David Denby’s Great Books

There’s a great bit early on in David Denby’s Great Books where he describes what it was like as a 48 y-o returning back to university and reading Homer’s Iliad for a Literature Humanities course (p. 35):

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.

If you’ve ever tried reading Homer you know that sounds about right.

Denby then reminisces about his first foray as an undergrad at Columbia.

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 really need this 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 realized that my idol, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson, was obsessed with books as sensuous objects.

If that experience resonates with you, even a little, you & I have something in common. Maybe the most important thing. If it doesn’t, I don’t know whether I should pity you or vice versa.

Anyway, he continues, and this is one of my favourite passages from the book:

Obviously, it wasn’t just learning that excited me but the idea of 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 flavour was nearly gone, that I never quite got around to completing the reading list of any course.

And a little bit later, this:

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 . . . another chance, 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.

I’m not yet 30, have no kids (that I know of), no power, no money, but I feel what Denby felt, that same longing for a do-over.

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