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The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books

Get a second opinion on the canon of great literature and discover shorter, more accessible works that serve as alternatives to the massive tomes that usually make the list.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 48.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely wonderful lectures!!!! Even if you ultimately do not want to read the books, Mr. Voth's analyses are always moving and informative. At the end of each lecture, my wife and I could only look at each other and say: WOW! It is unquestionably at the top of Wondrium lecture series. Don't miss it!
Date published: 2022-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Novel Sort of Skeptic Dr. Grant L. Voth questions common assumptions about the so-called “canonical” works of literature. I found the nature of his skepticism to be quite unexpected and intriguing. It is not that he doubts that renowned books and time-honoured genres of writing are great or honourable. In the first seven lectures of his course, however, he supports the view that some of the same pleasures and benefits of reading classics are also available from more contemporary, and possibly more easily accessible, works. In Lecture #6, for example, Dr. Voth promotes Joan Didion’s “new journalism” in her 1968 collection of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” about people and events in California of the 1960s, as a worthy successor to Charles Dickens’s impactful revelations about Victorian London. He certainly values Dickens, too, but remains skeptical that Dickens-like insights are only to be sought in Dickens. In his last five lectures, Dr. Voth’s skepticism takes a rather different tack. Now, it is skepticism about the idea that certain modern, popular genres of writing fail to rise above the level of mere entertainments to rank on a par with long-famous works of literature. Genres that have emerged fairly recently are evolving to confront readers with increasingly serious questions about themselves, their motivations, and ideals. Lecture #10, in which John Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” is the featured example, makes the case that its author has successfully elevated the status of the spy-novel genre. I do not know that I will soon read all of the books that Dr. Voth has promoted. I do know that it was a delight to listen to him. Good book reviews are so often worthwhile in their own right, and his are some of the best I’ve ever enjoyed. His speech is so engaging, and his analyses are so convincing. If you are concerned that these lectures might reveal too many details about books you would rather read first before hearing them reviewed, then I urge you to go ahead and read them first! Treat the course description on the Great Courses website as your prerequisite reading list. Order this audio course afterwards, so that you won’t miss out on a 12-lecture gem.
Date published: 2022-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A real treat I bought this course to give me more variety, and I am very glad that I chose this course. Professor Voth offers a great set of "alternative" books to the Great Books Canon. I found each choice to be fascinating. In every case, I was hooked with the first sentences of the description of the selection, and what I really appreciated was that, in over half the cases, I had never heard of the book, but I found that I learned something valuable from each selection.
Date published: 2021-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Silent wisdom I bought this so I could listen to it at 2 in the morning. But new web format does not let it play.
Date published: 2021-02-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Most courses are excellent. Some not quite as good The professor speaks very fast. I prefer a slower pace.
Date published: 2020-12-08
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
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Open yourself up to works that are just as engaging and insightful about great human themes and ideas as anything you'd find on a college-level reading list. Professor Grant L. Voth's 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 canon. In these 12 lectures, you'll get an introduction to works that redefine what great literature is and how it can reveal startling truths about life—all without being such a chore to read.


Dr. Grant L. Voth

No idea of any single culture will ever capture the entire human sense of god, or creation, or the hero; and to get a more complete human picture, we have to look at the myths of many cultures.


Monterey Peninsula College
Dr. Grant L. Voth, is Professor Emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Greek, he received his Master of Arts degree in English Education from St. Thomas College and his doctorate in English from Purdue University. Professor Voth was the Monterey Peninsula Students' Association Teacher of the Year and the recipient of the first Allen Griffin Award for Excellence in Teaching in Monterey County. Professor Voth is the author of more than 30 articles and books on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to Edward Gibbon to modern American fiction, including the official study guides for 26 of the plays in the BBC Television Shakespeare project. He created a series of mediated courses in literature and interdisciplinary studies, one of which won a Special Merit Award from the Western Educational Society for Telecommunication. Professor Voth's other Great Courses include A Day's Read, The History of World Literature, Myth in Human History, and The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books.

By This Professor

Great Mythologies of the World
The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books


A Skeptic's Way; Gogol's

01: 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.

32 min

02: 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.

29 min

03: 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.

29 min

04: 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.

31 min

05: 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.

34 min

06: 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?

31 min

07: 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.

31 min

08: 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.

30 min

09: 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."

29 min
Le Carré's

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.

31 min
Moore and Gibbons's

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.

32 min
Skeptics and Tigers; Martel's

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.

32 min