David Denby was a forty-eight year old movie critic and writer, and it was the middle of the debates about the 'canon' and 'curriculum' and 'political correctness' of the early nineties, when he decided to go back to school for a year. Denby decided to re-take the Columbia core courses that deal with the classics, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. His goal: to take the temperature of the current crop of freshmen and sophomores and reconnect with 'the classics'.
Denby keeps himself removed from the classes as much as he's able to, exactly the opposite of Rebekah Nathan's approach in My Freshman Year; he seems to think he'd be somehow cheating the students if he injected himself into class discussion too much. Nonetheless, the class is about the students and the professors as much as it is about the books. Denby tries to understand some student concerns, specifically the protests about the exclusionary nature of the texts selected (the 'dead white male' accusation) and, weirdly, a 'Take Back The Night' rally. Concurrently he reveals his own, sometimes very personal, reactions to the texts. This multiplicity of theme is a drawback; for example, he tantalizingly references one of the professor's method of analysis by dealing with 'structure and theme' without actually explaining what the hell that means. The 'Take Back The Night' episode and other musings on why the students are so (insert adjective here) are, with fifteen year's hindsight, either puzzling or just quaint. Denby was writing from a pre-Giuliani New York City, with all the baggage of the 1980's crime and grime. He seems afraid a lot, very concerned with the downward spiral of civilization that seems somehow to have evaporated.
The upshot is that he didn't engage the books as deeply as I would have liked. His chapter on 'King Lear' impressed me, as did Virginia Woolf, but the focus is really on his experience of the books rather than the works themselves. I suppose that's the only way a book like this (such a meta experience) could really be a success.
Near the beginning of the book he talks about why we read these works. Is he doing this out of (I paraphrase) the 'vanity of self-improvement'? Ouch! Am I doing this reading project out of narcissism? Maybe..... I'll have to see if I can come up with some better sounding justification, like Denby did.