He has a lot to say about 'Great Books' and about 'strivers' (people who are trying to move up in status). He appreciates what reading those books did for his mind. I get that. But I found the comments pretty one-dimensional, and didn't see any real critique of the notion of a canon inherent in the idea of some particular set of books being the ones called 'Great Books'. My comment there was pretty long, and could have been longer. Here it is, with minor changes:
A previous commenter wrote:
What has to be stressed is that the books comprising the "Great Books" set are, indeed, great books--and that the vociferous critics of the very idea of a great book who have infested academic life in recent decades aren't capable of producing even modestly good books.
I enjoyed most of the comments here, but please don't push the pendulum back the other way, folks. I suppose I'm middlebrow (I hadn't heard the term before), but not at all in the way the author described. My dad was the first in his family to go to college, my mom never did finish college. They're both big readers. They may care about status, but I never did much. I read voraciously because it was what I liked to do.
I went to the University of Michigan in 74, and their honors program included a course in Great Books for entering students. (It started with the Bible, included lots of Greeks, and ended with Dante and Faust. Nothing originally in English, which my higher-brow roommate pointed out.) I had just spent the previous year reading every feminist book I could get my hands on, and was pretty disgusted at all the male heroics. I think I would have liked The Iliad and the Odyssey more when I was young and reading The Arabian Nights. The professor would talk about universal themes, and I'd sit there thinking about how the themes felt pretty male to me. (In a lecture hall of hundreds it wasn't easy to comment.) My favorite semi-universal theme is overcoming oppression, and I didn't see much of that in the books we read.
How about Oprah's pushing of great books? No capitals here; I'll bet she doesn't think of her choices as a canon. (I wouldn't know for sure, as I don't watch TV. I just hear people who do talking about her books.) She has gotten lots of people (many you'd call lowbrow, I think) reading, and discussing, better books.
I think it's possible to have a respect for great literature that doesn't include the notion of a canon. Instead of alleged universal themes that don't include me (as a woman, or as a lesbian) or my friends of color, let's think together about what might be universal themes, and how differently they might be expressed in different works.
My degrees are in math, but I considered a second masters in literature. It won't happen, though - too much pretension in lit courses, and I can't stand being graded on my thoughts.
My personal canon includes The Color Purple, The Salt Eaters (Bamabara), The Yellow Wallpaper (Gilman), The Bean Trees (Kingsolver), and The Word for World is Forest (LeGuin). I'd love to hear what books others think of as 'great books', that aren't in the traditional canon.
One last bit: I was intrigued to see this side of Virginia Woolf. The side of her I know best is displayed in A Room of One's Own, where she dissects sexism by looking at books on Woman in the British Library. (Her upper-class perspective did show in her notion of genteel poverty being someone with a small inheritance.)