Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; 2:00 PM

Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda took 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.

____________________

Lenexa, Kans.: Mr. Dirda: I'm only a little past halfway in "Book by Book" and already have 19 books penned in the front cover as follow-up reading. Number 1. Robertson Davies's "A Voice from the Attic" ... 19. John Dickson Carr's "The Three Coffins." (I have read other Davies and Carr.)

The photo (in your "office") of Marilyn Monroe posed on playground equipment reading "Ulysses" reminds me that she fought hard for the part played by Maria Schell in the 1958 "The Brothers Karamazov" film. In my mind, I imagine M.M. a sensual wonder as Grushenka -- and winning an Oscar in that role. When Arthur Miller died recently at age 90, Paul Theroux was pleased to learn that he was having a dalliance with an artistic woman in her mid-thirties. Sorry for the Sterne-like ramble: Any thoughts? Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! Today I'm packing up my office and basement apt here in Westminster, since the spring crops are planted, the school year has ended, and we are not saved. I've also written my last review for Book World until the fall. But I will be continuing the chat through the summer, which will take me to Ohio for family, a talk and a class reuninon, then to Vermont to teach at Bread Loaf. Anyway, I'm tired and dirty from packing.

But let's turn to the questions.

Glad you're enjoying B3 as I call it. It's not meant to be only a series of pointers to books, but also a little anthology of quotations and mini-essays, what I've learned from reading books. Which, of course, sometimes seems like pitifully little.

Miller and thirty something woman. I suspect it brought him comfort and she will have the knowledge that she was dear to one of the greatest playwrights of the century.

_______________________

Contemplation at a subway station: Hello: I was reading poet Stanley Kunitz's obit ... "At times one must labor to follow the subleties of his perception. The point is that the labor will not be in vain." - John Ciardi

Do you think poetry communicates some things (what?) better than prose? Why, or how? I like what I consider plain, straight forward, simple poetry, doesn't hurt if it rhymes and it doesn't have to be simple meaning, of course. Ted Kooser is a good example and he has pointed me to many others at americanlifeinpoetry.org. I've never understood a lot of the poetry with unusual structure, punctuation, etc., (excl. e.e. cummings.) Perhaps my question is: what do you think makes poetry significant as a form? Thanks, I've been thinking much too hard today. Your turn.

Michael Dirda: Think hard! Impossible, I'm exhausted and feeling intellectually, spiritually, and imaginiatively bankrupt. You should, of course, read the poetry you like, though occasionally branching out and trying someone a little different from your usual fare. Poetry functions ln lots of ways--it says better than we can how we feel when in love or despair, it consoles, inspires, and teaches. I talk a litle about this side of art in Book by Book. I myself like formal verse, wit and word play, and certain world-weariness. But I try not to restrict myself. One day you feel like Wallace Stevens, the next day you feel like Rudyard Kipling (whose verse I've always liked, as did T.S. Eliot). Poetry is compacted language and when the reader unpacks it, a kind of inner explosion results.

_______________________

Leesburg, Va.: Have you had a chance to read King Dork by Frank Portman? While I really enjoyed the book, I was a little surprised at what the publisher allowed the author to get away with in a young adult book. There are a few scenes in the book involving oral sex, drug usage, and extreme violence. As an adult reader, I found the story to be wonderful. I haven't laughed so hard while reading a book in years. However, I'm surprised that it's being marketed as a young adult book. Who makes the decisions to market a book as young adult fiction or adult fiction?

Michael Dirda: This certainly isn't the sort of YA book I would press on my kids. But there is a long tradition in the YA market of novels addressing controversial issues--abortion, abuse, homosexuality, suicide--because teen angst seems to find these subjects deep and rewarding, in some arcane way that escapes me. In some instance, obviously, the books are even therapy for kids suffering from these ills or dealing with these issues.

The YA market is hot these days for novels, while the adult market is relatively flat. So if a book can swing either way, I think a lot of publishers are hoping to get books that appeal first to teens, then maybe to grown ups. The example of Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling shows it can be done.

_______________________

Buffalo, N.Y.: I read BOOK BY BOOK and was pleased by it. Only two quibbles: the drab cover (why not that Frazetta cover, instead?) and the lack of an index. I think BOOK BY BOOK would make an excellent graduation gift.

Michael Dirda: The publishers would certatinly like it to be regarded as a good graduation gift. That was definitely a market intended by them. I argued about the cover--I felt it was too soft, too feminine, if I may sound sexist--but these are matters about which authros can only advise. I decided against the index and choose to do the Who's Who because I was otherwise going to have to cumber the text with too many identifications. Plus, I think of it as a short book for browsing and that it wouldn't be that hard to find favorite pages. Maybe I was wrong. But authors work within constraints that readers know not of.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: So are you one of these literary snobs who hates books that are actually fun to read like "The Da Vinci Code" and Crichton, Steven King, Tom Clancy, etc., books?

Do you look down on people who don't read 700 page diatribes where the plot doesn't begin until page 500?

Michael Dirda: Definitely. In fact, suffering is what I turn to in books and if I crack a smile I toss the book aside as shallow entertainment unworthy of my noble mind.

In truth, I think people should read what they like, but try new things, even "harder" things, from time to time. Stephen King is quite a good writer, and the four novellas in Different Seasons are masterly from any point of view. But I do like writing with style and wit, so when I think popular fiction I think more ofteh of Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake.

Of writers from the past many of my favorites were regarded as fun to read--P.G. Wodehouse to begin with, but the number classic ghost story writers, Golden Age mystery novelists, Georgette Heyer and Daphne Du Maurier, etc etc.

But I do like to learn things, new things, and so am always trying to read classics that I've somehow missed.

_______________________

N.Y., N.Y.: Have you read any of John Crowley's Aegypt series? Does it stand up to his best known work -- Little, Big (one of my favorite novels)?

Also, like you, I couldn't get past the first chapter of the Da Vinci Code because it was so badly written. I was astounded to find out that it has sold over 40 million copies. It's a depressing statistic, for some reason. Can you think of a mega-bestseller aimed at adults that actually has some merit in terms of prose style?

Michael Dirda: Crowley's Aegypt series is wonderful, but I can only speak directly of the first volume, which I reviewed. I've been waiting for volume four, the conclusion, so that I can read through the whole quartet at once.

If you want to see brilliant Crowley, you might try his novella "Great Work of Time" or pre Little, Big novels, especialy Engine Summer.

_______________________

Van Ness, D.C.: Just a shout-out to Dirda's gang. I'm almost to the end of "Little, Big" and I wish it would go on forever. Thanks for the recommendation -- you enhance my life!

Michael Dirda: Gee, two Crowley postings next to each other. Glad you're enjoying it.

_______________________

Knox., Tenn.: My son is graduating high school and heading for college next year. Having been raised agnostic, he doesn't have a lot of knowledge about the Bible. I've ordered the new Dictionary of Cultural Literacy to give him, but I seem to recall hearing of a book that explains the Bible in historic terms, not from a purely religious aspect. Have you heard of such a book? Thanks for any help you can give on this.

Michael Dirda: There are several old volumes out--one compiled by Roland Mushat Frye--of the Bible designed to be read as literature. You don't get every word of Leviticus or Numbers, but you do read the major stories, set up as ordinary prose, without all the verse numbering. I'd recommend one of these.

Most scholarly books about the Bible do address it as a historical document. You might want to look at Robin Lane Fox's history behind the biblical narrative called The Unauthorized Version. Lane Fox is an atheist, an Oxford don specializing in classics and a well known gardener.

_______________________

Maryland: I just finished Vanity Fair by Thackeray. I wrote a book report on it back in high school -- even though I hadn't read the book -- I think I got a B on it. The shame I have felt lo these many years was terrible! I rewarded myself for actually reading the book by re-reading the first Harry Potter, and then a P.G. Wodehouse book.

Michael Dirda: Wait a minute. You rewarded yourself for reading Vanity Fair--I don't get this. It's a wonderful, witty, shrewd, touching book, and dwarfs Harry Potter and anything by Wodehouse. Indeed, I might well pick it as the greatest Victorian novel, after Middlemarch.

_______________________

Texas: I have read your new book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed your recent visit to the Bob Edwards Show. I heard you mention your concern about seeming erudite when you mention your reading, etc. My blue collar background is similar to yours and have also acquired too many books over time that I cant part with. I find that having many books in my home are often seen by visitors as either very peculiar or even offensive. The most frequent question is a disdainfully asked "have you read all these books?" Do you experience similar things? If so, how do you react?

Michael Dirda: I just say the books are there for decoration. They were an idea of the interior designer.

No, I never comment on the books. I just let people marvel.

_______________________

Omaha, Neb.: A plug for Book by Book: it is a delight with only a soft hint of despair.

A plea: some reviews before fall somewhere?

Enjoy your vacation.

Michael Dirda: Well, isn't that life, if we're lucky--a delight with just a soft hint of despair?

Oh, there may be a couple of pieces this summer, but not in Book World. We'll see.

You can always read or reread earlier works by the author of B3.

_______________________

Bonn, Germany: My husband took two of the kids camping last weekend, and I had a wonderful Mother's Day taking turns reading Middlemarch and the Mitford-Waugh correspondence (very glad about the footnotes and the index in that one -- I'm amazed how many people Mitford knew). Re Middlemarch: can you say a little bit about what makes this a Dirda favorite? I'm finding it a bit tough -- there are passages when I'm not even sure what she is saying ...

Michael Dirda: It takes a little getting used to, but it's such a moveing portrait of human frailty of various kinds, and of goodness too. Just the slow deterioration of the young doctor when he falls in love with a fatuous but beautiful girl is beautifully done and true. Eliot is so smart too. She can be earnest, yes, but you get bits of poetry as well, like the diminuendo of that final sentence about our lives being better than they might be because of those who rest in unvisited tombs.

_______________________

Union Square, N.Y.: Hi Michael,

I'm taking a two-week vacation in June to Paris and Barcelona. Can you recommend any books for the trip? We'll be spending some time on the beach in Spain, so nothing terribly scholarly. I'm already planning on bringing Light Years to reread, and friends have recommended The Razor's Edge. Any additional suggestions?

Thank you!

Michael Dirda: Are you married? Then, please, don't take Light Years. You don't want this book on a romantic holiday. It is, after all, about the breakup of a perfect couple. And I wouldn't take The Razor's Edge either. If you want a Maugham, try Christmas Holiday, set in Paris, and with much bittersweetness and worldliness to it, but a wonderful novel.

What else? I think you can't beat Agatha Christie for beach reading. Shortish books. Simple writing. Wonderful evocations of a moneyed, elegant lost English world. And clever but not taxing mysteries. Pick one of the recognized classics. There are several set in beach-styhle resorts, and one involves the confusion between a sleeping person tanning on the beach and a dead body lying on a blanket on the beach.

_______________________

Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): I've never so much as picked up a copy of DA VINCI CODE, having heard from people whose literary judge=ment I respect that however exciting and page-turning the plot may be, it's couched in prose so turgid that it makes turning said pages difficult at best. However, I think its success has less to do with the qualities of the book itself than with the fact that the fickle finger of Fate, looking to anoint its next Big Popular Success, landed on Dan Brown. That's the way it goes: nature abhors a vacuum, and if it isn't one thing enjoying huge popular success it's another -- how else to explain things like Rubik's Cube and Pet Rocks? And lest we get all het up about such an 'undeserving' book getting this kind of success, think back to Stephen Hawking's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, which was also a surprise bestseller, and was undoubtedly bought by a lot of people who couldn't tell a black hole from the Black Spot. Sometimes the FF of F likes to throw people a curveball.

Michael Dirda: In retrospect you can see how a best seller made it. IN the case of Code, here was the modern equivalent of Golfing for Cats or Lincoln's Doctor's Dog. Religion, conspiracy, mystery, the occult, "learning"--it's the same combination that gave us, to name three better books, The Name of the Rose, Possession, and An INstance of the Fingerpost.

Pet rocks were not a fad. And you've gone and hurt a poor, quiet, innocent creature that never did you or anyone else any harm, except for that one time when I threw it at a rabic raccon.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: I just found out that Donna Leon will be at Politics and Prose tomorrow night (7 p.m.), but I won't be able to go. Although I don't usually like detective stories, I find her Venice-set stories a lot of fun (and, if I can say, fairly literate, as Brunetti's wife teaches University English). I just finished reading her penultimate (to date): Blood from a Stone.

Hmm. I also like the Montalbano stories of Camilleri. Maybe I only like Detective stories set in Italy?

Michael Dirda: Maybe. It's hard not to long for the Italian lanscape, food, wine, people. Have you read Michael Dibdin or Leonardo Sciascia? You might give them a whirl.

I've never read Leon or Camilleri, though I've heard lots of good things. Which are their best books?

_______________________

Bonn, Germany: Thank you for you comment on "Middlemarch". Yes, I remember you quoting the final sentence in "Bound to Please" (which sent me to Google with a "define:fustian" command). I am interested in your reading list for the past semester -- what were the real successes (maybe the Diderot, since you're teaching that again in Vermont) or glaring flops (Juenger, maybe)?

Michael Dirda: No real flops, though the least popular books were probably Baudelaire, Cavafy and Junger. The most--Dom Casmurro, Kokoro, and Out of Africa.

I'm teaching Rameau's Nephew and Notes from Underground again because I love them.

_______________________

Silver Spring, Md.: Hoping to fix a (minor) injustice here. Youve mentioned "How to Read a Book like a Professor" disparagingly here more than once.

The only bad thing about that book is the title: it's a plain-language guide to some of the symbolism, deeper meanings, and character aspects that make many books so rich and deep.

For example, the author pointed out what might be obvious to you or to me that any time a character goes swimming, takes a bath, etc., it may have a deeper meaning referring to baptism, moral cleansing, etc.

The very opposite of spoiling my reading, it enhanced it.

Title should be "How to read the way a teacher who really loves literature would show you"

Michael Dirda: Really, I mentioned that book only once, a week or so ago. I jsut think it's a terrible title. But then I think that most of my own book titles and subtitles aren't that hot either. I loathe the subtitle, for instance, on the one that does have a title I like: Bound to Please.

_______________________

Falls Church, Va: My fourth grade son doesn't like to read books very much. He will read his homework, comic books, the sports section and his Sport's Illustrated Kids magazine and the occasional book. He will let us read a novel to him but he won't read one himself, even those about sports. I figure it is more important to keep him reading than fight with him so I was thinking that graphic novels might be the way to go. I figure they will look like comics to him but they seem a higher level of literature than Spiderman. I've looked in book stores and at a glance a lot of them seem like they could be inappropriate for a 10-year-old. I was wondering if you can recommend some graphic novels that are OK self-reading for a normal 10-year-old. I love Neil Gaiman, is the Sandman series OK for a boy of his age? His novels, as wonderful as they are, aren't.

Thanks for any help you can provide.

Michael Dirda: I don't think most graphic novels are appropriate for young kids. Their audience is older teens and young people.

I think you should keep feeding your son magazines, comics, and sports related material. How about a biography of some favorite player? I think Fred Bowen, who writes a lot about sports for boys his age (and a little younger, occasionally a little older), might be a good author to try. It really doesn't matter what your son reads so long as he reads a lot of something.

_______________________

Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): The Agatha Christie you're thinking of is EVIL UNDER THE SUN. Christie also wrote a variation on the plot, a novella called 'Triangle at Rhodes', which takes the same basic characters and plot and makes someone else entirely the villain. Interesting to read alongside the novel as an exercise in how to take the same elements and make a different story out of them.

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is another Christie classic that's ideal holiday reading, set as it is in a holiday home on an island. APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH, set in the rose-red city half as old as time, Petra, is also a good one, not as well known as some of her others. Christie said in her autobiography that visiting Petra was one of the two or three highlights of her life, and she makes good use of the setting in the book.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft.

_______________________

Lexington: Michael, the literary mavens are at it again with a list of the best of American Lit for the last 25 years with 'Beloved' the "winner." I liked 'Beloved' but prefer 'Mason and Dixon' as a look at America's promise and its past. Of course, all such lists are idiosyncratic, but don't they serve a purpose after all? People use them as a guide to what to read. I remember as a young teen when I needed some guidance for better books than Tunis, Hardy boys, etc. my grandfather giving me a brief book by Burton Rascoe that listed his best 100 novels. I think I started with 'Anthony Adverse' Who reads that today, or Rascoe? The list got me to read many of his contemporaries like T. S. Stribling and Joseph Hergersheimer ( does anybody read them anymore? ). But it was a beginning and led on to better authors and books, though I wasted too much time on the early Pulitzer winners. The really interesting thing about the list of 22 books is that Roth has six books on the list. Considering how many of the authors listed have fallen off from their best, can you think of very many writers who like Roth have actually gotten better as they aged and written so consistently also in their aging years?

Michael Dirda: I've heard about this list, but don't know how it was compiled. Morrison wrote better books than Beloved, especially The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon. Six Roths are too many. But I can speculate forever. I've published lots of lists over the years, but frankly I don't feel that most of the people who get on these lists need them. It's not as if every kid in American doesn't have to read a Toni Morrison novel every other year in high school or college. And Roth has been widely acclaimed as our greatest living novelist etc. He may well be. But I like the lists that point to the great under-rated or slightly overlooked writers, and regulars of this chat know their names: Russell Hoban, James Salter, John Crowley, Ursula Le Guin, Steven Millhauser, Gilbert Sorrentino, Donald Westlake, Anne Proulx et al.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Donna Leon Recommendations:

If you're a purist and like to start at the beginning, "Death at La Fenice", first published in 1992, is a fun story. For me, so far, "Blood from a Stone" was the most tightly complex, if that makes sense. More than just a procedural.

Andrea Camilleri:

Again, hard to beat starting with the first, "The Shape of Water" (La forma dell'acqua), but my personal favorite to date is "The Smell of the Night"(L'odore della notte). Wonderful retribution in this one.

Michael Dirda: Thanks

_______________________

Lenexa, Kans.: Re "Middlemarch": I always thought the elderly pedant Casaubon to be one of the most interesting (and pathetic) figures in all Victorian fiction. I'm sure I'm not the only one who worries someday of turning into something similar. His research and writings came to nothing --and still he remained insufferably arrogant. Poor Dorothea.

Michael Dirda: Gee, maybe I shouldn't have modelled myself on him after all.

_______________________

Hedgesville, W.Va.: I'll be heading to Egypt in December. What books --both fiction and non-fiction -- would you recommend I read in order to get in the right frame of mine?

Michael Dirda: Herodotus--the early books are largely about ancient Egypt.

Barbara Mertz's two early popular studies of ancient Egypt

Elizabeth Peters novels, perhaps The Last Camel Died at Noon

Christie's Death on the Nile

The Mamur Zapt series of detective stories is supposed to be very good but I've not read them.

Why not rewatch the original Karloff "Mummy"?

_______________________

Calgary, Canada: For Knoxville; Asimov's Guide to the Bible would be an excellent introduction to Biblical history.

Michael Dirda: Yes. A good suggestion. Ah, Isaac. Here's to you.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: For Fall's Church --

Has your son tried the Captain Underpants books by Dav (not a typo) Pilkey? He never liked to read, either, so these books are a great introduction (and what boy can resist titles like "Captain Underpants And The Perilous Plot Of Professor Poopypants?")These were the first books our son read by choice, and are full of pictures and boy-appropriate jokes.

(and as part of this testimonial, he, now 12, just finished reading "To Kill A Mockingbird.")

Michael Dirda: Thanks. Though I've always thought these were more for eight year olds.

_______________________

Riverdale Park, Md.: Why is literature so often held to such a higher standard than other art films? For instance, even many film snobs have their favorite kitschy or B-movies. I read Da Vinci Code and found it very entertaining -- you want to see what happens next, whether it be ridiculous, melodramatic, or logical. My personal opinion was that the story was very engaging -- so much that it was able to overstep the writing that attempted to get in the way every chance it could. This is coming from someone who tends toward older, more elitist selections (Dante, Borges, Calvino, Dostoyevsky, etc.).

Michael Dirda: I don't like that word snobs. Readers are readers, and every one of that I know may read, well, the Persian epic The Shahnameh one day, and Spinoza's Ethics the next, and Haggard's She the day after, and then The Mysterious Mr. Quin stories of Christie, and then . . . Look, no one is always going to feel like climbing Mt. Everest, sometimes you just want a stroll along the canal or around the garden. Nothing wrong with this. But a diet of best sellers, of commercial blockbuster best sellers, would be like eating at McDonald's and nowhere else. Still, a Big Mac tastes might good every so often.

_______________________

Vienna, Va.: Argh! I'm gonna miss the cutoff for today's chat if I don't hustle.

In short, what's your advice about opening a bookstore? It's a dream for a lot of people. I'm thinking about moving to another area and giving it a go. Do you think it can work in this day and age?

Michael Dirda: It's hard. Why not talk to the owners of one of the independent shops in the area? Say, Politics and Prose, which seems to have made a success of itself, despite the big box stores. Personally, I think you should first go work for a bookstore, even a big one, and discover if you like the business when it becomes more than a romantic daydream.

_______________________

Plano, Tex.: Incredibly, I seem to have lost my reading mojo. The in-laws are visiting, work is deamnding and I'm too tired to read even a page per day. I need a lovely pick-me-up of short stories (preferably). Any suggestions?

Michael Dirda: Don't read. Instead pick up an audio book and play it in the car or when you're feeling mindless at home. You'll be soothed and entertained at the same time.

As for short stories, without knowing your taste I can't really advise. How about a big anthology like the old Golden Argosy? Or The Oxford Book of English Short Stories?

For a pick me up, I think Saki's short stories might do the trick--witty, sometimes macabre, well written and short.

_______________________

Victorian novel: I see that you just ranked Middlemarch and Vanity Fair 1-2 on the all time Victorian novels list. This reminded me that I was unable to finish Bleak House last year. Is this indicative of a grave character flaw in me....or does it really just go on too long and meander too much? Feel sort of guilty for not finishing it ...

Michael Dirda: Amoebas crawling through the primeval slime are superior to you. Not finish Bleak House! In truth, it is a long book, and I find that girl a tiresome saccharine narrator. But the mystery story is great, and the last quarter when Inspector Bucket enters the case is quite exciting. You have to just surrender to the book's prose, read quickly the girl's chapters, and all will be well. Till then, I think you should go about with your head hanging low, perhaps with a Scarlet BH on your shirt or blouse.

_______________________

To Union Square: Why not read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or Down and Out in Paris and London? Or, Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris.

Michael Dirda: Why not? When I went to Spain, I read Malraux's Man's Hope and Orwell's Catalonia, but then Franco was still alive and these books felt very real.

_______________________

Lenexa, Kans.: Kurt Vonnegut said he once brought the house down for a full fifteen minutes when addressing the American Society of Humanists by saying, "Well, Isaac's in heaven now."

Michael Dirda: Lovely.

_______________________

Columbia, Md.: I'm currently reading The Master, a novel about Henry James by Colm Toibin, and am inspired to read some more of James's work. What would you recommend? (I've already read/reread recently Portrait of a Lady, Turn of the Screw and The Wings of the Dove and want to reread The Ambassadors.) But I have a sense that only scratches the surface. Thanks!

Michael Dirda: The Toibin book is very good, isn't it? (A reviewer of aame speaks.) James is a whole universe. I'd go get John Auchard's Portable James, which offers a selection of stories, lists, reading advice and much else. Personally, I would suggest The Aspern Papers, Washington Square, and The American Scene. James's essays on writers, his travel pieces on Eureope (there's a good volume of Italian travels edited by Auchard), and his letters are also very good. But Cyril Connoolly used to say, he enjoyed reading more about James than reading James. You should certainly look out for Simon Nowell-Smith's The Legend of the Master, a collection of anecdotes by divers hands (I love that phrase) and Leon Edel's biography.

_______________________

Syracuse, NY: Last week, there was a fair amount of discussion about adventure stories being (for the most part) moribund in our ironic, post-modern age. A great, great book about "The Fate of Adventure in the Western World" (the book's subtitle) is Paul Zweig's The Adventurer. Zweig argues that the entire notion of adventure in Western history (including its manifestation in storytelling) has eroded because of the deification of labor and the increasing domesticization of our basic cultural structures. He reads this argument through different literary and philosophical texts, with chapters on The Odyssey (the basic type of adventure), Robinson Crusoe (the reverse type), the Gothic (a challenge to the reversal), Poe, and Nietzshe, the philospher of adventure. I believe the book is out-of-print, but it's well worth seeking out.

Michael Dirda: Yes, a good book. I own it. Zweig died far too young, after writing three or four very good books.

_______________________

Vernon Lee Question: Michael -- In the past, you've recommended ghost stories by Vernon Lee, M.R. James, etc., and I'm in the mood for a haunting. Is there an anthology or collection (not sure what the difference is) that you can recommend?

Michael Dirda: The fullest and best collection is Hauntings, and it's published by Ash-Tree Press (look for them on line). There are various paperbacks and out of print collections around on used booksites. But her two best stories are frequently anthologized: Amour Dure and Oke of Okehurst, in for instance Montague Summers' The Supernatural Omnibus.

_______________________

Michael Dirda: Guys, I've got to stop. I'm way past my time period, though there are lots more questions. I'm sorry not to get to you all. But we have the summer ahead of us. Write again. Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!

_______________________

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 is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company