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Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Senior Editor
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; 2:30 PM

Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda takes your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.

Each week Dirda's name appears -- in unmistakably big letters -- on page 15 of The Post's Book World section. If he's not reviewing a hefty literary biography or an ambitious new novel, he's likely to be turning out one of his idiosyncratic essays or rediscovering some minor Victorian classic. Although he earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda has somehow managed to retain a myopic 12-year-old's passion for reading. He particularly enjoys comic novels, intellectual history, locked-room mysteries, innovative fiction of all sorts.

Michael Dirda (The Washington Post)

These days, Dirda says he still spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth, listening to music (Glenn Gould, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, The Tallis Scholars), and daydreaming ("my only real hobby"). He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer, working. His most recent books include "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments" (Indiana hardcover, 2000; Norton paperback, 2003) and his self-portrait of the reader as a young man, "An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland" (Norton, 2003). In the fall of 2004 Norton will bring out a new collection of his essays and reviews. He is currently working on several other book projects, all shrouded in the most complete secrecy.

Dirda joined The Post in 1978, having grown up in the working-class steel town of Lorain, Ohio, and graduated with highest honors in English from Oberlin College. His favorite writers are Stendhal, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Montaigne, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Mitchell, P.G. Wodehouse and Jack Vance. He thinks the greatest novel of all time is either Murasaki Shikubu's "The Tale of Genji" or Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu." In a just world he would own Watteau's painting "The Embarkation for Cythera." He is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, The Ghost Story Society and The Wodehouse Society. He enjoys teaching and was once a visiting professor in the Honors College at the University of Central Florida, which he misses to this day.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Michael Dirda will be online to take your questions momentarily.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! As I've just rushed over from the Army Navy Club, I will turn immediately to questions and later fill everyone in on the usual preliminaries--ie. the state of the weather and my soul.


College Park, Md.: After several moves, I just recently unpacked Everett Fox's translation of the Five Books of Moses, and--lo and behold--saw Robert Alter's blurb on the back cover. I know you were very enthusiastic about Alter's recent translation; did you feel the same way about Fox's? Any thoughts on one versus the other? Any other translations you might rank with these two? Thanks, as always...

Michael Dirda: As I recall, Alter speaks briefly and admiringly of Fox's work, but naturally supposes his own to be even better, as he aims to be not only scholarly and accurate but to preserve and carry over more of the beauty of the ancient Hebrew.
I myself admire the first Revised Standard Version of the OT--it seeks to preserve as much of the rhythms of the King James, while making whatever changes are necessary to be more accurate in its renderings.


Arlington, Va.: First of all, I love the chat and your reviews. I always come away with many more books on my to read list.

I have never read anything by Wodehouse, but would like to do so. Where should I start?

Along the same lines, I read The Hamlet several years ago, but have never read anything else Faulkner. Which would be the best choice for my next Faulkner book?

Michael Dirda: For Wodehouse, the best novel to start with is probably Leave it to Psmith, which introduces Blandings Castle and also continues the adventures of one of W's most appealing characters. It's a fine novel too, with all the usual elements. Beyond that I'd turn to a good collection of stories, of which there are several around.
As for Faulkner: You might read an easy novel like The Unvanquishd, then go on to one of the four or five masterpieces (The Hamlet is one): Sound and the Fury would probably be the most logical one, though you might try the more direct and somewhat sordid Sanctuary.


Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Dirda: Have you ever wondered about Keats's conflation of "truth" and "beauty"? Richard Wilbur (saw your recent piece) in his new American Poets Project's volume on Poe includes this from Poe's prose writing: "In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart." Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: The beauty and truth equation goes back to Plato, whose theory of forms and his general outlook on aesthetics led him to the formation. I have recently begun to think about this whole issue--I'm going to be teaching the Symposium--and so hope we can come back to it in six weeks time.


Downingtown, Pa.: Hi Michael:
I enjoyed Roger Scrutons "Xanthipic Dialogues" and "Perictione in Colophone", although I'm not sure of what genre' I wold put them in. Can you recommend something along these lines?


Michael Dirda: I know that Roger Scruton is an English philosopher, of a conservative bent, but don't know his work (other than the occasional review) and don't know these two essays. Xanthippe--Socrates's wife-has long been an interesting figure to playful students of the classics, as she is supposed to have been rather a shrew.
Speaking of women: Did you know that Odysseus had a younger sister? Her name is something like Tminime--i't not that--and I think some good feminist scholar should write a poem about her. Calling Anne Carson or Ruth Padel.


Urgent, yet trivial, gift question: Michael, this question feels trivial compared to the usual weighty subjects of this chat, but: what are the titles of the Thursday Next books? I know someone for whom they'd be perfect and can't remember either the titles or the author.


Michael Dirda: Jasper Fforde is the author. The first novel in the series is The Eyre Affair. Good luck.


Washington, D.C.: Are there any other mysteries you might recommend for someone who enjoyed Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time"? I especially love the blending of history and mystery--to make a rhyme.

Michael Dirda: Look for John Dickson Carr's The Murdre of Sir Edmund Godfrey. It's the presentation and solution of a famous 17th century murder, along with various possible solutions, told in the winey, evocative way of Carr's locked room mysteries featuring Dr. Gideon Fell.
You might also enjoy the true crime accounts of William Roughead and Edmund Pearson.
There are various reconstrucitons of famous crimes--E.G. Elizabeth is Missing, by--I think--Lillian de la Torre, aobut the Canning case. ANd The Tichborne Claimant has provided backdrops for several novels and nonfiction studies.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Michael,
Not so long ago I checked out "Lord Foul's Bane" from the library, never having read it but remembering that it was sort of popular when I was growing up in the '70s. I was not impressed with the writing, found the story uninvolving, and gave up after less than 100 pages. Anyway, I'm curious if you ever looked into this saga, and if so, what you thought?

Michael Dirda: I was never drawn to the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series, largely because I'd heard they weren't stylistically very interesting and the series did go on and on. That said, the ever wise John Clute--our leading sf and fantasy critic--found the Donaldson novels far more complex and satisfying than most people, so he may be worth thinking about.


New York Reader: Michael,
I had the unexpected pleasure of hearing Alan Hollinghurst speak last week here in New York and was quite impressed with what I heard. I frankly don't know much about him or his work, other than he won the Man Booker prize for his recent novel, Line of Beauty. Have you met him? What is your estimation of his writing?

Michael Dirda: I've spoken with him on the phone--many years ago--when I asked him to review something, and I think he did. I admire his writing a great deal, though, ever since The Swimming Pool Library, which contains a wonderful portrait of Ronald Firbank, one of my heroes. I also wrote a very enthusiastic review of The Line of Beauty that came out a few weeks before it won the Booker. Nice timing.


Washington, D.C. : What can you tell me about the complete five volume set of the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels? The set is packaged in such a way as to make handling the individual volumes impossible. Can I safely assume that they will be of a reasonably high quality?

Michael Dirda: I suspect that most book stores will have one set that you can fondle and check out before buying. Just tell the bookseller you want to see if the print is large enough for your aging eyes. Most bookstores will be obliging.
Still, I myself don't like omnibus volumes and prefer to read single-novel editions. Norton used to publish all the books in a handsome hardcover line, but of course those would be more expensive. But there are paperbacks floating around. Did I just say floating?


Allen, Tex.: I'm posting this early, but I hope you'll get to it. How about we all share our top 3 reads of the year? Mine were 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell', 'Shadow of the wind' and 'Case histories'.

Michael Dirda: Well, I think that would be a good discussion theme for our next session. Okay, folks: Name yhour favorite books of the year. They can be new books or old books freshly read.
I found Jonathan Strange impressive but slow-going and a little disappointing (see my review); Shadow I thought was quite wonderful and should have gotten more attention here (though I know booksellers love it); and I didn't read Case Histories. Fact is, I'm not quite sure what books this is.


Monkton, Md.: Do you see comnputers and video games etc. as an enemy of reading and literature? And if so, what should be done about it by parents and teachers? Or do you have another reaction to this one?

Michael Dirda: Yes, I do see computers and video games as enemies of reading. They are so involving and immediate that the slower pleasures of books--the requirement of time and thought to allow a text's beauty to percolate through one's soul--are generally dismissed by young people.
I don't think a lot can be done, beyond limiting computer time and encouraging children, in as many ways as possible, to read.
I write about these matters more fully in my essay about the Reading at Risk report. That piece is now reprinted in Bound to Please, my recent colleciton of essays from Norton.


Baltimore, Md.: True crime accounts: I would also recommend The Maul and the Pear Tree, PD James investigation of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murders in 18th Century London.

Michael Dirda: Yes.


Suitland, Md.: What did you think of All the Pretty Horses?

Michael Dirda: I thought it was beautifully written, a mite sentimental (especially compared to earlier novels by McCarthy), and probably the best introduciton to this brilliant, if sometimes controversial, writer. I regard Blood Meridian as one of the great novels of the second half of the 20th century.


La Belle Province: Mr. Dirda,
For the history/mystery axis, what about Julian Symons' Sweet Adelaide or The Blackheath Poisonings, both based on famous Victorian crimes?

Michael Dirda: Yes.


Elgin, S.C.: Regarding Faulkner -- I've been reading "Go Down, Moses." Yardley recently quoted Parini as saying you can't read Faulkner, only re-read him. So true. Page-wise, my progress is always very slow, but always endlessly illuminating.

Michael Dirda: Parini stole this phrase from Nabokov, who said that there is no such thing as reading, only re-reading--at least if one is approaching a novel as a work of art.


Thomas Covenant: Michael, it's a good thing you never picked them up. If you're pre-disposed to melancholy, the books will put you over the edge. They do offer a very good portrayal of a stubborn, flawed, unwilling hero - the term "anti-hero" was practically invented for the protagonist.

Michael Dirda: Well, I am predisposed to introspection--I am Russian in ancestry and when I read Dostoevsky I see my own self in his characters. I once met Donaldson and liked him immensely. He seemed both charming and gracious.


Arlington, Va.: Any good satire about messed-up city councils and greedy short-sighted sports team owners? Gotta be something out there better than real life...

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. North Dallas Forty? What's that Dan Jenkins novel about the football players and the owners? SEmi-Tough?
I really don't understand this passion for football stadiums--does it really help cities? Atlantic City doesn't seem to have been revived by all those casinos.


Washington, D.C.: After your recommendation, I just read "The Shadow of the Wind" and very much loved it. I know in your review you said that the book is tough to define genrewise, but would you have any other recommendations along the same line? I also enjoyed Name of the Rose & If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, which seem in somewhat of the same vein. Thanks.

Michael Dirda: In my review, I remember listing a bunch of books which Shadow resembles, including those two. You might read some Borges stories, Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary, John Crowley's Little, Big, the novels of Arturo Perez-Reverte (especially The Club Dumas) and A.S. Byatt's Possession.


Hartford, Conn.: I am nearing the end of James Lees-Milne's penultimate diary, Ceaseless Turmoil. Any suggestions on diarists to fill the months until the publication of the final volume? I've read the big names of the 20th century, Channon and Clark. Those Brits do know how to keep a diary.


Michael Dirda: Have you read Harold Nicolson? Or Frances Patridge's Diaries (rough contemporaries of Lees-Milne). You might also try collections of letters: The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters (available in six volumes or a one volume selection) are wonderfully gossippy literary exhanges about books, authors, society, publishing. Very tory and old fashioned and cultivated. I love them.


Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: Michael, is there a definitive or highly readable biography of Walt Whitman? What about of the Civil War generals, or the Civil War in general?

Michael Dirda: A good readable one is Justin Kaplan's WW. There've been others since, but often with a bit of polemical edge to them, emphasizing Walt as a gay writer, for instance. For Civil War generals, the place to start is Douglas Southall Freeman's old classic, Lee's Lieutenants (in three volumes).


Crystal City, Va.: Michael,

What is your opinion of Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist? In some ways, I find it even more entertaining than Tristram Shandy, from which Diderot shamelessly steals. The interplay between author, characters and the reader is truly clever and often hilarious. I knew it would take a philosopher (did I mention I was a philosophy major in college?) to do something this innovative - back in the 18th century.

Michael Dirda: You know my old joke--Diderot, Derrida, Dirda: The Great Tradition.
I revere Denis D for his playful imagination and, as you say, philosophical insight. Do you know The Indiscreet Jewels, in which ladies' private parts--the jewels of the title--gossip away, or my favorite, the short novel, Rameau's Nephew, about our propensitiy for assuming personae in life.
Of course, those 18th century French guys really knew how to write. Is there any prose more perfectly witty and classical than Voltaire's--or as supple and beautiful as Rousseau's in his Confessions?


Fair Oaks, Va.: I have been thinking about a reference you made to Cyril Connolly a long time ago. It had to do with his comment in "The Unquiet Grave", to the effect that the enemy of literary success is "the pram in the hallway".

What bugs me about this comment is that Connolly himself made several marriages which, in his friends' opinions, were unsuitable from the get-go. He COULD have been free from distraction after his first divorce. Maybe he feared discovering that he was not an artistic genius---better to blame the family for keeping him limited.

But how would he explain successes like Evelyn Waugh, who had numerous prams in hallways?

Maybe class was involved: Waugh had boarding schools and nursemaids. Maybe gender was a factor, too: Mrs. Waugh, when not riding around on a tractor, was tending the kids.

Do you think Connolly could ever have been a consistently good bachelor writer, or was his comment so much humbug?

Michael Dirda: Connolly in fact regarded himself as a failure. But then that was a large part of his success: All writers think of themselves as failure. How could they not? As Walter Benjamin observes: "The work of art is the death mask of its conception." We always fall short of our visions.
Connolly's triumph is in his excellent prose--rivaled only by Waugh's--and by his sheer ingratiating voice, at once world-weary and foolish and learned and melancholy.
STill his observation does possess a great truth. Great writers do tend to neglect their fmailies, if only because the Muse is a harsh mistress and demands one's fulltime attention. The large number of gay authors is also a sign of this truth: Without the distractions of family, one can concentrate on nursing one's particular genius. With a family, one is either distracted or obliged to turn to the kind of writing that will produce quick bucks quickly.
There are, though, many exceptions to these generalizations.


La Belle Province: Mr. Dirda,
It seems to me that no one ever described politics and politicians better than the late George V. Higgins. What's that line from the end of The Friends of Richard Nixon? Something like: we Americans are tolerant people, but don't try to give us the swerve...

Michael Dirda: I miss having George around.What an amazing talent! He once gave me a copy of his book on writing, and I tresure it.
Still, most readers tend to wish he'd stuck to his crime novels and let the political novels alone.


Arlington, Va.: I recently re-read "The Good Earth" for the first time since high school. I have to confess; I loved it. The simple emotional displays, the absurdly ornate dialogue. Obviously, this book is a "classic," but is it still well-regarded, or is my enjoyment a guilty pleasure? Also, are the sequels ("Sons" and "A House Divided") worth reading?

Michael Dirda: I read it in high school too, and remember weeping at its end. But I haven't looked at it since. I suspect that it is a good novel, and holds up better than we think: Those Nobel prizes may not always go to the right writers but very seldom to actually bad ones.


Takoma Park, Md.: Comment:

Hello Michael

I just wanted to share a wonderful experience. I was in Bueno Aries two weeks ago and the on my nightstand at the Wilton Palace Hotel on Avenida Santa Fe was the collected works of Jorge Luis Borges.

To read Borges in Argentina! I was able to visit Palermo Veijo and the cafes where he lived and worked. I saw the mysterious characters and philosophical puzzles in the alleyways and streets of Buenos Aries.

What a true pleasure.

Best wishes,
Roya Swartz
(or am I really Roya Swartz? And I am living in the present or the past?)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Personally I believe you're an inhabition of Tlon Uquar, Orbis Tertius.


History Mystery: "The Wench is Dead" by Colin Dexter, an Inspector Morse mystery, is virtually the same book as Tey's "Daughter of Time." You see, the famous detective in the hospital starts reading about a 100-year-old crime and solves it from his bed.

Michael Dirda: Yes. and thanks.


Elgin, S.C. : What is your Number One overrated classic?

Michael Dirda: There are no overrated classics. A classic is a book that is always worth reading. There are simply under prepared readers.


Baltimore, Md.: Another fine, if obscure, true crime book: The Thurtell-Hunt Murder Case: Dark Mirror to Regency England, by Albert Borowitz. It was published by LSU Press in the 1980s. It tells of the stabbing death of the gambler William Weare in 1824. It also provides a penetrating view into the sporting world of England in the period.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. sounds great.


Los Angeles, Calif.: This quotation is on the flap of my copy of Dorothy Sayers' THE NINE TAILORS: "In the realm of mystery stories there are four books which everyone should read. They are The Lodger, Malice Aforethought, Bleak House, and the Nine Tailors. I am not sure but that the best of these is the Nine Tailors." The quotation is from Sinclair Lewis.
I recently found and read the Lodger, which was a bit dated, but quite effective. Have you ever read it, or Malice Aforethought? Nine Tailors is a great one, but I was surprised to hear of his high estimation of the other two.

Michael Dirda: Francis Iles, author of Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact, is one of my favorite mystery writers. These two books are psychological classics. But Iles also wrote under the name Anthony Berkeley, and these books are more lighthearted delights, especially The Poionsed CHocolates Case (expanded from "The AVenging Chance") in which a detection club offers a series of half dozen different, ever more complex solutions to a single crime.
Bleak House is, of course, far more than a mystery. And I, alas, don't really like The Nine Tailors all that mucy, preferring either Murder Must Advertise (for lightness) or Sayer's masterpiece, Gaudy Night.
My four English mystery novels of the Golden Age would be:CAgatha Christies' The ABC Murders; John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins; Michael Innes's Lament for a Maker; and probably The Poisoned Chocolates Case.


Prince Frederick, Md.: I wanted to plug the Parker novels by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake). He has just published a new one, "Nobody Runs Forever," which continues the excellent standard. Parker is a thief, and will do anything to stay out of jail. You can't like him, but you have to respect him. The plots revolve around complicated heists, double-crosses etc. They are brilliantly well written and I think the best thriller entertainment going.

Michael Dirda: I quite agree, though I don't think the more recent batch--after a hiatus of 20 years--are as good as the earlier ones. I think the first The Hunter is one of the great noirish, hard-boiled crime novels. Of course, Hollywood agrees, having made it into a film twice: as Point Blank with Lee Marvin and Payback with Mel Gibson. But the book is better.
I used to collect--and it took quite a while--the paperbacks of the old Starks. Did you know that STephen King took his sometime pen name Richard Bachman as homage to Richard Stark and Bachman Turner Overdrive.
As you doubtless know, Donald Westlake's books under his own name are just as good. See his masterpiece, The Ax, or any of the funny Dortumnder capers--essentially Stark novels with a comic slant. In one, in fact, the bumbling Dortmunder gang models a kidngapping after a STark novel, and you get extracts from the Stark book inside the WEstlake text. Very po-mo.


Civil War: The recent "American Scoundrel" is a good read on a real piece of work Civil War General Dan Sickles.

Michael Dirda: thanks


Nani, Tex.: My 15 year old granddaughter, Hilary, hopes to study medicine and work with children (she had a very successful kidney transplant 18 months ago)and expressed a Christmas wish for "some medical books". I purchased "Gifted Hands" by Dr. Ben Carson and another volume written by a young doctor about her experiences as an intern. Hilary enjoys reading and writing. She loves fiction and I'm at a loss for something about the medical field. Any ideas? Also, I wanted to let your readers know about a wonderful magazine I discovered on the internet. Teen Ink, all written by teens for teens, art, photography, literature, essays, opinions, interviews.

Michael Dirda: Go back to Sinclair Lewis's old classic, Arrowsmith, about the making of a young doctor. She might also like those old Paul de Kruif books like Microbe Hunters.


Munich, Germany: After reading "Things Fall Apart," "No Longer at Ease" and "The Arrow of God," I've often considered Chinua Achebe to be the old man of African literature.

Why do you think that he's not received more recognition than he has, such as the Nobel nod?

Michael Dirda: He is widely recognized--Things Fall Apart is often taught in high school and is probably the most widely read African novel. But he hasn't written any fiction for decades. I don't know why he's not been a Nobelist--probably the small produciton or possibly the wrong political views.


Atlanta, Ga.: As an academic myself, I have decided that new theories about literature are ways to revive a finite canon by creating off the wall interpretations. Prior to 1900 a degree in modern languages was not available. People read unhindered by critics' theories. Political correctness is the worst thing that ever happened to learning. Professors published to express their own ideas; meanwhile the joys--and the inherent truth -- of literature perished for many of the current generation of studnents.

Michael Dirda: This is an old argument, by now, and may well be true. But literature must "make it new" to stay vital, and so, in its way, must literary scholarship and criticism. Structuralism and Deconstruction make theory exciting, when ENglish was starting to grow tired of one more close-reading after another.
I don't worry about theory. What I do worry about is that its sutdents haven't read enough of the world's literature to really understand the scope of their field. Theory must grow out of familiarity with a great range and depth of reading.


Dallas, Tex.: Thanks for these chats. I've put Bound to Please on my Christmas wish list.

In a recent Guardian article titled "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" P. G. Wodehouse biographer Robert McCrum listed the 10 literary figures that he would invite to his fantasy dinner. He limited the choices to English and American writers. His guests were: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Aphra Behn, Virginia Woolf, Coleridge, Byron, Dickens, and Twain. Finally, he put Jackie Collins on the guest list since she would liven up the conversation. Coleridge was McCrum's essential guest and was described as "a one-man dinner party." Also, the author hoped that Oscar Wilde would drop by later in the evening on his way home from the theatre.

Which literary figures would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Michael Dirda: I don't know if they'd make a good dinner party, but I would like to have seen, in the flesh, and heard: Stendhal, Montaigne, Lady Murasaki (who would speak in Arthur Waley's English), CHekhov, Joyce, Proust, NIetzsche, Samuel Johnson, Plato, Dante and Shakespeare. For the Jackie Collins position, I would choose Harriet Wilson, whose memoirs begin "I will not say why I became, at the age of 14, the mistress of the Earl of Craven." But she goes on to say a lot more about other men.


Elgin, S.C.: Aren't there any classics that just bore you into a coma, and seem to you over-valued?

Michael Dirda: Sure. But I still figure the fault is mine, that my mind is not supple enough or intelligent enough to appreciate them. Schopenhauer said that we should comport ourselves with great works of art as servants do with their masters: Stand before them and wait until they speak to us.


Allen, Tex.: "Case Histories" is by Kate Atkinson and beautifully weaves together three unsolved crimes.

Michael Dirda: THanks.


Atlanta, Ga.: What about Margery Allingham from the Golden Age? I think Police at the Funeral abd The Estate of the Beckoning Lady and More Work for the Undertaker are some of the funniest crime novels I've read. And The Tiger in the Smoke is an excellent psychological novel.

Michael Dirda: Yes, you're quite right. Ruth Rendell always looked to Tigerin the Smoke as somehting of a model for her own psychological thrillers.


Annapolis, Md.: Michael, I saw the article about your upcoming teaching at McDaniel College in their alumni magazine, The Hill. I was surprised to see the picture of you is the old one that used to be at this discussion site. Your new picture is much more flattering. I hope that you will let us know what books you plan to teach in your courses on Love in Literature and Literary Journalism.

Michael Dirda: The old picture was probably downloaded from some site or other. I'm now even more dazzlingly handsome since I got contacts.


Alexandria, Va.: Why do chatters inform you (and other hosts) that they are submitting early? Does this affect your response?

Michael Dirda: Not really. I tend to start at the top of the quesitons and take them one after another. As the end of hte program approaches, I sometimes flip ahead to see if there any queries that I really must answer.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Michael -- For the person whose granddaughter is interested in medicine, the novels of Perri Klass would be great. Klass is a pediatrician and also a wonderful writer. She also helped start a great national literacy program, Reach Out and Read, in which pediatricians give parents "prescriptions" for reading -- plus a brand new book -- when they bring their kids in for check-ups.

Michael Dirda: Ye.s


Baltimore, Md.: Novels about doctors: A.J. Cronin's The Citadel, about an idealistic young doctor in Wales may be a bit dated (1937) but it's a good story. (Was made into a Masterpiece Theatre series some years back.)

Michael Dirda: Yes.


Cubesville, Md. (Historic Mysteries): Lillian de Torre also wrote some mysteries (short stories) featuring Samuel Johnson and Boswell. Sorry, I can't remember the titles, but I would definitely recommend them

Michael Dirda: Yes. But the Dr. Sam: Johnson stories are original mysteries that simply feature the great Cham, and I was trying to think of historical ones.


Cleveland, Ohio: I could have sworn your review of "I am Charlotte Simmons" was basically negative. But an ad for the book in today's New York Times has you touting it as "Brilliant ..." and then notes how you think Tom Wolfe can make words do magical things.

How often do the book ads misrepresent what critics think?

Michael Dirda: It happens. My review of Charlotte Simmons was basically mixed--I admired the dazzling prose, dissented from the implied puritanism. The young will always be in one another's arms. That's part of being young.


Washington, D.C.: Michael -- Why contacts? I like your grown-up "Harry Potter" look.

Michael Dirda: A long complicated story. In fact, I only wear them some of the time. But when I wear the contacts I get to use those cool Ben Franklin style half glasses in order to read.


Somewhere USA: Michael,

I recently started working in a university, so find myself interested in fiction set in (and centered around) a university; for example, I really enjoyed Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park, and also Shreve's All He Ever Wanted (although to a lesser degree). Do you and/or the readers have any suggestions for other good novels?

Michael Dirda: THis is an immense subgenre, and Charlotte Simmons is an example of it in the news right now. But try these three classics: Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution; Malcom Bradbury's The History Man; and David Lodge's Small World.


Swarthmore, Penn.: Mr. Dirda -- thank you for your chats. You have introduced me to PGW, and for that I am forever indebted.

Setting aside the issue of book awards always going to the safe/mediocre choice, I wonder what you think of giving prizes to children's books that grapple with issues that some parents may think as inappropriate for children -- subjects such as death, prostitution, etc. I am a staunch supporter of not censoring books based on subject, so that the public at least has access to them and parents may decide if they want their children reading on certain themes before they are ready. But isn't there a difference between making them available and endorsement by some prize committee? If so, how should one reconcile quality with subject?

Michael Dirda: Children's book prizes sometimes go to books that the judges--ie adults--like and children don't. The books are judged on their merits as works of art, but sometimes also as important social documents or learning tools. You can't trust any award, really (my own Pulitzer for criticism being the sterling exception, an occasion when the judges obviously got it right).

And that, my friends, is it for this week: I need to see Book World's former secretary, Ednamae Storti, for tea--and to sign some copies of Bound to Please.
So until next time at 2--keep reading! And remember: Books do make the best presents.


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