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-by Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
The Great Books War
Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
By David Denby
Simon & Schuster
493 pp.; $30
The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History
By Lawrence W. Levine
212 pp.; $20
We read and write today with the roar of the culture wars ever in the background. Neither David Denby's Great Books nor Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind can keep it there. Both authors have garnered considerable media attention. Denby has received more, and more varied, responses than Levine; this is fitting.
Denby, movie critic for New York magazine, decided, at age 48, to return to Columbia University, armed with a writer's tell-all intention, to retake the fabled but now challenged core courses in Literature, Humanities, and Contemporary Civilization that he had taken 30 years earlier. Levine, long-time professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, decided, before finishing his career, to defend the academy of his affections from its detractors.
Both Denby and Levine are New York Jewish boys who grew up to be secular liberals. Both belong to the cultural elite and share to some degree what Thomas Sowell has acidly called "the vision of the anointed." Both take their cultural bearings by ragging on William Bennett. (Ah, the social uses of being Bennett. Can a book on the culture wars get past three pages without mentioning him?)
It's their differences that fascinate. Denby is deeply, personally engaged with the Great Books of the Western tradition; Levine feels no pain at their curricular demise. Denby, while imagining himself evenhanded, criticizes conservatives occasionally and perfunctorily but the cultural Left frequently and passionately; Levine is an avatar of the cultural Left who lambastes the Right and only the Right. Denby is unpredictable, sometimes maddeningly so; Levine is predictable, utterly and always so. These differences make it, I think, possible to dislike ...