Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, December 14, 2005; 2:00 PM

Prize-winning columnist 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. Heparticularly 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 themost 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.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! The weather here is gloomy--gray skies, frigid air, bleak, bleak, bleak. I sip tea and hot cocoa all day.

On the plus side: Last week I announced the discovery of Volume 9 of the tales of Henry James--but in the English edition. Well, since then, another poster, who wishes to remain anonymous, has discovered a copy of the American edition. So my set is now complete. Search no longer for volume 9, my literary friends! But do not despair: Doubtless some other needed volume will soon become apparent to me, and the endless odyssesy shall continue.

But let's turn to this week's questions. I wonder if anyone remembered that we were going to share favorite books read in 2005?

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Downtown, Washington, D.C.: Michael,The books that I enjoyed most this year were:

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner--a sweet book about a person who grows by taking on obligations that are not really his. It left me with a similar feeling of warmth to the one I had on finishing The Shipping News. Do you recommend anything else by him?

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler--I have rarely laughed so much as during this purported caustic memoir of the narrator's three marriages (with footnotes by the narrator's son). While Richler is best known for Duddy Kravitz, this is far richer.

Ghost Wars by Stephen Coll--about U.S. Afghan policy before Set. 11. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but became interested in this when it won a Pulitzer. I know that you don't care much for book awards, but I think they have some value. With not enough time to read all that is out there and of interest, the prizes serve to identify books that an (experienced) panel finds to have some particular merit. (In that, they are like your chats.)

Michael Dirda: What an appealing list. Coll is, of course, my former colleague at The Post. Gardner is, I would have thought, almost forgotten. But he wrote a good many novels, and you might like October Light, or the better known Grendel (Beowulf from the monster's point of view). His thoughts on writing were collected into two or three volumes, the best known of which is On Moral Fiction.

I own three or four of Richler's books--and have never read them. But clearly I should and must.

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Lovettsville, Va.: Michael, what do you think of 'Tartan Noir'? I'm thinking of Ian Rankin. I'm a huge fan of the Rebus series - would you consider this 'literate fiction'? I find it hugely entertaining and somehow touching.

Michael Dirda: Again, I haven't read Rankin, though he is much admired--holding roughly the same position in ENgland that Michael Connelly does here in the U.S. I think part of my problem was keeping Rankins apart--there's also a Robert Rankin, perhaps two Robert Rankins.

Which book should one read first of the Rebus novels? Ie. which is the best?

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Judiciary Sq, Washington, D.C.: Michael:

Regarding best books of 2005, I read and very much enjoyed all of the Booker nominees (except Banville's winner). In fact, my favorite book of the year was Sebastian Barry's "A Long Long Way" about an Irish soldier in WWI. I've read many WWI novels both old (Graves, Sassoon, Blunden, Remarque) and new ("A Very Long Engagement," "Birdsong") and thought this was terrific.

Greatest letdown of 2005 was Doctorow's "The March," which felt lightweight and choppy.

For 2006, I'm ready to dive into Proust and just read the NY Review piece comparing translations. I'm tempted to try Davis, but recall you endorse Enright. Is that correct?

Michael Dirda: I think you can safely read any version. I still think the Scott-Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright version is probably the best, but mainly because it offers a single consistent voice through the text. The other version uses a different translator for each volume, with varying degrees of success. Good luck.

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Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole came out for Christmas 1764. It was said to be the translation of an old manuscript. Sounds like a bibliomystery to me. To my knowledge there has never been a US of UK movie made of this first Gothic novel. What do you think, have you ever re-read this for Christmas along with Box of Delights?

Michael Dirda: I like Horace Walpole as a letter writer and gossip, but Otranto is a bit camp and heavy-handed, I think. But I haven't looked at the book in a long, long time. Still, I've never heard any real endorsement of its literary qualities.

John Berryman, the poet who killed himself up there in Minnesota, always regarded M.G. Lewis's The Monk as the great gothic novel--he wrote a long introduction to one edition and compared it to Shakespeare.

Of course, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer--the other great Gothic extravaganza--gave rise to a number of sequels about the Wandering Jew (including one by Balzac and, I suppose, Eugene Sue's momnumental novel of that name).

And then there's Frankenstein, that philosophical romance. But for me the great spooky novel of the romantic period--and I know Walpole was only proto-romantic--is James Hogg's Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I think I've got that title right. It is a chilling account of schizophrenia or deviltry, but largely about the seduction of evil.

Still, I don't know that I'd read any of these at Christmas. You do want somewhat more soothing ghostly tales. You can't, in fact, beat M.R. James and his ghost stories of an antiquary.

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Alexandria, Va.: Summer '05 I hit the jackpot in terms of reading. Hart Crane's long poem The Bridge, John Cowley's Little Big, and Larry McMurtry's Last Picture Show. One more standout for me was a bizzare little graphic novel, a collaboration between Neil Gaiman and spooky metal dude Alice Cooper, of all people, called, I think, the Last Seduction. Hardly great literature, but it's stuck with me since Halloween, when I read it cover to cover in a NoVa Barnes and Noble.

Michael Dirda: Well, that's quite a list. One of the treasures of my library is a first edition of The Bridge, a fairly scarce book. "High above the chained bay waters/Liberty. . . "

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Favorites: Pride and Prejudice and Emma - guilty pleasures.

Mr. Strange and Dr. Norrel - fun fantasy.

Harry Potter- the best of the lot.

Snow - beautiful.

Michael Dirda: An interesting list. I can agree with the Austen, though I don't think there should be anything guilty in reading P and P or E.

Now, Harry Potter might be a guilty pleasure, especially if you are, say, 74.

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Washington, DC: Michael,

I know I read some enjoyable books in 2005, but I'm currently reading the City of Falling Angels (?) by John Berendt. Now, ever since seeing Venice first at the age of 4, I've found it a magical place. I have been forcing myself to read the book slowly, to savor it. I allow myself only one chapter at a time. What is truly amazing to me is the candor with which people talk to him. I can only imagine what they are thinking now...

Michael Dirda: Oh, John is a reporter as well as an artist, and he knows how to charm people. His prose certainly does that too--though my wife found the book didn't grab her, despite an interest in Venice. I found this surprising.

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Ann Arbor, Mich: Mr. Dirda - I recently read Louis Menand's 'The Metaphysical

Club' and was thoroughly entertained and impressed (a killer

combination, really). I notice in your "Interests," you have

intellectual histories listed. What do you think of Menand's

book, and might you be able to recommend something in the

same vein for my reading pleasure? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: Sure, you might try The Lunar Men, about a similar group in 18th century England, by Jenny Uglow; John Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination, about 18th century English culture; Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings, about Tolkien, Lewis et al; Peter Washington's Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, about the theosophists and their offshoots. All are fun books.

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Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Most memorable books of the year:

Non-Fiction: I've read 25 non-fiction titles, and already mentioned UP IN THE OLD HOTEL as being my favourite of the year; if you can only read a little bit of Joseph Mitchell (although I defy anyone to stop at just a little), read MCSORLEY'S WONDERFUL SALOON and JOE GOULD'S SECRET. Other excellent non-fiction books read in 2005 were Claire Tomalin's SAMUEL PEPYS: THE UNEQUALLED SELF and two autobiographies dealing with the war in Burma: THE RAILWAY MAN by Eric Lomax and QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE by George MacDonald Fraser.

Fiction: Of the 44 fiction titles I've read this year, none impressed itself on me more than John Buchan's SICK HEART RIVER. Intelligent, haunting, and deeply personal, this was a wonderful book. Other fiction highlights were THE CLUB DUMAS by Perez-Reverte, 44 SCOTLAND STREET by Alexander McCall Smith, THE GOLDEN SPUR by Dawn Powell, and THE NAVIGATOR OF NEW YORK by Wayne Johnston.

Hope you, and your readers, find lots of good books in your stocking come Christmas morning!

Michael Dirda: There's that fellow Smith again. I guess I tried the wrong one. What is 44 Scotland Street about?

If my math skills haven't deserted me, that means you've read 69 books this year--can anyone beat that record?

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Fair Oaks, Va.: I have been reading many mysteries by British lady writers (Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, etc.) this year. I do one writer at a time and read all of her books that are on the shelf at the local branches of Fairfax county Public Library. A few observations:the British postal service was impressive in the 1950s. There were two deliveries per day, and if a letter took more than one day to arrive, it meant that someone was probably murdered. Ngaio Marsh burdens many of her characters with lumbago. Never visit the Hebrides in March. Old radios needed to be "warmed up" before you could listen to them.

If I'd known that last factoid, I coulda solved that crime.

Michael Dirda: WHat a lovely posting! I love that sentence about the postal delivery as the angel of death.

Oh yes, those old tubes had to warm up--I remember them at the back of our old radio. In fact, you used to be able to take tubes to the drug store and test them there at a little machine.

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Annapolis, Md.: My favorite book read during 2005 was John Banville's "The Sea." I have been unable to focus on reading since the unexpected death of my husand earlier this year, but Banville's book with its central character of a man who has lost his wife and is examing his life, along with Banville's beautiful prose, got me back on the reading track.

Michael Dirda: My condolences to you, truly. Of course, consolation has long been one of the chief reasons that people turned to books of all kinds. I talk about this a bit in Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. I hope you have friends or family to be with in the coming month.

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Washington DC: Talk about guilty pleasures --- My New Year's resolution for 2005 was to re-read all the John D. MacDonald T. McGee novels in the order in which they were written. Haven't quite gotten through the list due to interuptions of other necessary reading, but it has been quited enjoyable to follow the development of a series character and the MacDonald's social comments over a period of several important decades in a pop-culture sense.

Michael Dirda: I love these kinds of reading programs. See the earlier posting about reading all the mysteries by various authors available in the library. I used to do such things as a kid, but now I'd go out and laboriously assemble all the novels and then they'd sit on a shelf for years before I started reading any of them.

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Favorite books : Here are my favorites for the year (that I read this past year, not necessarily published in 2005). Everyone on my Xmas list is getting at least one of the following, depending on their personal taste.

1. Out by Natsuo Kirino. This is the best crime novel I've read in years. It takes place outside Tokyo, and the central characters are working class Japanese women. The writing(/transalation) is masterful, and as a result the characters are very complex. (Incidentally, if any chatters who read this have similar books to recommend, I am dying to hear about them.)

2. The Time Travellers Wife, by A. Niffenegger. The plot is non-linear--it jumps around in time, like a time traveller. This book was incredibly fun to read. I was sorry it had to end. (And even if you think you "don't like sci-fi," don't be put off. It's a book about relationships with a single discrete central sci-fi element.)

3. The Diviners, by Rick Moody. Very entertaining if you like his sort of irony. Will win no new converts, however.

4. Bound to Please by M. Dirda. No elaboration necessary.

Michael Dirda: What an interesting group of books, aside from that obvious clinker. I know that the Japanese are great mystery fans--one of the most active scions of the Baker Street Irregulars is Japan and I've long meant to read Edogawa Rampo (just say the name a few times).

I'll try to remember Natsuo Kirino.

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Toronto, Canada: Hi Michael,

Looking forward to this week's theme - best books of 2005 as I'm hoping for some good xmas gift suggestions.

My favourite reads this year seemed mostly to do with WWI -- Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road was a spectacular novel about two Canadian native snipers in the trenches. I also loved Sebastian Barry's A Long,Long Way about a young Irishman's experience, first fighting the war and then getting caught up in the Easter uprising while home on leave. Two great WWI-themed mysteries also make my best reads list - Jacqueline Winspear's latest Maisie Dobbs mystery, Pardonable Lies (she's a former WWI nurse turned detective) and Ben Elton's latest, The First Casualty in which a British war poet is murdered at the front. And for a classic along these themes, I just read Sean O'Casey's play The Silver Tassie.

Other really enjoyable reads were Ali Smith's The Accidental who just does extraordiary things with language and is awfully funny, Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Jonathan Coe's A Closed Circle, again just a fabulous British writer who I wish were better known this side of the pond.

Michael Dirda: What a great list. I like the sound of that mystery about the poet killed at the front. THis year I read Jonathan Coe's super biography of B.S. Johnson, and so it's just a matter of time before I start reading his fiction.

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Herndon's 2005 Favorites: My favorite reads of 2005 were all published in previous years:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

A fascinating mix of historical novel, mystery, science fiction.

Middlesex

by Jeffrey Eugenides

A brilliant look at the intertwinings of history and sexual identity

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Yes, I'm very late getting to this one, but it actually made baseball interesting to me again

Secret of the Bees by Susan Monk Kidd

Another one I'm late getting to but really enjoyed.

Ashamed to admit I liked it: I read almost the entire Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. They're sort of like that old Lays potato chip ad -- Betcha can't read just one. Great to listen to while commuting.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I agree that mysteries seem to make the best audio books for commuting and travel. I like Christie and Dick Francis in particular on tape.

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Plano, Tex.: My best reads for 2005 were:Rider Haggard's King Solomons Mines - A great adventure story that I never read while growing up.Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger - This book follows the 1988 football season of a West Texas high school. It's a great commentary on the intense focus our society puts on sports and how it impacts our youth.Another Sort of Learning - This book by James Schall (who is a priest that teaches philosophy at Georgetown) is an overview of books that can be read when we are trying to answer questions such as "what is the purpose of my life". Will help lead you to good books on religion, philosophy, and education.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I wish I'd known about Schall's book when I was working on mine--or maybe I don't. But it sounds very good.

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Ashcroft, BC again: Yes, that's 69 books so far this year, not counting the books I've read for work, which I can't quite bring myself to include.

44 SCOTLAND STREET was written by Smith as a daily serial in a Scottish newspaper, as a challenge; each episode could only be so many words in length but had to advance the overall plot, be self-contained enough to stand on its own, and yet end on a note that left the reader wanting more. It's about the tenants of the eponymous building in Edinburgh, and their assorted friends, relations, and business partners, seen through the eyes of a young girl starting to make her way in the world. Very funny, very perceptive, and a good tale well told. I understand a sequel is imminent.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. It sounds a little like a more popular version of Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual, which is built around the inhabitants of an apartment building in Paris. There's also a number of contraints to each chapter.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Dirda, My 25 Most Enjoyed Readings of 2005: Wawro's "The Franco-Prussian War," Adams' "Watership Down," Haigh's "Baker Towers," Burroughs' "Running with Sissors," Mitford's "The Pursuit of Love," Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" (finished in 2005), McEwen's "Saturday," Tartt's "The Little Friend," Smith's "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," Eliot's "Middlemarch," Simenon's "Dirty Snow,"/"Monsieur Monde Vanishes"/"Three Bedrooms in Manhattan," Queneau's "We Always Treat Women Too Well," Trevor's "A Bit on the Side," Gorey's "The Unstrung Harp," Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Irving's "Until I Find You," Hornby's "A Long Way Down," Berlin's "The Man Behind the Microchip," Wright's "The Outsider," Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces," Mosely's "The Man in My Basement," Banks' "The Darling," and Firbank's "Considering the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli," Spot your fingerprints?Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: Well, Lenexa--as usual, you astonish by your range and appetite. I feel like a piker compared to you and Ashcroft.

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New Bedford, Mass.: Thank you so much for writing about the Box of Delights and for reminding me to re-read it this year. It's a magical. Are you familiar with Gwyneth Jones? She won an rthur Clarke for Bold As Love which I just finished. It's a mix of very hard core fantasy and rock music. Underneath the flash she's looking at "The Matter of Britain" In some ways as good as T.H. White. Love to know what you think or if you haven't read it you'll be intrigued.

Michael Dirda: I"ve got some of Gwyneth Jones's earlier books, staring with Divine Endurance. I sometimes mix her up in my mind with Mary Gentle. Still, I haven't actually read either. I see that this is "Dirda confessing his shameful ignorance week."

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Lexington: Michael, A good idea for a year-end chat, your audience picking their favorite books of the year. Especially with all the talk of whether 'art' matters or not. I just finisshed John Carey's book 'What Good Are the Arts', a contentious, argumentative book ( worth reading ) that argues that 'high' art vs 'mass' art is a specious divide made by moralists of the 19C like Kant who were essentially employing art to improve people. His conclusion: that literature is still the best art form though if it does not make us 'better' morally does help us criticize who we are and enlarges the mind. This is the kind of book that needs wide margins for the reader's thoughts. Philip Roth in a recent interview suggested a moratorium on 'literature talk'-shut down the lit depts, close the book reviews, ban the critics...readers should be left alone with the books. Well, he's wrong. Book talks like yours are what allow readers to share and argue out their impressions of their reading. And, discerning critics like you are what spread the word about interesting books. So on to favorites:

The Summer Isles by Ian Macleod: an alternate history of the rise of a fascist movement in England in the 30s, beautifully written, poignant and topical.

The People's Act of Love by James Meek: written with a Pasternak passion about a disparate group of isolated people in Russia in 1919 settling what kind of country it will become.

Kidnapped by R. L. Stevenson: chosen to read while touring the Scottish Highlands; still an exciting tale of adventure while backgrounding 18C Scottish history. What a combination!

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro:Again, beautifully written, but really about growing up in a strange near-future world and about our mortality.

And, I'm currently rereading Pickwick Papers because Dickens and Christmas seem to go together.

Michael Dirda: I understand both Carey and Roth. In some ways, I too advocate following your whims and pleasures. But I thank you for the kind words about my reviews and this chat.

ANd what are terrific list. Pickwick--yes Christmas in Dingley Dell.

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Washington, D.C.: You seem to review mostly books you like or admire. Paulene Kael, the late film reviewer of the New Yorker, was noted for her insightful reviews of bad, or at least "B" movies. Along that line, have you ever considered reviewing some bad books, maybe even best sellers, telling us why they're bad, and perhaps attempting to draw some sociological or cultural insights from their popularity?

Michael Dirda: I've occasionally reviewed popular books, but then I've tried to choose "good" ones. I write the occasional negative review, and try to do just what you ask, but I would personally rather spend my time on books that are good, that matter to me in some fashion. I recognize that a critic is supposed to "correct" taste. But I prefer to find good things to say about those B books, to use Kael's term. Indeed, on January 22, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Howard, I plan to write a piece about his Conan the Barbarian stories.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Notable reading from the past year? Hmm, so many good books to choose from. Boswell's Life of Johnson has to head my list. The keeness of the observations of humanity compete with the bon mots that litter almost every page for pride of place in my memory. What a great book. What a universe reconstructed. The descriptions of Johnson and blind, "peevish" Miss Williams as they age are heart rendingly beautiful. A wonderful book.

Michael Dirda: Thanks. Yes, that's a fave of mine too.

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Washington, DC: Hi I cannot find anywhere (library, bookstore) a book you recommended on Sunday -- Box of Delights by Masefield. Any suggestions?

Michael Dirda: Sigh. It used to be in print. Have you tried the various used book search engines on the internet? Alternately, you can ask a used bookdealer to find you a copy. Or try interlibrary loan. I didn't realize The Box of Delights was out of print when I wrote about it.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hi, Michael, I learn about most of my books from your column, and I thank you for it. My best read this past year was by far, "Shadow of the Wind." Also loved, "Middlesex" and "The Kite Runner." In my opinion, the most over-hyped book was "Never Let Me Go;" it was dreary, depressing and totally unbelievable. May our coming year be filled with wonderful books; happy holidays to all.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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The Best in Poetry: Michael, let's not forget the poets. Jack Gilbert's Refusing Heaven: stark, elegaic, erotic. W.S. Merwin's Migration: New and Selected Poems: a gathering of beauties.

Jean Valentine's Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003: urgent and intimate.

Michael Dirda: Thank you. Yes, poetry does tend to be overlooked by general readers. A pity. I urge people to go to their local bookshops and browse around the new books of poetry and buy one. HOw else will poetry be kept alive?

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Arlington, Va.: I know you don't run the Book World anymore, but could you suggest to the powers that be that a good New Year's resolution for them would be to beef up their coverage of sceince fiction? I feel that the Book World's interest in that field has dropped off noticeably in recent years.

Michael Dirda: I never ran Book World. I was responsible for a lot of the arts and letters coverage, however, including science fiction. THat column was my baby, and I'm afraid my successors--brilliant and knowledgeable though they are--don't have a passion for fantasy, sf and other forms of genre fiction. But I will continue to remind them to work harder. I feel bad about this.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: We know you despise the impact of Best Sellers lists, but what about year-end "best of" lists? Do you read them? If so, what purpose do they serve beyond alerting readers to books they might have missed? What I'm getting at, I suppose, is the commercial impact of these lists. Do you think they generate lots of sales of the books that are mentioned, and if so, how do commercial pressures factor into what is and isn't included?

I know there are several questions buried in this post, but there you have it.

Michael Dirda: I do read lists of all sorts, and in general the books that make those end of the year selections are chosen by the editors themselves, relying on personal taste or on the reviews that appeared earlier. I think they are a pretty reliable way to gain an overview of the previous 12 months, though they do miss things.

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Arlington, Va.: Michael, I seem to have hit a point where I'm tired of reading. Normally, I'm a voracious reader, with several books going at once, but over the last couple of weeks, I've just been bored whenever I go to the library, and I've had to struggle to open anything new. I find myself reading magazines or doing puzzles from time when otherwise I might have been reading.

Does this ever happen to you? Is it just a phase? Should I try turning to books in my usual comfort zone, to engage me as they usually would, or should I strike out in some new direction and hope for a spark?

Michael Dirda: Hey, I'm always tired of reading. It's just that I don't know any other way I'd rather spend my time. I've reviewed books for going on 30 years and I sometimes need to flog myself to get back into harness come Monday morning.

My recommendation: Don't read anything for a while. Don't even try. Find a new hobby--watercolors, home improvement, wine-tasting, whatever. Eventually, you'll feel like reading again. There's more to life than books.

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Anonymous: I have read all the praise for Garca Marquez's "Memoires of my sad whores" in the Books Section of the Post, in particular the review by Marie Arana. Nowhere I have seen the reference to Yasunari Kawabata's "The House of the Sleeping Beauties." Garca Marquez himself said that that would be a novel he would like to have written.

Question: Being the two stories so close to each other, Kawabata's obviously preceding Garca Marquez's, when a homage turns into plagiarism? Thanks

Michael Dirda: Writers always borrow or steal from each other. G-M acknowledges Kawabata's work, just as Zadie Smith in On Beauty acknowledges E.M. Forster's Howards End. But the books are still their own. I suspect that Kawabata's book will outlast G-M's.

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Potomac, Md.: Do you know of any good anthologies of plays akin to Bevington's "English Renaissance Drama" that focuses on Continental drama?

Michael Dirda: John Gassner used to do these big anthologies of world drama. I bet that you might find these in the library or at a used bookstore. Alternately, you can make up your own anthology from paperback editions of Ibsen, Strindberg, Buchner, Pirandello et al.

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The Hinterland, Md.: Hi Michael,

It's so cold today that I am wearing my coat in the house! I recently read "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith to see if it was a good one for a kid. I was so engrossed in it that I let the kids order pizza for dinner so I wouldn't have to cook (husband is out of town). Now I really need a good title for an 11 year old girl. I can't believe that I was able to get this old without reading that book! I feel cheated out of something.

Michael Dirda: What a lovely story! I gather you can't give the 11 year old Betty Smith? Perhaps you should try another Smith, Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle or, if you wnat something slightly more juvenile, 101 Dalmations. If she likes fantasy, I also recommend the Dido Twite novels of Joan Aiken.

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Madison, Wis: Now that C.S. Lewis is in the news thanks to the Narnia movie, what are your thoughts about his work? I'd be especially interested in your comments on English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

Michael Dirda: Unlike most histories of English literature, this one can be read for pleasure. This is true of virtually all of Lewis's scholarship--The Discarded Image, THe Allegory of Love, his various papers. THe 16th century is a wonderful book, but it does, of course, exclude the drama, which for most people is the real heart of 16th century English literature.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Do you think American publishers would be well advised to publish more literature in translation?

Michael Dirda: Yes, but I would also want more Americans to read literature in translation.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: What do you think of my observation that loving books, and loving what you learn from them, has precious little to do with schooling, that for those who read like they breathe, reading is a passion and not a teachable "subject?" My teenaged kids and I all are intense book-lovers although I attended traditional public schools while the kids never went to school at all (legally it's homeschooling but in reality, it's just book-loving to our hearts' content.)

Michael Dirda: Well, you learn a lot from books, but you don't learn everything. Getting on with other people is one important aspect of school life. And sometimes it helps to be able to hate your teacher in a way you can't hate your Mom. All that said, virtually all real education is ultimately self-education.

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Michael Dirda: Okay, there are lots more questions and I'm just not going to get to them this week, alas. But I did publish all the book lists, so I hope those will be of help to people looking for holiday gifts.

I'll be back next Wednesday, and maybe we can continue this exercise: What books did people find under their tree or among their Hannukah presents?

So till Wednesday at 2--keep reading!

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