these books are required of the typical undergraduate student, they must be carefully selected for readability and ease of approach—I chose, for example, selections from Homer’s lIliad and Odyssey, several Greek plays, Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Goethe’s Faust (Part One), The Book of Job, Melville’s Billy Budd, some of the early Platonic dialogues, and so forth.  This was tough reading for many of these students, but I always thought that if they didn’t stretch, they would never grow.  I was never big on lowering the bar so everyone could climb over it easily.  It also seemed to me that putting them in touch with great minds, even briefly, would have a lasting effect, whether they knew it at the time of not!  And the books seemed to resonate with most (not all, certainly) of the students.  In any event, I retired in the belief that the books were a success and ought to be required reading of any young person who wants to open his or her mind and explore incredibly rich intellectual territory.”

My question for Hugh is: Which of the great books are you referring to when you say “not so much” to being well written?

Do you have any questions for Hugh?  And be sure to check out his blog!

15 thoughts on “Consorting With Great Books

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  1. I do have a question for Hugh. I am making a reading list for 2013. And I would like to add a great book of his recommendation to that list. Preferably non fiction. And preferably not too difficult a read. (maybe he should keep the undergrads in mind 🙂 )
    Could Hugh please help?

      1. Thank you. I am catching up on a lifetime of reading and I have made note of your suggestion. I thought I had the book in my HUGE pile of to be reads, but it is not. So I will get a copy. Again, thank you. I am charmed.

  2. Thanks for letting Hugh share his story more. I agree that some “great books” can be tedious. It is disappointing to dig into something and find you cannot go on. It could be the writing style or the subject. Yet, I love to read, so i am willing to take those gambles. My questions for Hugh would be what book or books gave him the biggest surprise of enjoyment and what book or books were most disappointing not living up to the anticipation? Many thanks, BTG

    1. I was turned to philosophy by Kant’s writings — especially in ethics. I loved Plato and Descartes as well. I was disappointed by Hume and most contemporary philosophers who can’t write to save their lives. In the realm of fiction, my favorite authors are Conrad, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare. If I had to read one book of non-fiction (as I said above) it would be Plato’s Republic. If I had to read only one book of fiction it would probably be The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Tough choices! Thanks for asking, BTG!

  3. To Emily’s question after my blog: I find that most philosophy is worth reading even though it is not well written. I recommend Plato because he is readable. Aristotle and Kant, for example, were not great writers, but they were great thinkers. Slow going!

  4. At the university where I completed my undergraduate work, there was a first year required course that was an introduction to Western thought – the text was a compilation of excerpts from the primary thinkers (and writers) from the Greeks through to more modern day. It was (and remains) one of the highlights of my many years in post-secondary education. The readings were absolutely difficult (and I had already completed two years at a different university before encountering these works). Each thinker / writer challenged me in varying ways – calling into question everything from my belief structures to the way I learned and understood the world. The course of study you describe, Hugh, sounds much like the basis for this course I completed, albeit in a much more limited way.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences from the other end of the spectrum. Reading your recollections makes me want to find that old text (fallen into many pieces and highlighted like crazy, green and blue if I remember correctly) and re-read it now to see how differently I understand that which I was first exposed to in my twenties.

  5. I just ordered the David Denby book after reading this post. Thanks for the recommendation! I wish my undergrad had offered “Great Books” courses, but in some ways, I think I enjoy classics more now that I can read them of my own free will. 🙂 I miss the classroom experience, though — sometimes you can’t fall in love with a difficult book until someone more expert helps you see why it’s worth loving.

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