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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

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The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books

Course No. 2112
Professor Grant L. Voth, Ph.D.
Monterey Peninsula College
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4.5 out of 5
29 Reviews
86% of reviewers would recommend this series
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
 |  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

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  • Ability to download 12 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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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?

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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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The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 29.
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
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Accurate title Quite interesting except that I'm unlikely to ever be tempted to read the books he mentions for the most part. The Book Thief is interesting!
Date published: 2017-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now I Have Even More Books to Read audio download version This very enjoyable course has as its assumption, that most of us have not in fact read “The Great Books” and likely won’t anytime soon, or at all. Therefore Professor Voth provides worthy alternatives to the Great Books that we won’t read. Now I do dislike the premise, as I’ve read a great many of the books to which he provides alternatives, as well as a good many of the alternatives. I do like the alternatives that I have read and based on the lectures, I plan to read the suggestions that I have yet to read. In some cases, I was totally unaware of either the book or the author. For example I not even heard of Sandra Cisneros nor her collection of short stories, “The House on Mango Street”. I was so intrigued by Dr Voth’s lecture on this book, that I have placed it on top of my reading list. The authors and works with which I was familiar were handled accurately (meaning of course that I agreed with Dr. Voth’s points). As an example his description of P.D. James’s writing is exactly why I have read all of her mysteries, many of them more than once. Further, his background on writers that I thought I knew was enlightening.. For example, I found out a lot more about Robert Penn Warren than I knew and now plan to reread “All the King’s Men”. Professor Voth’s delivery is measured and easy to understand, though he is not particularly scintillating Aside from my quibble with the notion that readers have not read Tolstoy, for example, I found this course quite rewarding. Recommended
Date published: 2016-12-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth the cost Professor convinced me to read a couple of the books I had not read previously, provided insight into the ones I had read previously and taught me something about structure of fiction.
Date published: 2016-10-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Evaluating Worthwhile Options I'll begin this review with a simple equation. Libraries + Bookstores = A mountain of choice. How does one narrow down the available choices to something more manageable? No one wants to waste time on a book that isn't worthwhile. So I decided to buy the course. Having read the course description, you may ask: Are the books selected by Prof. Voth too obscure? I had not read any of them before listening to the course, but I was able to find 8 out of 12 at a local big box bookstore. Therefore, they are being published and enjoyed. Since completing the course, I've finished the Le Carre and Didion selections. I liked Le Carre's spy novel, but Joan Didion's essays about California in the 1960's were a revelation. How did I not know about this writer until now? I'll definitely read more of her work. Given a few false starts (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky), I wanted to find an 'approachable' Russian novel. Prof. Voth recommended Gogol's "Dead Souls" because it includes many of the elements that make Russian literature compelling, and I've now added it to my future reading list. In summary, the concept of this course is sound: Worthy alternatives to the 'Great Books' are available! At 6 hours, I feel that I received a good return on my investment. My second review (CD).
Date published: 2016-06-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Which Books are we Talking about I think the course could have a better name: "The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books" made me think I was going to get a review of the GREAT BOOKS by a Skeptic - which might have been interesting since I am a Cynic. That turned out NOT to be the case. This course talks about 12 'other' books that the Skeptic claims are a lot like a certain 'Great Book' but easier to read - and then goes into detail about what he liked in the 'other' book which he is reviewing. I was looking for reviews of about 12 of the 'Great Books'. Not to say I wasn't interested in the review of the 'Skeptic's' choice - I have already ordered two of them on Amazon. BUT ... the course was not really what I thought it Advertised to be by its Title. Aw shucks! There is probably another Great Course that reviews some of the "Great Books", but I really am not going to be reading 'War and Peace' any time soon.
Date published: 2016-06-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The titles more interesting than content I am not a big fiction reader. These would please my English teachers, but once the content of the books were discussed, I found my mind wandering badly. I had purchased expecting a more historical background. There is some of that, but more in terms of writing style and plot motifs from generation to generation. It became a list of books for me not to purchase! It is not a complete loss for a science geek, but it clearly aimed at a different audience than me.
Date published: 2016-03-14
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