Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Senior Editor
Wednesday, June 1, 2005; 2:00 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.

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.

The transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's a pleasant afternoon here in Westminster, MD, to which I have returned after a week in Silver Spring, one mostly taken up with the graduation hoopla surrounding my No. 2 son. (Gosh, it would be fun to watch an old Charlie Chan movie again.)

I'll be working here at McDaniel for the next month on my next book. So you will all be receiving despondent updates each week on my progress or lack of it. Who knows? I may just spend the time watching old Charlie Chan movies instead.

In the meantime--on with today's show!


Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Dirda: A recent letter to the NYTRB editor pointed out that a reviewer had apparently missed that Ruth Reichl's title "Garlic and Sapphires..." was a T.S. Eliot phrase from "Burnt Norton." The letter-writer was polite, but it does point out a pitfall of reviewing. You're an eclectic reader (the L.A. guy called you the world's widest-read) with a nimble mind. Have you ever been embarrassed? Thanks much. P.S. I would have failed the test. As much as I admire Eliot, the "Four Quartets" (and especially "Burnt Norton" where Eliot tries to find his end in his beginning), I had read several reviews of Reichl's book and had no thought of the phrase's origin.

Michael Dirda: Oh, everyone with the leasat semblance of being cultivated would surely recognize that phrase from Eliot--it's the lynchpin of the entire poem.

In truth, I'd have never gotten it either. And I love Eliot, the Quartets etc etc.

My view about such matters has to be a realistic one, derived from my experience working in the rolling mill of National Tube, a steel mill that specialized in producing pipe. I was the lowest grade laborer, and my job was to sweep up slag and scale, whlle all around me huge red-hot ingots were slammed into pipe like shape by great pounding pieces of machinery. The air was filthy, the noise level almost unbearable, the machinery dangerous. One knows that no matter how careful you are if you work in those conditions eventually you will make a slip and get hurt. You only hope that it's a minor slip that only leads to a pinched finger or small burn. I knew guys who'd lost limbs.

If you're out of the floor, you run the risk of getting hurt. Same thing with reviewing. You don't have the luxury of spending weekls researching and double-checking everything--you just have to go with what you know and remember. And sometimes you'll misremember or overlook something important. People will invariably point these details out to you.

About two years ago I reviewed a wonderful book on 11th century England, and misidntified the Harold who lost in 1066 as the son rather than the heir (and I think nephew) of the previous king. You would have thought the world was made up of Anglo-Saxon scholars and that they'd simply been patiently waiting for their chance.


Lexington: Michael, I want to mention a wonderful book I'm reading that just came out and would make a great summer read for any armchair traveller-'The 8:55 To Baghdad' by Andrew Eames. When I was in London a few years ago the British Museum had a wonderful exhibit on Agatha Christie and her travels and travails in the mid-East, particularly in Baghdad where she spent 30 winters with her archeological husband. Eames recreates her trips on the Orient Express to Baghdad beginning in 1929. The book is full of lore of the Train and her trips and the cities along the way-Paris, Istanbul, Vienna, Belgrade, Sofia. He examines the sources of many of her books and compares that to the cities today. Think of Graham Greene and 'The Orient Express', Alfred Hitchcock and 'The Lady Vanishes', Eric Amblers' novels of the 30's, and, of course, Christie's own 'Murder on the Orient Express', and her many novels set in the mid-East. A delicious trip into the past of the Orient Express in the 20's, 30's and 40's. Murder, intrique, and espionage galore!;

Michael Dirda: Ooh, this does sound just terrific. Just yesterday I was reading a Parker Pyne story by Dame Agatha, and reflecting on how flat the thing was in terms of style, obvious in its plotting, and yet somehow deeply charming and, yes, cozy. It felt restful just to read about such a lost world, though I suppose it is really at least half fantasy. There couldn't have been that many retired colonels, ladies companions, gigolos, etc etc. in, say, a single small village, could there?


Los Angeles, Calif.: In high school (in the mid seventies) I bought an old beat up set of Balzac, published in 1901 by AVRIL, with introductions to each volume by George Saintsbury. I am writing to ask about an anomaly in the set. LOST ILLUSIONS is divided up into two volumes. The first contains "Two Poets" and "Eve and David," and the second, "A Distinguished Provincial at Paris." So the middle of the book is extracted and put in another book! Saintsbury defends this evisceration in his introduction as giving the work more coherence (while simultaneously proclaiming it Balzac's masterpiece.) I know Edmund Wilson had a very high opinion of Saintsbury (he published an appreciation after GS' death) so I wondered if there was warrant, or if you knew anything about the split. It seems to me rather like what Leavis would have done to Daniel Deronda given the chance. Thanks.

Michael Dirda: I've seeen the occasional volume in this set, but didn't know that George S had been quite so highminded. As it happens, I collect Saintsbury's books (as I do those of Logan Pearsall Smith and Desmond MacCarthy--I enjoy those early 20th century men of letters), but would have to go with you in agreeing this wasn't really kosher. Lost Illusions is itself only the first part of Lucien de Rubempre's story; it ends when he is picked up--literally--by a clearly homosexual prelate (actually the master criminal Vautrin in disguise) and he abandons all his dreams. His story continues in Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (the Penguin titles this A Harlot High and Low--Rayner Heppenstall's translation), as he becomes the tool of Vautrin and little more than a gigolo. In the end, well, I won't tell you the end. But Oscar Wilde said that he had never forgotten the death of Lucien de Rubempre, that he remembered it even in moments of joy and laughter.


Bookville, Calif.: Hi Michael, What's your opinion of David Gates' Jernigan? I hear good things. Also, any thoughts on Harry Crews? I seem to enjoy writer's writers (as they are unfortunately deemed) but I prefer the ones who are obsessed with the downward spiral of their characters. OK, go!


Michael Dirda: Don't know anything about the Gates's book. Harry Crews is a remarkable writer--wonderfuly memoir (A Childhood) aobut growing up dirt poor and equally wonderful novels, of which Car (a guy decides to eat an entire Corvair, a cup of metal a day), The Gypsiec Curse and A Feast of Snakes are probably outstanding.

Crews is Southern Gothic, tinged with noir--what could be more American and depressing? Very alive prose.


Coe-Dependent, Wash.: I keep hearing about Coe's new bio of BS Johnson and blah blah blah. I don't know who either of these people are. Should I? Help me, Michael. Thanks

Michael Dirda: My review of Coe's Johnson will be out on Sunday. Book World's front page will feature a review of Coe's latest novel by Ron Charles, our new senior editor who has taken over my duties (and others) at The Post. So all your questions will soon be answered.


Chevy Chase, Md.: I recently acquired a copy of Gay Talese's "New York: A Serendipiter's Journey," and I previously read a book collecting some of his magazine articles. I must say, I'm completely in love with them, especially the New York book. What do you think of his writings, and what else similar would you recommend?

Michael Dirda: Gay Talese has been somewhat forgotten these days, but he was once one of the major figures in New Journalism. The collection you may have read could be Fame and Obscurity. Talese is terrific on New York, Italian culture, newspapers, and sex. He penned a famous Esquire piece about falling in love as a boy with a Playboy centerfold and then, years later, going out in search of her. He also did a book on sex in which he explored all the freedoms of the 1970s and reported on things like Plato's Retreat, swinging etc etc.

But he hasn't written much lately, though his wife Nan remains a powerfhouse in publishing.

I'm fairly sure it was Talese who profiled Joe Dimaggio and ended with Marilyn Monroe, back from a USO tour, telling her husband "Joe, you can't imagine what it's like to have thousands and thousands of men cheering for you." Joe quietly looks up at her, and answers: "Yes, I can."


Writewell, Va.: Hi Michael, Are there any books on writing you'd recommend? I enjoyed Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird, Stephen King's On Writing and am currently about to start in on Patricia Highsmith's tome on the subject. Yes, this is all writerly procrastination. Thanks

PS. Congratulations on your no. 2's graduation. Did you get him a book to celebrate?

Michael Dirda: Writing books? Well, I'm fond of Robert Graves and Alan Hodges' The Reader Over Your Shoulder--a kind of bigger Elements of Style. Once you've mastered grammar and syntax, I think the best things to read are the first two volumes of the Paris Review Writers at Work interviews. They will inspire you.


Buffalo, NY: I enjoyed your Introduction to the third volume of Jorkens stories. Do you plan to do any more writing for Night Shade Books?

Michael Dirda: Maybe--if the right project comes along. I certainly enjoy writing prefaces and afterwords, having done them on Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, Huxley's Crome Yellow, Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, the supernatural short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Robertson Davies's The Manticore, and a few others. But I have to like the book or author.


Soon to be NY, NY: Mr. Dirda, the publishing industry's dog and pony show is this weekend. What are your thoughts? Does anything good come out of book expo? Is it all just sales and marketing?

Michael Dirda: Of course, good comes out of it. Friends see each other, deals are cut, drinking is done, books given away. I love dog and pony shows--we don't have enough of them, if you ask me. In fact, I don't think I've ever actually seen a dog and pony show, but I'd certainly go out of my way for the chance.


Alok, Chicago, Ill.: Interesting to see Stendhal sitting side by side Nabokov on your favourite writers list. What do you think of Nabokov's comment, when he called Stendhal's novels "fiction for the chambermaids" ? Don't you think Stendhal's fiction is a little too "easy", a little too "racy" to be ranked with other great literature?

Michael Dirda: No. He is the greatest all round French writer--author of two of the top 20 French novels, author of a highly original autobiography (Vie de Henry Brulard), a superb travel writer, and as inimitable a presence on the page as any writer you'll ever meet. By comparison, Nabokov is nothing but a stylist. A great stylist, yes, but in a fairly narrow vein.


Southern, Md.: Just a note to say thank you for all the great reading suggestions that I have come across in this chat. Some of my favorites have been the Gormenghast Trilogy, The Deed of Paksenarrion, and the discovery of authors Prachett, Gaiman, Willis, PK Dick, HP lovecraft and many more. Anymore authors you would suggest along these lines? I spend an hour plus each way reading on a bus commuting, so having a good pool of authors to choose from keeps me sane.

Thanks again!

Michael Dirda: The Deed of Paksenarion? What is this? I've never read it.

Well, the people you like are great fantasy and science fiction authors, so why not read more--try Alfred Bester, Roger Zelazny, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, M. John Harrison, Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, J.G. Ballard, and on and on.

In fact, you might want to pick up an old guide called The Hundred Best FAntasy Novels and The Hundred Bed SF Novels, or something like that. Each contains essays by divers hands on various classics.


Bethesda: And all this time I thought you were Deep Throat....

Michael Dirda: Look, the historians were getting closer and closer. I had to throw them someone. The real truth will never be known.


Venus: Michael, hello. I want to learn more about Lyndon Johnson. Would you please recommend one or two good biographies of him?

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Robert Caro all the way.


Chicago, Ill.: Hi Michael! I recently discovered that my library has the Arkangel CD recordings of all of Shakespeare's plays. Do you know anything about this series? They came out in 2003, and the couple I've listened to are wonderful. In any event, I thought I would make it a summer project to listen to them all - any suggestion or recommendation on an order to follow? I'm assuming I should do one genre at a time -- tragedy, comedy, history, etc. Any good books you would recommend to help me with this?

Michael Dirda: For a moment I thought you meant your private library--that you'd somehow forgotten that you'd bought all these plays on CD.

Hmmmm. I'd make a list of say the 10 greatest plays and start with those. That way, if you get bogged down or tire you will have still listened to the high spots. Those would be Richard III, As You Like It, Henry IV Part I, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest.

There are lots of good books on Shakespeare. A very agreeable one is Mark Van Doren's Shakespeare. Also a collection of Maynard Mack's, the title of which I forget. Some old classics would be A.C. Bradley's Shakesperean Tragedy, C.L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, and Samuel Schoenbaum's great study of Shakespeare's fortunes thorugh history, Shakespeare's Lives.


Munich, Germany: Well, it's not Westminster, but it was a nice, sunny day at the castle park here in Munich as well.

I wanted to ask, how many times do you read a book before you write your review?

I remember my grade 11 teacher asking the star pupil (definitely not me) how she remembered so many details about a novel. Her answer was that she read novels twice.

Now that I'm rereading the "Parsifal Mosaic", I'm discovering many nuances that I had missed when I read the book twenty years ago. The same thing occurred when I reread "Far From the Madding Crowd".

I'm not sure if my added insight is due to years of hardship, or if it's because of a second reading.

Michael Dirda: Nabokov said that a book couldn't be read, only reread. The first time through it one simply picked up the plot and its major elements. The second time one could begin to perceive the artistry. Oscar Wilde asserted that if a book wasn't worth reading over and over, it wasn't worth reading at all.

But I only read a book once before I review it. But I do read slowly, I mark up the pages, I flip back and forth, I review my comments throughout, and I think hard about structure as I read. I just don't have time to read anything twice.

But soon, as I approach if not my sunset years, at least my late afternoon years, I hope to spend more and more time rereading favorite books.


Washington, DC: A question about Wm. Empson: aside from the poems, 7 Types, and Some Versions of Pastoral, do you recommend any other books by Empson the interested reader should track down?

Michael Dirda: Those are the heart of Empson, to which one can add The Strcuture of Complex Words and the controversial Milton's God. His occasional essays were collected after his death by John Haffenden in a book called Argufying.


Washington, DC: What do you consider to be the essential novels of Henry James? I'm definitely interested in your recommendations about the novels, because I'm already well acquainted with the stories. Thanks in advance!;

Michael Dirda: How many? Let's say five: Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl.


Southern, Md.: The Deed of Paksenarion is by Elizabeth Moon. (Whose recent Speed of Dark is also excellent) It is the name of the triolgy. The first book is The Sheepfamers Daughter. It was recomended by a fellow chatter.

Michael Dirda: many thanks for jogging my memory.


Fair Oaks, Va.: Oh, I hope I am in time to add this. Several years ago (late 1980s), my husband and I were in Baghdad, working at the US Embassy. One of our favorite diversions was the play readings sponsored by the British Embassy. These readings were started by Agatha Christie, and had been carried on through the years. We'd take turns being the producer (who provided the venue--chairs set up in the yard--and dinner), actors, bare minimum of costumes and make-up.

It was a great deal of fun, and nice to know that we were continuing Agatha Christie's creation.

Michael Dirda: What a lovely memory!


Washington, DC: Mr. Dirda, am a huge fan and value your opinion. What do you think of literary prizes, particularly for undergrads? I am thinking about my alma mater's -- Washington College -- Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest cash award offered to an undergrad. Friends from other schools say that it's too much $$$ for someone so young. I say God bless them and may they keep writing!; What are your thoughts?

Michael Dirda: Hard call. On the one hand, the Sophie Kerr prize--when I was there to give a commencement address it was for $30,000, and may be more now--gives Washington College a unique status and luster. ON the other hand, I don't believe any of the winners of the prize have gone on to become important writers, and many don't even become writers. I'm leery in general of prizes--they tend to go to the wrong people, he said (looking back to the recent Los Angeles Times Book Award in the category of Current Interest).


Colopsial, NV: Michael, Great chat as usual. It's a highpoint of the week. Have you read Peter DeVries? He's supposed to be very funny, but I wonder if his work is dated. Like, for me anyway, I found the finer qualities of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road fogged over by the fact that it reads like a timecapsule (in a way that, say, Mark Twain or Fitzgerald doesn't). And if not DeVries, who? Thanks

Michael Dirda: We were speaking earlier of Agatha Christie providing just such a time capsule. Sometimes we turn to books just for that period flavor.

Why not try a De Vries novel? Or novella--there are two in Witch's Milk, one of his best books.

For more guidance on humorous fiction, let me refer you to the essay Comedy Tonight in my colllection Readings, wherein are listed 100 great comic novels, with annotations.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Just curious, will you be attending No. 2's graduation, or staying in Westminster? I will be there, for someone else.

Michael Dirda: Do I want to go on living? Of course, I'll be at Mike's hs graduation next week.


Casper, Wyo.: Dear Mr. Dirda:

This isn't a literary question, but it's one that needs asking. Recently a number of major news organizations have run series asserting that upward mobility is slowing to a crawl in America. The question: would steelworkers sons and daughters coming out of Lorain, or Canton, or Middletown, Ohio, today be able to go to Oberlin and Cornell, or are they gradually being shut out for lack of money, or because they can't ante up $1,000 for college board prep courses needed to score as well as the richer kids from the suburbs? And if they are being shut out, does it make any difference in the long run? Or could they get where you have gotten through Lorain County Community College and Cleveland State University? Thanks for considering this question.

Michael Dirda: My sense is that most of the good private colleges will find financial aid for students who need it. That's certainy the policy at Oberlin. This all works out, of course: I got a scholarship but my son Mike doesn't--he's going to Oberlin next year--because my wife and I make too much money. Not really a lot by Washington DC standards, I add, and it is hard to face the prospect of $40,000 a year, but then I'm not a steelworker any more.

Personally, it seems to me that nearly anyone who wants to go to college can do so these days--and that possibly too many kids think of it as their right.

As for LCCC--my friend Charles Bertolami went to LCCC for two years, then transferred to Ohio State. He became a dentist, then a specialist in oral surgery. He taught for a while at Harvard, and is now the dean of the dental school at the University of California at San Francisco, probably the premier such institution in the country. The only thing that really matters in education is the desire to learn and excel.


Decatur, Ga.: Hi, Michael. Just wondering whether you were a fan of the great mid-century American comic novelist Peter de Vries. I discovered him in the early 70s, read all his published work, and continued reading his novels until the last one was published in the mid-80s. About ten years ago I decided to reread some of his novels only to discover that none of them were available. But I just noticed that the University of Chicago Press is reprinting two of his novels and can only hope this is the beginning of a rediscovery that will bring all his work back into print. Any thoughts on how a writer as wonderful as de Vries could fall into obscurity?

Michael Dirda: Get me Frank Edwards or Charles Fort! Yet another strange coincidence on the DOB program. See my earlier posting.


Lakewood, Ohio: I'm reading and enjoying Robert Littell's "Legends" after having last year completed "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter." Does it seem as though Littell has been under-rated, or is his reputation rising?

Michael Dirda: He's making a comeback, largely thorugh the efforts of Overlook press which has reprinted his earlier books.


Virginia: Did you see the Heritage Society's list of dangerous books? I know my summer reading list now. Most of them - except for Mein Kampf look like excellent books, and all of them look interesting for historial reasons.

Michael Dirda: Missed this.


Bethesda, Md.: In light of the last few day's events, I'm interested in reading more about J.Edgar Hoover- however doing a quick search on Amazon or Powell's websites reveals that there is literally thousands of choices. Do you have a recommendation or two for a good biography?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Nope. The only Hoover books I remember are things like The Enemy Within and Masters of Deceit. Ah, there were book titles in those days!


Marceline, Mo.: Mr. Dirda, any word on Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted? I'm intrigued. Do I buy the hardcover or wait for the paperback? I couldn't find a Post review, but have been hearing a lot about the book. Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Buy the hardback if you like his work--think of it as supporting the author. I read one Pahlaniuk novel about an artist on an island that was very rminiscent of The Lottery--it was good, but not all that good.


Elkinstadt: Hi Mr Dirda,

Have you read any Hilary Mantel and if so, whatcha think? Someone just gave me her new one (which is three books away in my queue).

Here's what I wanted to really ask: I'm always reading/hearing that Updike and Oates are TOO prolific: I never hear that complaint about Atwood and (while she was writing) Murdoch. Beyond the fact that Updike and Oates are Americans while Atwood is Canadian and Murdoch English, what do you think is the reason the first two are (sometimes) damned for their output while the second two are not?

Michael Dirda: Well, Atwood and Murdoch were never quite as prolific as Oates, and possibly Updike. Murdoch may have written a book every year or two, at best. Atwood probably produces novels at that rate, but also does essays, poems, etc etc. She seems more a woman of letters. I've never complained about Updike and don't think he can be really faulted for this. He probably averages a book a year. Oates' problem is that she writes such long books and then turns them out so steadily and then intersperses them with shorter ones and even those she writes as Rosamond Smith, not to mention the plays and essays etc etc. Only when one can't keep up does a writer start to seem over prolific.


Michael Dirda: Well, fans, I'm sorry I didn't get to all your questions today. Try me next Wednesday at 2, please. Till then, keep reading!


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