Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cranky Book Review: Great Books

(goodreads)

Oh, those middle class problems. For me, the only thing more ridiculous than people claiming that gun ownership is a right rather than a class privilege is the complaining that goes on about the courses in higher education. Much as one has to have time and money to invest in an automatic weapon, people such as myself don't have the luxury to consider going to school in order to learn things. Yet political arguments are constantly drawn from the assumption that these experiences are universal and have consequences that apply to all.

David Denby portrays himself (a bit too humbly) as a typical "upper-middle" class guy. He doesn't seem to have wanted for anything in his life, certainly didn't have to worry about paying for his own education. Apparently, the worst thing that ever happened to him is that he was once mugged. This armed robbery is woven in and out of the book, somehow entwined in his mind with the "problem" of people challenging the pantheon of taught authors.

You see, even though he professes to have talked with many students during the writing of this book, Mr. Denby doesn't understand why they hold to their views. He doesn't get why the women in one class, for instance, don't emphasize with Dido's killing herself over Aeneas. Instead of just accepting their disagreement with his view he goes from wondering if they had never experienced love, to trying to categorize the response as either feminist or post-feminist and failing at that, blames it on the media.

And so the book goes. At its best, this is a brutally honest portrayal of how the privileged think and respond. Denby is a very good author, even if he isn't a very clear thinker. He ends up running in circles around himself, constantly trying to analyze other's reactions without applying the same criteria to himself. The built-in assumption is that students are taking the class to learn about life, rather than frantically trying to gain enough credits to graduate and hopefully find work. He doesn't understand why they aren't reading these texts for pleasure, as he is.

In the end, there's a dark side to this book that comes out when Hegel sends the author off on a line of reasoning that leads to a justification of the "Great Books" out of a sense of western superiority. You see, Eurocentrism is merely a reflection of the fact that our half of the world is philosophically superior to the Eastern half. Apparently the West has a tradition that leads to the idea of freedom, and no one else. Buddha and Gandhi don't exist. Or Denby just hasn't read them because they aren't on the course.

However not being a reader (as he admits at the beginning of the project) isn't an excuse for the other conclusion he draws from Hegel. Apparently, the men who mugged him did so because they haven't developed a sense of respect through work. That's the great failure of American society. That we all don't yet have the middle-class value of exchanging our time for the enrichment of others.

That's probably the lesson to be drawn from this exercise. Conservative thinkers (despite how loudly they proclaim themselves to be proponents of liberal thought as Denby does here) just can't fathom that everyone doesn't WANT to be a middle-class American. There always has to be an imaginary line running through history that arrives at this moment, justifying this way of life.

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