The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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What's Included

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Video DVD
Audio Download Includes:
  • Download 12 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
CD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 6 CDs
  • 102-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 102-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Grant L. Voth

About Your Professor

Grant L. Voth, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 35.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great Series of Lectures I always enjoy Professor Grant Voth's work. He has a pleasant voice to listen to which is half the enjoyment.
Date published: 2018-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this course Professor Voth has a pleasing voice, great storytelling manner, and a good sense of humor. While I have read 2 of the books on this list, this course made me want to read almost all of the rest of them. This was like going to a really good book club and getting high quality reviews and opinions. It was fun to listen to and I really enjoyed this course.
Date published: 2018-08-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I should have read the description more carefully. There's no point in taking a "Great Books" course except to learn about the Great Books without reading them. This course is about a number of books which are "as good as" the Great Books but not part of that canon. Who cares? I've got shelves of good books I've been trying to get around to reading. Someday, I hope, I'll read them. This course describes a bunch of books the professor likes -- none of them sound like anything I'd read on my own. That said, he's a perfectly good lecturer with a good way of describing books. But I couldn't work up any enthusiasm for reading the non-canonical books he happens to like.
Date published: 2018-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor's Explanations are excellent! I purchased this CD recently and have had only time to listen to Lecture 1, and am looking forward to the remaining 5. Professor Voth is fun to listen to and very thorough.
Date published: 2018-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding and engaging I almost never take the time to write a review of the dozens of courses I have listed to. Almost all are excellent, and only a few have been big disappointments. I'm not a big literature buff, but I found the content, the tone, the intelligent commentary, and the soothing voice narrating this course absolutely first rate. Who knows? He might even have convinced me to try a few of these books.
Date published: 2018-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and engaging Curiosity led me to this course and I was pleasantly surprised. It has been many years since US history class. I found that my knowledge was lacking, either from old age affecting memory or not getting the straight scoop originally in classes I took. The professor was engaging and I enjoyed his classes
Date published: 2017-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good-natured and engaging This course provided a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. Each book was discussed in an interesting way for someone who had not yet read it. The professor's lecturing style is amiable and his diction is excellent. My only two quibbles with the course are (1)The title and premise are gimmicky; and (2)I don't believe I learned anything over and above what these 12 books are about.
Date published: 2017-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not knowing how my grasp of literature might be enriched by a “skeptic’s guide,” I bought this course only because I trust the Great Courses brand. Prof. Voth repaid my trust with 12 lectures that explain how top writers produce works that engage readers with unique experiences and insights into the human condition. On its face, this course is about 12 books. In fact, it’s about the motives and methods of the very best writers. Thank you, Professor Voth!
Date published: 2017-04-05
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