Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Monday, March 20, 2006; 11:00 AM

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! This week we come to you on Monday at 11 AM--you knew that--instead of Wednesday at 2. Why, you ask? Because your host--moi--needs to be on an airplane to Seattle on Wednesday afternoon. The reasons for this aren't relevant, though I am excited to be heading to the Pacific Northwest, which I"ve never visited. I hope to hit some Seattle used bookshops--recommendations, anyone?--and also spend a day in Vancouver. Anyway, that's why we here on Monday, and I hope that at least a few posters have followed me to this new hour. Next week I"ll be back on Wednesday at 2.

Enough said. It's sunny and crisp here in DC, I've spent the morning polishing a couple of pieces, and now let's see what's on your minds.

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Prince Georges County, Md: I feel sad and frustrated that the county library is spending so much money on computers, when the books are going to hell in the proverbial hand-basket. About five years ago I was looking at a book on quilt blocks and was surprised to see a swastika quilt block in there! I quickly checked the copyright and saw it was from the 1930s. (Incidentally, back then it was known as "flyfoot"). I checked out a hardback copy of Jane Eyre a couple of years ago and it was falling apart. Last year I checked out The Yearling, one of the Scribner's Illustrated Classics, and it was in horrible shape. I showed them the damage when I returned it and they said they would discard it. (They used to have books re-bound.) It's a shame because it had lovely illustrations by Pyle, I think (or was it N.C. Wyeth?). We just checked out two P.G. Wodehouse hardbacks and one is in such dilapidated condition, we had to put it back together with tape. I have complained a few times before to the librarians, and they tell me that I am in the minority: that most library patrons want more computers. Also, they said a computer is just a book in a different form. I think computers are very nice, but certainly not at the expense of books. What are your thoughts on this?

Michael Dirda: Oh, you'll get me fulminating. But let's look at it from libraries point of view. First of all, they don't think of themselves as book depositories; they're information centers or media resources. People gather the kind of information they once found in books from the internet, so libraries feel obliged to provide the internet. And CDS and DVDs and lots of official pamphlets on health, jobs and retirement. And on learning English. THis is what people want.

Still, I've always felt that a library should be a force for education, not just a provider of education. And that education should be esthetic, historical, scientific--ie. it should be built on reading books. No one is going to become educated through the internet. You need to spend time with poems and stories and works of biography and history and philosophy. You need to give them serious attention. To neglect that function is to start the slide toward a population of cyborgs rather than citizens.

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washingtonpost.com: MD, here's a link to a piece I wrote for Travel section about Seattle: Seattle, Noshing Your Way Around Town ...which includes mention of The Bookstore Bar, which by the way, is within walking distance of Elliot Bay Books. Have fun, SEA is a great town.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Chapel Hill, NC: Hi, Michael. I just finished listening to an audio version of

Philip Roth's (73rd birhday yesterday) The Dying Animal. For

about the first third of the book I was reminded of Josephine

Hart's Damage. But Roth goes further--- with your brain.

Anyway, his writing is every bit as fine as You have said.

Thanks. What do you suggest next?

Michael Dirda: Roth has been on a roll in his senior years. You should probably try American Pastoral next or The Human Stain.

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New York, NY: Hello! I'm in the middle of Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities" and I'm wondering if you or anyone out there knows of any good books or essays or guides written about it? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: No doubt there are, but I don't know any off hand. There's usually a reasonable good volume in those Twayne biogrphies devoted to any author you can think of. V.S. Pritchett has a marvelous essay on Musil, but it's just 1500 words or so. There's also a good piece by Frank Kermode as an introduction to some of Musil's short fiction. Let us know if you find out any good secondary studies.

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Arlington, Va.: So, Michael, how's your NCAA bracket?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Will you be distraught to learn that I don't follow college basketball? Fact is, I never watch sports, except for the occasional baseball game and that's partly because going to the stadium takes me back to my lost youth.

As a kid, I liked to play baseball and basketball, though. And my high school has always been a powerhouse in the latter (and in football). But I kind of resent playing into televised sports. Bread and circuses.

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Baltimore, Md: Thanks for doing these chats. They are always a pleasure.

What can you tell me about novelist Eric Kraft? Where is the best place to start with him?

Michael Dirda: Kraft has a long series about Peter LeRoy and you should probably start at the beginning. My friend Michele Slung used to urge them on me, but I've sadly enough never read any of his books. All the reviews speak highly of his talent, and so I've probably missed out. Let us know what you think if you try one of his books.

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Takoma Park, Md: You'll enjoy Seattle, and Vancouver too.

Seattle has some terrific used bookstores. Notable are the several branches of Twice Sold Tales (great name, huh?), especially the one on John Street. That one is not far from a good Half Price Books and some standout food.

Good Seattle food advice can be had at:http://www.rootsandgrubs.com/, a food writer's blog that is better than most.

Michael Dirda: THanks.

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New York, NY: I've never been able to read a book online, or in any digital format. I think it has a lot to do with the backlight of the screen. But also the endless stream of text. I like to hold a book in my hands. Thumb through the text. See how far I've gotten visually. Smell the paper and ink etc. It's hard to believe that people are actually able to go through a 300 page book just staring at a screen.

Michael Dirda: I have an even odder problem. Nothing I read on a computer screen ever feels quite real or genuine. Print and paper give words reality. No doubt this is an aspect of the loss of aura that Walter Benjamin spoke of in his famous essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

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Takoma park, Md: Not a question, but a reading suggestion. I was pleasantly surprised by The Dream Life of Sukhanov, which not only handles some technically tricky stuff well but also paints a believable pictures of a moment in Soviet history, presents believable characters, and poses real questions about art and criticism.

Michael Dirda: Thanks. Who's it by?

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Alexandria, Va: Not a question - just wanted to say DO NOT MISS VANCOUVER! I spent a day (and night) there last summer and was blown away by its beauty and vitality.

You'll probably like Seattle too!

Michael Dirda: Well, I'll spend a late morning and afternoon there. I'll hope for clear skies.

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Ashcroft, BC (BR): When is a novel not a novel? When it's a series of novellas, tenuously linked together. Such seems to be the case with Michael Cunningham's SPECIMEN DAYS, which is billed as a novel but is really three novellas, the connections between which seem rather nebulous, to say the least.

I understand why this is done: publishers are convinced that a book of short stories (and by extension a collection of novellas) won't sell, and for some reason I can't quite fathom, book-buyers have gone along with this. Back in the heyday of magazines, short stories were the driving force, but we seem to have bought the premise that short stories are an inferior form, to be shunned in favour of novels. Which strikes me as somewhat odd; one would think, in this day and age, that short stories were ideally suited to our busy lifestyles and shorter attention spans. But do publishers run with this? No; instead, they seem intent on delivering longer and longer novels, while shunting short stories to the sidelines (when they deign to publish them at all). Perhaps this stems from our perception of short stories being so similar to novels in form; they just didn't have a growth spurt, as it were. No one asks a poet when he's going to write a novel, poems being sufficiently different from prose; but I suspect that writers who concentrate on the short story, and do it beautifully (such as Alice Munro), get tired of being asked when they're going to write a novel.

Michael Dirda: Publishers feel that anything other than a single sustained narrative isn't going to sell. That includes collections of essays, poems and stories. Why? I suppose because a novel, biography or work of history has a narrative that will suck you in for the 300 pages and make that $25 seem well spent. PUblishers are figuring that people won't bother to read unless they have that hook of an involving plot. But collections are only unified by the author's voice, and that has to be really strong to work over disparate material. But I don't think I've really gotten to the heart of this. Your argument sounds persuasive to me.

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Bridgeport, Conn: Hi,

I'm interested in reading a good novel about Hawaii. Other than Michener, I don't know of any. Any advice?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Paul Theroux had a novel set in a Hawaii hotel, perhaps two or three books back. Don't recall its title. But nothing really comes to mind. ANy help?

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Takoma Park, Md: Eric Kraft is a superb and entertaining writer. His latest books show a falling off, but the Peter Leroy series is really something.

There's also one called How Far Can You Go that anticipates all the webcam stuff by several years - the main character lives her life on stage with a changing audience. Raises all the good questions, in standout language, and is very funny.

Herb and Lorna is a good place to start with Peter Leroy if you don't want to take on the whole series. It stands alone well.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Your informed enthusiasm makes me regret all the more not having read his books already.

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Saipan MP: "Try Margaret Mauldon's in Oxford paperback. The beauty of Flaubert's French comes through in translation--but not all of it, and some of the most beautiful effects don't quite sound as beautiful in English. Still, it's one of the dozen novels everyone who cares about fiction needs to read." What are the other eleven?

Michael Dirda: Well, a dozen was just a number pulled out of the air. But I would say Tristram Shandy, Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, Ulysses, The Good Soldier, Lolita, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn nd The Great Gatsby are others, to stick with English. There are an equal number in French and nearly as many in Russian. Obviously I should have said 25 rather than a dozen.

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Dream Life of Sukhanov: ..is by Olga Grushin, sorry.

Michael Dirda: THanks.

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Jericho, NY: I would like to read a novel that centers around boxing. Any good suggestions?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Joyce Carol Oates has written a number of essays about boxing, and there are movies galore, but novels. . . . I suppose Leonard Gardner's Fat City is the one to start with. A major minor classic.

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Denver, Colo: A poster mentioned listening to a book on tape or cd. A friend of mine "reads" many books this way as well. For me, I can't imagine experiencing a book without being able to mull over the prose and read over lines at my own speed. What do you think about listening to books?

Michael Dirda: If the reader is right, the experience is absolutely enthralling, even magical. I've often mentioned Jeremy Irons reading Lolita, or Jim Norton doing Ulysses. Everyone needs to hear T.S. Eliot read The Waste Land. My wife has just listened to a marvelous reading of Kim, lent to me by my friend Eric Solsten (hi Eric!). I can't remember the reader. Philip Madouc and Neville Jason are wonderful readers on Naxos of Proust and Gibbon. Of course, one needs to be able to pay attention when listening, which is why long car trips on empty superhighways late at night are the best possible environment.

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Arlington Va: Are there any "good" books that you absolutely hate? I mean the kind of books that you, as a critic are supposed to like but couldn't get through. What are your top five "good books" you hated?

Michael Dirda: I only hate, and even that's too strong, books that seem meretricious, to be cashing in on phony glamour, faulty scholarship or the author's reputation. Not all the recognized canonical classics of western literature are going to appeal to everyone at every moment--some books you need to age into--but when I don't "get" them I figure it's probably my fault, not the books. Few teenagers will like Henry James' later fiction or Aristotle's metaphysics, but that doesn't make them any less majestic.

So I've dodged your question. I will say that I could never get past Book One of The Faerie Queene, but then I haven't tried again in many many years.

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Theroux book:: The Theroux book abotu Hawaii: are you thinking of Hotel Honolulu?

Michael Dirda: Thanks.

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Boxing: An author whose name slips my mind contributed an essay on a boxing novel to Anne Fadiman's Rereadings. In addition to the novel which is the focus of the essay, he names several others as well.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I think my old friend Arthur Krystal may have been a boxing fan and might have written such a piece. But I could be maligning AK too.

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Austin, Tex: Hello Mr. Dirda,Your Sunday review made me think of Jose Saramago, who has a new book coming out, I think. When he won the Nobel, he was asked about his politics, and he said something to the effect that he didn't care what had happened around the world, he was still a Communist. I admire his writing quite a bit, so maybe you can explain -- how can someone so attuned to the absurdity, corruption, and abuse of power by the State be an advocate of the most statist form of government available? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: The Communist ideal is a noble one, it just doesn't seem to work in our fallen world. How can anyone believe it right for people to inherit vast wealth and privilege simply because they were lucky enough to be born into a family named Rockefeller or Kennedy? Why should a man cough his lungs out in a coal mine to barely support his children, while drones around him live like kings? It is easy to be in sympathy with communist ideals. But as Kant and Isaiah Berlin used to say: Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

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Nashville, Tenn: For the post looking for a novel related to boxing- don't know of any but can recommend to short story collections:

Rope Burns- F.X. Toole

Toward the Sun- Kent Nelson (collection of sports related stories by an under-appreciated writer, not all relate to boxing).

Michael Dirda: Thanks.

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Buenos Aires, Argentina: Greetings from way down south. "Democracy", by Joan Didion, has Hawai as one of its principal settings.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes. Thanks.

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Baltimore, Md: I am looking for a nice, lighthearted book or two. I want an easy escape from current politics, my mother's and husband's obsessive anger with the political situation, and my own ninth month of pregnancy. Mysteries have got me through the last few weeks, but I think I would like to find something both lighter and more substantial, if that isn't an oxymoron. Laughing would be good.

Michael Dirda: Read Joe Keenan's latest, My Lucky Star. Or his two earlier novels-- a couple of gay guys, their wise woman friend, and a writing style that Wodehouse would envy and plots he might steal. Keenan was the chief writer for Frazier.

Alternately, for a classic: Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm.

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Jackson, Miss: Thanks to Ashcroft BC for mentioning "Castle Rackrent" by Maria Edgeworth last week; I have now started on a library copy.

My favorite Irish writer is Kate O'Brien, who was not appreciated, and mostly banned, in Ireland during her life. I particularly like "The Last of Summer" -- the secrets in that family. When the son broke the family rules, he was as good as dead.

Michael Dirda: Kate O'Brien? Are you sure it wasn't Edna O'Brien you're thinking of? ON the other hand, the Irish could have it in for all O'Briens, starting with Flann.

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Columbia, Md: Thank you for your praise of Marilyn Robinson's Gilead, which I finally read this past weekend. One of the most beautiful, thoughtful, amazing books I've read in awhile. Its apparent formlessness seems like the truest echo of experience, with resonances between thought and event, philosophy and character. I understand that she turned to non-fiction inbetween this and her first novel, and wonder if you would recommend her non-fiction as well. Thanks

Michael Dirda: I"ve never read her nonfiction. Her one book of it is devoted to socialism in England--if I recall correctly--and the subject didn't seem all that appealing to me. You can always go back and read Housekeeping--it's an even greater, if stranger, achievement than Gilead.

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Mechanicsville, Md: I'm going to a convention in Chicago at the end of the month. Can you recommend any bookstores that sell first editions? I collect Kingsley Amis and Angela Carter. Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I know that Powell's was founded in CHicago and may still have a shop there. But I'd do what I do in a strange city: Look up books used and rare in the yellow pages. Call the biggest store, and ask if they have the sort of thing you want, then say where you're staying and inquire if there are any other appropriate shops near your hotel. Most bookdealers are happy to refer customers to one another. Often, too, the local bookdealer association will put out a pamphlet of the major shops,usually available for free at their respective counters.

I have a proof of the English first of Nights at the Circus--one of my Carter favorites.

But Carter and Amis--I can see them just glaring at each other from your shelves.

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Hawaii novel: Well, From Here to Eternity qualifies, right?

Michael Dirda: Well, I suppose it would.

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Takoma Park, Md: Allegra Goodman has a novel and a book of short stories set in Hawaii. Novel is Paradise Park, and the stories are something like Total Immersion.

This, by the way, is a really good question to ask a librarian, who can put relevant books right in your hands.

Michael Dirda: THank you for reminding me--Yes, librarians are always invaluable resources. They'll probably thank you for asking about a book rather than a DVD.

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Washington, DC: My daytimer tells me that, cold not withstanding, Spring begins today. I know you advocate seasonal reading to some degree. Any spring reading suggections? Thanks!

Michael Dirda: Obviously, come April you need to reread The Waste Land.

I think Jane Austen works best in spring, just as Chekhov belongs to fall. In summer you should read about polar exploration or Los Angeles private eyes, depending on your view of summer. In winter, you need to hunker down with a big book, like Proust or Robert Burton.

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Arlington, Va: You probably hate it, but could you give a short list of great novels of the last 25--30 years?

Michael Dirda: I wrote a piece for the 25th anniversary of Book World in which I discussed the best American fiction of those 25 years. You could look that up in the POst archives. I may have such a list in the book I'm working on now, the one that will appear after this May's Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life.

If you have or can find Bound to Please, the contemporary novels I cover in that would qualify--DeLillo's Underworld, Pynchon's Mason and Dixon, the work of Stanley Elkin, Cormac McCarthy, and several others.

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Washington, DC: For a spring break trip to London with kids in middle school and under are there any books you could recommend to provide information or set the mood?

Michael Dirda: How about Paddington Bear for the youngest--a bear from darkest Peru comes to London. For the older kids, hmmmmmm. Let me take my own advice: Give your local librarian a call.

And that, I'm afraid, is it for this week's edition of Dirda on Books! Remember to stop back a week from Wednesday at our regular time of 2 PM. Till then, keep reading!

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