Denby is a New York Magazine movie reviewer who found himself, in the early 90s, suffering from a sort of literary mid-life crisis. Among the symptoms of this was his reading lots of articles about the place of the "Great Books" in education, and finding himself angry at both his fellow liberals who decried them as the products of "dead white males" and of conservatives who he believed enshrined the Great Books as political and cultural treasures without truly encountering them. (This characterization I disagree with, but like anything I suppose it fits someone, somewhere.) After delivering one too many rants on the topic to his wife, she tells him to go back to Columbia, his alma mater, and re-take the two one year Great Books courses which he recalls enjoying as a freshman in 1961.
The book is the story of his return to Columbia and re-acquintance with the Great Books. In his first chapter, on Homer of course, I was struck by this section where he talks about realizing (as he sinks into reading "great literature" for the first time in a long while) that he had in many ways ceased to be "a reader", although he was constantly reading:
...I no longer had the concentration or the discipline for serious reading; I had lost the habit of just falling into something the way real readers do, devouring it on the bus, in the tub, at the lunch counter. Movies more than satisfied my desire for trash, but when I picked up a serious book, my concentration often wandered after twenty pages. I wanted to read it, but vagrant thoughts came charging in, and the words from the book got caught at a bottleneck leading to my attention. M rhythm had changed. I was a moviegoer, a magazine-reader, a CNN-watcher. Following a breaking story on CNN, I would watch updates at certain points of the day, and then pick up the story again when a car alarm woke me in the middle of the night, then catch the denouement in the morning. This business of being "informed" could be almost nightmarish: If you stayed with the story long enough, you began to feel as if you were a ball rolling over and over, or the hands of a clock coming back to the same point.
I flatter myself that I've never quite reached this point, but one of the reasons I try to make sure I read at least a couple "serious" books each year is that I do often feel this sort of approach to reading/information creeping upon me, though in my case my downfall is the internet and the endless reading and conversation it allows. The staccato tempo of read this, follow a link to that, respond to this, go back to the first, read a bit more, open a linked piece is a separate tab, go back to reading, switch tabs, etc. is addictive, and I often fear that I feel it creeping into how I read "real" things as well as blogs and online articles.
As exemplified by the fact that I stopped reading this book in order to type up this post...