Lovable, and knowable; a great
Poet among all the other great
Poets from first to last to
Whom we turn for consolation,
Friendship, pleasure, wisdom,
And warmth of human feeling.
Some readers may recognize several of the best stories in Byways -- sections of the book have appeared previously in magazines and earlier collections -- but it's good to see them gathered together in one place and enhanced by the splendid annotations of Peter Glassgold. The result is a volume that will appeal to all shameless worshippers of the literary life. You know who you are.
But if you're unsure whether this is your kind of book, take this test: Stand in some favorite bookstore and read the five pages about Thomas Merton, starting on page 219, in which the Trappist monk -- released for one day from his monastery -- spends the afternoon with Laughlin and manages to drink six beers, most of a bottle of Pommard, a good deal of Courvoisier, a bottle of St. Emilion, and some cognac "to settle the stomach." It ends with the pair climbing back over the wall of the monastery long past midnight:
We lay in the grass on the far side
Of the wall and laughed and laughed
And laughed. We have done the Devil's
Work today, Tom, I told him.
No, he said, we've been working for
The angels; they are friends of mine.
They are, I'm sure, friends of James Laughlin too.
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His weekly online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.