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

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  • 102-page printed course guidebook
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  • 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 4.5 out of 5 by 42.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from We listened to the 6 CDs of this course on two long road trips, and found the lectures a pleasant diversion from our usual music. Professor Voth is informal, expert, articulate, and pleasant to listen to; his discussions of the 12 books in the series are interesting and intended to be so for people who haven’t read them (My wife had read half of them but I had only read one). The idea is that these less-daunting but still masterful books can be read instead of (or in addition to) the War and Peaces and Ulysseses with just as much pleasure and enrichment. He makes a good case.
Date published: 2020-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Great Course I have Listened to so far. I greatly enjoyed this course. I thought the discussion/lectures given by Prof Voth were outstanding and I want to read each of the books listed/mentioned. The variety of books with various themes is incredible and thoughtfully chosen. While I am college educated with a Ph.D., I never had a literature course in college. If such a course is given in college these days, I would hope it is highly popular. I would have to say this is the best Great Course that I have listed to over many years.
Date published: 2019-10-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well done, for what it is I have drunk at the Great Books' literature trough a number of times and now have concluded that for me, it's the wrong trough. I'm more of a practical guy, who'd rather listen to masters of the real world, not those, like fiction writers, who've bubbled themselves. This course particularly convinced me of that because it's well done.
Date published: 2019-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative, concise, non-pretentious I learned a lot, Informative, concise, non-pretentious
Date published: 2019-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Battling the Canon? I object to the premise of this course. Professor Voth has chosen his book list for the benefit of “skeptics” who are afraid or unwilling to take on “canonical” works that seem too long or too difficult and tend to gather dust on a shelf. I’ve read quite a few such and thought them well worth the effort, even assuming much effort was necessary. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, is infamously long yet easy to read. So give it a try, skeptics! On the other hand, Voth names as “canonical” books that I wouldn’t have put in that category, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz. Mother Courage, which I’ve read, certainly isn’t long or difficult. If you’re going to play off unpopular classics, pick the real ones, like James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Most people never get around to reading them anymore, and with good reason. Yet I like the course anyways. Voth’s selections represent specific genres such as the “minor epic” (a combination of prose and poetry), the journalistic memoir, the Bildungsroman (a novel about coming of age), the political novel, the drama, the essay, the detective story, the spy novel, and the graphic novel. In each case he gives a thorough synopsis, complete with spoilers. Themes include poverty, emotional trauma, religious faith, cynicism, totalitarianism, charity, alienation, and moral dilemmas. He has certainly influenced my reading choices. I already had Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but after the first time I listened to this course I eventually bought Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, based very loosely on Huey Long’s career. Now that I’ve listened a second time, I want Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the novel of a village girl learning to read and write in wartime Nazi Germany. I may also get or borrow Mikhail Bolgakov’s The Master and Margarita, secretly written in Stalin’s Russia from 1928 to 1940, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, and P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness. I probably won’t want John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold because I’ve already seen the movie, and it was depressing. The plays of Tony Kushner and the essays of Joan Didion don’t sound interesting to me either, alas, but you might like them. In short, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Great Books is a quick and cheap way to get acquainted with a dozen good works of modern literature (even if Gogol isn’t so modern now) and might be helpful for deciding what to put on your birthday or Christmas wish list.
Date published: 2019-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fine Course But For Two Curious Additions This first-rate course, which analyzes non-canonical but significant texts, is oddly marred by the inclusion of two pieces of fluff: The Book Thief and the Life of Pi. I suspect Professor Voth included them to draw gullible readers away from the best seller lists and direct them to books that actually matter.
Date published: 2018-12-31
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
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