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The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books

The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books

Professor Grant L. Voth Ph.D.
Monterey Peninsula College
Course No.  2112
Course No.  2112
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Hamlet. Moby-Dick. War and Peace. Ulysses. These are just four of what are considered the "Great Books"—works of literature that have been singled out as essential parts of a well-read individual's reading list. The only problem: The "Great Books" can be daunting, intimidating, and oftentimes nearly impossible to get through.

The truth of the matter is that there is so much more to literature than these giants of the Western canon. In fact, you can get the same pleasures, satisfactions, and insights from books that have yet to be considered "great." Books that are shorter, more accessible, and less dependent on classical references and difficult language. Books that, in the opinion of popular Great Courses Professor Grant L. Voth of Monterey Peninsula College, "allow you to connect with them without quite so many layers of resistance to work through."

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Hamlet. Moby-Dick. War and Peace. Ulysses. These are just four of what are considered the "Great Books"—works of literature that have been singled out as essential parts of a well-read individual's reading list. The only problem: The "Great Books" can be daunting, intimidating, and oftentimes nearly impossible to get through.

The truth of the matter is that there is so much more to literature than these giants of the Western canon. In fact, you can get the same pleasures, satisfactions, and insights from books that have yet to be considered "great." Books that are shorter, more accessible, and less dependent on classical references and difficult language. Books that, in the opinion of popular Great Courses Professor Grant L. Voth of Monterey Peninsula College, "allow you to connect with them without quite so many layers of resistance to work through."

When you take this skeptical approach to the "Great Books," you open yourself up to works that are just as engaging, just as enjoyable, and—most important—just as insightful about great human themes and ideas as anything you'd encounter on a college-level reading list. Professor Voth's course, The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books, is your opportunity to discover new literary adventures that make worthy substitutes to works from the Western literary canon. In these 12 highly rewarding lectures, you'll get an introduction to 12 works that redefine what great literature is and how it can reveal startling truths about life—all without being such a chore to read.

Discover Alternatives to the Great Books

The first half of The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books focuses on what Professor Voth considers direct "alternatives" to more canonical works of literature. In each case, he convinces you that you won't be missing out on much by reading these books instead of their more famous cousins and proves that these selections can be just as substantive, challenging, and stimulating. He also points out that reading these "alternatives" can give you a good introduction to the canonical works—especially if your initial attempts to tackle them have proved frustrating.

Here are three examples of the books you'll explore in these lectures, along with the canonical counterparts they substitute for.

  • Dead Souls as an alternative to War and Peace: Like Leo Tolstoy's mammoth novel, Nikolai Gogol's shorter work captures the heart and soul of 19th-century Russia in a lot fewer pages. Using digressions, lyrical passages, humorous episodes, and epic similes, Dead Souls offers as much enjoyment and insight as War and Peace but without the intimidating length.
  • Angels in America as an alternative to the plays of Bertolt Brecht: While plays such as Mother Courage and The Good Woman of Setzuan are wonderful on stage, you can't get the same enjoyment from reading a Bertolt Brecht play as you can by reading Tony Kushner's kaleidoscopic commentary on the culture and politics of 1980s America. In addition, Kushner's work is funny—making us laugh in a way that Brecht's plays seldom do.
  • The Master and Margarita as an alternative to Faust: While Goethe's Faust demands that a reader spend his or her entire life poring over its intricate references, Mikhail Bulgakov's novel (in which the Devil visits Soviet Russia) does not. And in addition to being a provocative and engaging story, it comes with more readily accessible ideas about religion and nationalism.

Uncover the Power of Nontraditional Literary Genres

You'll also encounter books from genres that traditionally fall outside the purview of the Western canon. Just because these books are more popular with everyday readers doesn't mean they don't possess the same power to challenge, guide, and inspire us as their more "established" predecessors do. For example, you'll learn

  • how John le Carré's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold transforms the spy novel into serious literature by asking thought-provoking questions about the relationship between the political ideas one professes and the methods used to defend them;
  • how the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons injects the comic-book format with a startling level of realism by casting its superhero characters in darker, more ordinarily human shades; and
  • how Yaan Martel's Life of Pi proves that just because a novel is a best-selling success doesn't mean it can't offer readers an unforgettable lesson on the nature of an individual's spiritual journey through life and the enduring power of faith.

Get a Personal Encounter with 12 Entertaining and Wise Books

Winner of the Allen Griffin Award for Excellence in Teaching, Professor Voth excels in these lectures at both unpacking the significance of a literary work and instilling excitement for it, be it a novella, a collection of short stories, or a play. If you're new to these works, he will have you running to your nearest bookstore or library to discover what you've been missing. And if you've already encountered some of these books, you'll be eager to revisit them and explore what you may have missed on your first reading.

"The world is full of good books," Professor Voth says. "And if you're careful in the way you read them ... there's no end to the pleasures of the ever-expanding world of literature." So discover these pleasures for yourself with The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books and get a personal encounter with 12 works of literature that are short enough to not daunt you, entertaining enough to keep you turning the pages, and wise enough to teach you something about being human.

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    A Skeptic's Way; Gogol's Dead Souls
    Start with an overview of what it means to take a skeptical approach to the "Great Books." Then, dive right into the course with Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, a marvelous short novel that proves just as effective as War and Peace at capturing the diverse spirit of early 19th-century Russia. x
  • 2
    Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London
    Travel to the seedy, impoverished underside of 1920s Europe with this lecture on George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. In particular, explore how this book blurred the lines between literature and journalism and foreshadowed the New Journalism style of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and others. x
  • 3
    Cisneros's The House on Mango Street
    Stories about growing up have long been a part of literature—and one that Professor Voth considers to be frequently overlooked is Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. Here, delve into some of this collection's most important stories and the ways they reflect powerful themes and ideas about maturation. x
  • 4
    Warren's All the King's Men
    Discover why Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men stands in the shadow of some of Joseph Conrad's canonical novels. Pay particular attention to the book's engaging narrator, Jack Burden; its broken chronology that jumps backward and forward; and its stirring views on justice, politics, and the dangers of digging up the past. x
  • 5
    Kushner's Angels in America
    Learn how you can get just as much from reading Tony Kushner's epic play, Angels in America, as you can from reading the works of Bertolt Brecht. Professor Voth helps you navigate the plot and themes of this masterpiece, which explores everything from Reagan-era America and homosexuality to Mormonism and the end of Communism. x
  • 6
    Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem
    What do the essays in Joan Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem have in common with more classic examples from writers like Montaigne and E. B. White? How do their styles and subject matter tap into the "atomization" of California in the 1960s? And why should you consider reading this work in lieu of Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz? x
  • 7
    Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita
    Make better sense of the narrative complexities of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, a fantastical novel that depicts the confrontation between Soviet state control and a visionary individual. Also, see how this Russian masterpiece looks when read in the shadow of one of its most important inspirations: Goethe's Faust. x
  • 8
    Zusak's The Book Thief
    Move to the second part of the course, which considers important works from genres that traditionally fall outside of literary canons. Professor Voth shows how Markus Zusak's The Book Thief—in its unusual point of view, its World War II Germany setting, and its lack of sentimentality—is more than just a young adult novel. x
  • 9
    James's Death of an Expert Witness
    P. D. James undoubtedly expanded the scope and reach of the detective novel genre, letting it offer many of the same pleasures and insights we get from traditional literary fiction. See her skills at work in one of her most popular books, Death of an Expert Witness. x
  • 10
    Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
    What P.D. James did for the detective novel, John le Carré did for the spy novel with The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Despite the fact that his characters are conceived in terms of the roles they play in the plot, le Carré manages to turn this thrilling tale of espionage into a stirring commentary on cold war–era values. x
  • 11
    Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen
    Uncover the literary strengths of graphic novels with this look at Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's revolutionary work, Watchmen. This realistic look at the world of superheroes, you'll find, is capable of dealing with the same challenging ideas that you'd expect from a more canonical work of literature. x
  • 12
    Skeptics and Tigers; Martel's Life of Pi
    How does Yann Martel's Life of Pi make the case for the literary merits of the blockbuster bestseller? End the course by exploring this question, then stepping back and reevaluating the merits of treating nontraditional literary works with as much importance as those in the canon. x

Lecture Titles

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Grant L. Voth
Ph.D. Grant L. Voth
Monterey Peninsula College
Dr. Grant L. Voth is Professor Emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College in California. He earned his M.A. in English Education from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, MN, and his Ph.D. in English from Purdue University. Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Voth has earned a host of teaching awards and accolades, including the Allen Griffin Award for Excellence in Teaching, and he was named Teacher of the Year by the Monterey Peninsula College Students' Association. He is the author of insightful scholarly books and articles on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to Edward Gibbon to modern American fiction, and he wrote many of the official study guides for the BBC's acclaimed project, The Shakespeare Plays. Before joining the faculty at Monterey Peninsula College, Professor Voth taught at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University and for several years served as a consultant on interdisciplinary studies programs for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has led travel-study tours to countries including England, Ireland, France, Greece, and Turkey, and he is a frequent guest lecturer for the internationally acclaimed Carmel Bach Festival in Carmel, California.
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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 14 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Good stuff I approached this as a reading course. I didn't get into the; read this instead of that aspect. I used Dr Spurgin 50 page rule (see the TGC course on ART OF READING). Over all some really fine reads. 1. SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Excellent, taut. 2. LIFE OF PI, very enjoyable and educational. 3. WATCHMEN, what an interesting choice! Who would dream a graphic novel had so much to offer. 4. MASTER AND THE MARGARITA. Don't even know how to describe this. But certainly worth the read. 5,ANGELS IN AMERICA. Sure it has a political agenda; but no denying it's creativity. 6.SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM, a collections of articles from the sixties. Interesting. 7.THE BOOK THIEF, a melancholy treasure. Must reading for all. I found the other books much less rewarding. Stil kudos to Dr. Voth for the choices, and his excellent analysis. March 4, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Has led me to some excellent books Professor Voth's lectures have led me to purchase and read some of the books he chose, and I (and my book club members) are very happy with these selections. Can't wait to read more on the list, maybe the whole list. The lectures really get you excited about the books. After reading the books, the lectures are worth listening to again to help you pick up things you may have missed. September 20, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Roadmap for Avid Readers/Writers Prof. Voth is one of my favorite Great Courses' presenters. This course introduced me to books I would, most likely, have overlooked. I've now added "Dead Souls" and "The Book Thief" to my completed list. I wish Voth would continue this series...or even dissect some of the classics that I have given up on...such as "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Victoria Ceretto (Slotto) July 28, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by Completely Engaging Just for the sheer joy of listening, this is probably my favorite Great Course so far (out of about 20). Prof. Voth brings the books he describes to life, giving just enough plot to engage us and just enough theory to enlighten us. Of the 12 books discussed, none of which I had previously read, I have purchased 8 and of those, already finished 2. If the purpose of this series of lectures is to reawaken a desire to read literature with both passion and joy, it has succeeded in spades. The first 7 books are discussed with reference to specific Great Books but by the last 5 books, Voth throws the Canon aside and urges us to read these works for their own intrinsic value. He should have done the same with the first group -- the parallels to specific works is superfluous. As Voth brings home in each and every lecture, each book stands on its own as a great work. To paraphrase an old cliche, if Prof. Voth described the phone book, I would be inspired to start reading it immediately. More importantly, as the very last lecture implies, with Prof. Voth's guidance, I would also probably find reading it worthwhile. November 27, 2011
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