Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, May 31, 2006; 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! I'm back in DC, sitting at a desk in Book World, and sweltering from the sudden onslaught of summer. I had a great time in Ohio, buying far too many books. Don't mention this to my wife. This week let's get started right away with questions.

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Ocala, Fla: Just a quick thank you: Your bio mentioned Diana Krall, a musician I had never heard. Hoping your musical tastes were as erudite as your reading, I sampled her and found myself entranced.

Michael Dirda: Glad you enjoyed Krall--I like her middle work, so to speak, the best. I have yet to listen to her newest CD. I'm particularly fond of her standards, especially her version of "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

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East Lansing, Mich: Just out of curiosity, if you read the Da Vinci code, what did you think of it? I have seen reviews of the movie, which seemed to pan it. Often the books of popular movies are not much better. (Such as Steven King books.)

Michael Dirda: I read the first chapter and the thought the prose dull and poor, so never read any more. If you like these sorts of books, I suggest instead Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary, A.S. Byatt's Possession, Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, and Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.

I do hope there aren't any more DVC questions.

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Lakewood, Ohio: Do you foresee a time when the dominant form of a "book" will be in some sort of electric format, with easy-to-use links to information referenced in the text? I love holding a book in my hands, but I can see real value, when reading nonfiction or a challenging fiction book, in having more of a multimedia experience.

Thanks for your time.

Michael Dirda: I think that computers are great for answering questions, but that reading is a process that requires sustained interaction with a text--and this the computer does not encourage. Still, I would presume that as time goes by people may tend to regard books as we know them as antiques, and use screens or hand-held devices for their reading. Researchers are working on a kind of electronic paper onto which you can download electronic text and then turn the pages of the book. In essence, you would have access to every book in the world, but only need to own one "book," just as we own one radio and can pick up any number of stations.

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College Park, Md: Have you by chance read Steve Berry's 3rd book, The Templar Legacy? I thought it was a better story than The Da Vinci Code, though of the same genre.

Michael Dirda: Nope. There is something alluring about conpsiracy theories of history--I've always thought it must be our inherent desire to give order or make sense out of the randomness of life.

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Houston, Tex: Is plagiarism worse now than it used to be or is it just reported on more?

Michael Dirda: That's almost a Helen Keller question. My guess would be that it's worse, partly because kids are used to pirating music, downloading information into their own files, and generally don't perceive the hard edges of texts as those who grew up with books alone. The electronic world is so fluid already, and so the character of plagiarism grows fuzzier.

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Montreal, Canada: Mister Dirda,

Is it realistic to hope that Dan Brown will crawl under a rock and never be heard from again until the Earth stops revolving around the sun?

If a pseudo-writer writes a novel and no one is there to read it, does it make a noise?

Michael Dirda: No. I'm sure we'll hear from Dan Brown again; I gather he's working on a book about the Knights Templar.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Follow-up to last week: Who are some of your favorite English translators? Could you recommend some outstanding novels or poetry that are translated into English? I'm especially seeking Portuguese-to-English translations -- whether Brazilian or European Portuguese, African (Mozambique, Angola) or other.

Michael Dirda: Richard Zenith, the translator of Fernando Pessoa, and John Gledson and Gregory Rabassa, who've both done versions of Machado de Assis, among others, are the Portuguese translators that leap to mind. I recently reviewed a wonderful English version of the Persian epic The Shahnameh by Dick Davis; I think highly of Burton Raffel's Don Quixote and prefer it to Edith Grossman's (it's livelier); and Richard Wilbur's versions of Moliere are modern classics. Among older translators I revere the versions of Arthur Waley, especially his Tale of Genji; prefer Constance Garnett's Chekhov to any other (her Edwardian flavor seems just right to me, despite her occasional anachronisms), would choose Richmond Lattimore's Iliad and Robert Fitzgerald's Odyssey as my favorites, and think highly of the Princeton volumes of Paul Valery. But this is a very large field, and it would take an hour to get into it more deeply. What matters is that we should be deeply grateful to be living in a great age of translation.

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Annapolis, Md: Dear Michael,

I have a funny little problem you may be able to help me with. I am taking this technical course paid for by my company. By random accident (honest) I've ended up sitting next to a very attractive young woman in my company. She recently told me that she's reading a certain bestseller which I won't name -- and she said she wants me to read so we can talk about it.

I'm really torn -- I haven't looked at it, but I hate books like that. I didn't say that to her, of course -- I kind of pretended interest as she went on and on about this goddamn book. (I think we'd be able to talk about other things if this ever developed, btw.)

I guess this comes down to a shallow set of questions. Have you ever read something you didn't really want to to impress (forgive me) a hot babe? And what would you say in such a situation?

I admit it: on the one hand I'm a pretty advanced reader, but on the other, a pretty shallow sort of guy (but only every now and then).

Thanks.

Michael Dirda: An interesting problem. I've occasionally had to read books I didn't want to read--think back to high school--and sometimes found it more worthwhile than I had imagined. However, if this is a book you really can hardly bear the thought of, why not tell her this and see if it sparks one of those screwball comedy type battles of wits that ends up with each of you falling into the other's arms?

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Washington, D.C.: What is your take of Quine's "indeterminacy of translation" as applied to non-English poetry?

Michael Dirda: Why, I believe it's exactly the same as yours.

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Washington, D.C.: I recently picked up a copy of "The Complete Roderick" by John Sladek. After I got it home, I noticed that there is a nice quote from you on the front cover. Am I really in for a treat? I hope so. Also, does the publisher need your permission to use a quote like that?

Michael Dirda: I reviewed Roderick when it came out, and so the publisher can quote me without any hesitations. It's a wonderful book, even a great one. I mean there are sentences in it like this: The historian glanced at his watch as another second passed into his domain. This is from memory, though, and I know Sladek's formulation is crisper. If you're an science fiction fan, Sladek's parodies are the best ever done. Try, for instance, his take-off on Philip K. Dick, "Solar Shoe Salesman," or his sendup of Ray Bradbury.

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Baltimore, Md: I missed your column/review in Book World on Sunday. It just felt as if something (importnat) was not there. I hope you'll be back before too long with more recommendations. (Thanks mainly to you) I'm currently reading Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson (another one of your recommendations) and savoring her beautiful prose and sharp eye. My friends all say "Housekeeping?", oh that's the best movie! We need your writing

Michael Dirda: Well, I'll be back in September. In the meantime, you can tune into this chat or read my books. Or pick up some old classics.

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Arlington, Va: Michael:

I very much enjoy these chat sessions, but I have to say that I am sick of the Dan Brown references. Admittedly, I have read all of his books, and I definitely agree that the writing and dialogue can be improved, but they are fundamentally plot driven. If you love great prose -- stay away, if you like potboilers -- they are not that bad. There is no need, however, to trade in ad hominem attacks on Brown, many of which I suspect are motivated by a combination of pseudo-intellectual, pretentious elitism and professional jealousy.

Michael Dirda: Fair enough. I've tried to skip most of the Dan Brown questions. But given your argument, I would still say there are better plot-driven adventure novels.

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Washington, D.C.: Quine's theory. You mean, yours the same as Quine or mine?

Michael Dirda: Either way. I've never read a word of Quine, though I'm pretty sure he went to Oberlin College, my alma mater. I will add that I love his name. It sounds like something that Nabokov would make up.

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Alexandria, Va: Is it true that the thousand monkeys randomly typing at a thousand typewriters have given up on the collected works of William Shakespeare and have started their own blog?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. You may be on to something.

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Jefferson City, Tenn: What's the best biography you ever read?

And, as a follow-up:

Do you attribute your enjoyment of it more to the literary skill of the biographer or to your fascination with the life of the person being portrayed?

Michael Dirda: The best biography is the obvious one--James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. (Which appears in Book by Book as Samuel Boswell's Life of Johnson--I added the Samuel late in the proof process and either misdirected the arrow or the copy editor misread it--sigh). It's wise, funny, filled with great stories by or about a great figure in English literature. Of modern literary biographies I admire Richard Ellmann's James Joyce, Rupert Hart-Davis's Hugh Walpole, Jeremy Lewis's Cyril Connolly--all these are fat, plummy biographies about figures who attracted notoriety, good stories and fine writing from their biographers.

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Chapel Hill NC (Audio Book Girl): Hi, Michael. A Few AB comments: I just finished listening to

The Good Soldier, read by Frank Muller. I love Frank Muller,

and TGS was well-suited to him. For Colorado Springs who

enjoyed Damage, I suggest listening to the AB read by Simon

Prebble. On a differnt note, I liked New York's idea of a

'literary chain link' last week. I've often thought of my

ownreading in that way; maybe the subject of a future chat?

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Maybe. I recently gave a copy of the Muller Soldier to a friend as a gift. On my trip to Ohio I listened to the Naxos abrdigement of Durrell's Justine, which was terrific; a so-so Time Machine; and a fairly good Wind in the Willows. Before that I listened to Patricia Routledge perform Alan Bennett's "A Woman of No Importance"--one of his Talking Heads pieces--and it is just a tremendous piece of one-woman theater, increadibly touching.

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Washington DC: You recently wrote a piece on Robert E Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. There are new web sites and magazines featuring the sword and sorcery type story he wrote in the 1930s. Do you see a revival of this genre occurring?John

Michael Dirda: Conan has always had followers--Karl Edward Wagner's Kane, for instance. I don't have the sense that we're in for a revival of sword and sorcery just now, but that Howard fans continue to be ardent in talking up his work.

You might try Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, if you like Conan--or Terry Pratchett's send-up of then in The Colour of Magic. Of course Terry also created the aging Cohen the Barbarian.

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Tysons Corner, Va: I would like to know if literary talent is additive or cumulative in nature. In other words, if a "hack" writer is good at doing popular novels and selling millions of copies, then is a true literary artist one who can do all that, plus write well enough to satisfy the literary standards of say, a Faulkner, Conrad, or Dickens, etc.? Or, alternatively, is the nature of the two types of talent so different that they do not really overlap--i.e., writers of popular thrillers and mysteries have a genuine talent that many truly literary artists do not have?

You may have guessed that this question is inspired by a currently famous writer, verboten in your chats, who has written a super-mega bestseller, yet every time I read a review of his famous book and associated movie, they always say what a BAD (clunky, turgid, excessively wordy) writer he is? So what gives? Some of the people buying his books must be quite intelligent, correct, and thus appreciative of different levels of literature.

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Fiction is a house with many mansions, and the ability to tell a rattling good story is a big and important one, often undervalued by those who prefer, say, the comedy of manners. Many "literary" writers occasionally try to do something popular--and generally without much success. You can't just sit down and expect to write like Jacqueline Susann or Dan Brown by wanting to. Sometimes, too, the popular writer touches on something archetypal in his story--think of Haggard's She, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Wells' Time Machine--and these books prove more enduring than the more "serious" and worthy works of their contemporaries.

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Two Things, Calif: Michael,

What's your opinion of Gould's Book of Fish? I picked it up at a second-hand shop mainly because the blurbs were so ridiculously rapturous, but also because it seemed to be a book that, as you discussed a few weeks ago, was a smart, ripping yarn.

Re the impressing the hot babe reader -- Tell the lovely lass you're in the middle of something else--something you want to read or discuss with her--and don't start trying to bend to her will. If your relationship progresses, you will soon bend to her will anyway.

Yes, I'm a (happily) married person.

Thanks!

Michael Dirda: Haven't read Gould's Book of Fish, though I've heard nothing but good about it.

Personally, I think a copy of Spinoza's Ethics--ideally in the original Latin--might really impress her.

On the other hand, I doubt whether I would be attracted to a woman for long if I found her tastes too divergent from my own. I mean, as a middle-aged guy, I can be drawn to the beauty of the young--and yet know that all real conversation with them is close to impossible. That sweet young thing lives in another universe.

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translation: Anyone interested in translation as an art has GOT to read "Le Ton Beau de Marot" by Douglas Hofstadter (same guy who wrote "Godel, Escher, Bach). A fascinating rumination on the dilemmas of translation.

Michael Dirda: I reviewed it. And in the middle of the review I wrote a paragraph without using the letter E--for fun, and in the Oulipian spirit of constraint. Hofstadter sent me a note about the review--which was favorable--and wrote it without using an E.

The book meanders all around the idea of translation, but is pegged to multiple versions of a short poem by the French Renaissance poet Marot.

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Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Glad you enjoyed the Patricia Routledge reading of Alan Bennett. I'd unhesitatingly recommend any of the Talking Heads recordings: Thira Hird in 'A Cream Cracker Under the Settee', Maggie Smith in 'A Bed Among the Lentils', and Bennett himself in 'A Chip in the Sugar' are excellent, but my favourite would have to be Stephanie Cole ion 'Soldiering On': simultaneously amusing and heartbreaking. Well worth a listen.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Routledge is amusing and heartbreaking too. "Oh, we did laugh."

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Hungry Town, Calif: Hi Michael,

You seem to enjoy a good meal. I don't know whether you cook or not, but are there any cook books you might recommend for someone who likes to eat well but doesn't want to spend the entire day chasing ingredients or standing by the stove?

Thanks (and no, I wasn't suggesting that you look like you need to skip a few meals).

Michael Dirda: Well, I enjoy a good meal, but can't count myself a gourmet. I like red wine, Guinness, cheese of all sorts, and things that are like casseroles or stews--Shepherd's pie, bouillabaisse, etc etc. I don't like chocolate. I can cook a few things, but don't much like cooking. I loved being a college this past spring where I could just go to the undergraduate cafeteria and eat whatever was there.

The only cookbook writer I read much of is M.F.K. Fisher--no surprise there. My main kitchen reference is James Beard's American Cookery.

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Arlington, Va: Have you read James Morrow's new book, The Last Witchfinder? Apparently the narrator of the book is a book, which sounds pretty irresistible. I really liked his first book, This is the Way the World Ends, however, Towing Jehovah, which he also wrote I didn't like so much. Have you heard anything about his latest?

Michael Dirda: It's gotten good reviews, and I should have read it, but haven't. Should have because I know Morror a little and like him.

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Cary, North Carolina: Dear Michael,

I have a question about the marketing of books, specifically in print advertising. I'm referring mainly to the sort of large or large-ish ads that appear in the NY Book Review, and places like that - ads where there is some ample amount of space paid for by the publisher.

It puzzles that for every book featured in such ads, almost without exception, are promoted with blurbs like "Brilliant" and "powerfully imagined" (which to my ear fall into the category of 'praise so general as to be meaningless' if you know what I mean); or blurbs which make wild claims like "prose reminiscent of Fitzgerald's" of somethling like that.

Michael, am I alone in thinking that such ads are simply not persuasive? I've never found such claims to be believeable.

My question boils down to this: if the prose is reminiscent of Fitzgerald, if it's brilliant, if it's powerfully imagined, why doesn't the ad just feature an excerpt from the book? I guess I'm asking if it's ridiculous for me to guess that excerpts would do a better job of selling a book than these sorts of blurby claims.

As always, thanks very much for the chat and best wishes for June.

Michael Dirda: W.H. Auden used to say that poetry reviews should consist of essentially nothing but examples of the poetry. If the samples were good and appeling, people would buy the book.

Reviwerese--it's like grade inflation. I've sometimes wondered if blurbs shouldn't be more honest to make them work--"A pretty good novel, though the heroine is a little unconvincing. But you'll enjoy it anyway."

Publishers just don't see this, though, and they call the tune. So what you need to rely on are either actually quotes from reviews, or the reliability of the blurber. If a writer you admire says that a certain book is good, you can probably give it a whirl.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Dirda: Some writers seem to have wide-perspective oeuvres (Oates, Updike); others have more tightly-controlled oeuvres (Brookner: "the enduring of estrangement," Tyler: "the prevailing of awkwardness"). I'm currently reading "Digging to America"--have read all 16 of Tyler's previous novels--and began to think how it's both satisfying to have a "signature" corpus (a la Gershwin and his always-recognizable compositions) but also quite challenging to its author--especially as the oeuvre grows. Any thoughts on the subject? Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: What can I add to your own insightful comment? Readers do like the comfort they find by knowing a certain author will produce a certain kind of book--within limits. Publishers like these sorts of books too, because each builds on the others. It's the writers who are always trying something new who run into trouble in getting their books marketed well or even published.

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Clarksville, Md: Hi Michael,I have recently been devouring the "Flashman" series of historical fiction novels by George MacDonald Frazer. Great books, very original, they bring otherwise forgotten or obscure pieces of history alive, with quite an entertaining protagonist. What do you think of the books? Any more of this series coming out? (The first was published in 1969.)

Michael Dirda: I reviewed the last one, which came out about a year ago. Fraser is getting old, and Flashman on the March was the first one in a long time. Still, every admirer of the Victorian cad and bounder hopes for more of his adventures.

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Washington, DC: Michael, I wonder whether you're familiar with the quarterly journal called "Slightly Foxed"? It publishes reviews by readers, often well known, of favorite books--old and new, in and out of print. It's an intriguing idea, I think, and it makes for delightful reading and discovery. (I hasten to add that my only association with the publication is as a new subscriber.) Anyway, I just thought this might be of interest to you and other Dirda on Books regulars like me. Info here: www.foxedquarterly.com

Michael Dirda: I've seen the title, but never actually read any issues. Guess I should. Many thanks.

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Tallahassee, Fla: RE: Last week's comments on Pratchett: Going Postal and The Truth are among his best, along with Reaper Man and Guards! Guards! Rumor has it that another Moist von Lipwig will be out in a year or two about the city mint, called Making Money. Moment of pedantry: The Times' official slogan is 'The truth shall make ye free', described as being 'very meaningful without meaning anything very much'. It's simply typographical errors that keep changing it; my favorite version is 'The truth shall make ye fred'.

There was also some discussion about translations. I'm currently reading Heaney's Beowulf, and while it's not bad, I find it really irritating that it needs glosses for the supposedly modern translation, as the footnotes and foreign words interrupt the flow. I'm surprised he won the Whitbread Prize for it -- not because of the quality, but because it is a translation. It's not as though he conceived Grendel. I've done translations myself, and I know how hard it can be to find the right word or phrase(I'm always reminded of Vergil writing just one line a day and spending the rest of his time editing, and still wanting to burn his ms rather than have it see the light of day.) Still, translating is a very different skill from creating plots and characters and mood. Any thoughts? I'm sure you commented on all this when it was published, but what can I say? I'm behind on my reading.

P.S.: Thanks for the great review on Ferdowsi!

Michael Dirda: I reviewed Heaney's Beowulf, and said that he the Old English epic into a terrific modern poem--but that it wasn't quite like the original, that it was a bit freer than I might like. At least I think I said something like that--I do remember some such cavil. But it does make a very difficult, even dull poem, exciting for new readers. Hwaet!

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Lexington: Michael, I'm sure that a lot of your readers of 'a certain age' remember fondly independent bookstores. I also remember the used bookstores that I biked to where Hardy Boy mysteries and SFF could be had for a quarter. Some of them even sold the old pulp paperbacks, two for a dime ( at my age at the time the lurid covers sometimes could be just as exciting as the story ). I also remember when Lexington was a one-bookstore town ( for new books ) and that bookstore refused to sell Lawrence, Henry Miller, Burroughs, et al. This would have been in the late 50s when these writers were first being published over here. There was a small bookstore buried near the college that would sell Henry Miller; the proprietor would actually go in the back and bring back 'Tropic of Cancer' in a plain brown bag. And, I also remember smuggling back copies of 'Naked Lunch' and the English version of 'The Ginger Man' when I came back from study abroad. We all lament the loss of those stores, but isn't it also true that current reading habits have had at least as much responsibilty for their loss as the big chains. Compare the best-seller lists of 30 years ago to today. How many of the reader favorites discussed on this chat have actually been best-sellers? Yes, many books are sold today and 'the death of the novel' announced by Wolfe and others was certainly premature but is the kind of lit discussed in your recent book and this chat and others ever going to be popular and is lit as culturally relevant today as it once was, being up against movies and TV. Maybe we grew up at the end of a golden age where literature mattered a lot or some even and was discussed by many. Fortunately, we have book chats like yours where reader communities can 'gather' and swap recommendations because there is always going to be a need for that.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the reminiscence, Lexington. I think I'm growing tired. Maybe one more question today.

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Burlington, Vt: Let's talk poetry -- specifically how can one read poetry quietly? I love poetry but my wife hates it when I buy an anthology because all I want to do is read the poems out loud to her. And even when I am trying to read them silently I am always finding myself stopping and quietly speaking the words to get a better sense of the rhythms, which my wife says makes me look like a three year old just learning my letters. Am I wrong? Can poetry be truly enjoyed silently?

Michael Dirda: You can sound out the words in your head and move your lips, which is what I do. Sometimes I will read a poem aloud to myself. Except for very short things, I seldom read poetry aloud to another person.

But done well, it is wonderful. I was fortunate enough to be a judge for the NEA's Poetry Out Loud finals here in Washington. High school students from the 50 states recited three poems in competition--and all of them were thrilling and enthralling. So reading poetry aloud can be a skill worth acquiring.

All right, I'm plumb tuckered out, and so we must come to a close of this session of Dirda on Books. I didn't get to a lot of questions, so please try me again enxt week.

Till then, keep reading!

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