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Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, February 28, 2007 2:00 PM

Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda took your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.

Each week Michael Dirda's name appears -- in attractively large type -- in The Post's Book World section, where he writes about new novels, neglected classics, fat biographies, European literature, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, poetry, works of scholarship, the occasional children's book, almost anything under the rubric of "arts and letters." Although he earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda has somehow managed to retain, well into middle age, a myopic 12-year-old's exuberant passion for reading.

As he has for the past 40 years, Dirda says he still spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth, listening to music (classical, jazz, oldies, country and western), and daydreaming ("my only real hobby"). He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer, writing. His most recent books include "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments" (Indiana hardcover, 2000; Norton paperback, 2003), his self-portrait of the reader as a young man, "An Open Book" (Norton, 2003) and a collection of his essays and reviews titled "Bound to Please" (Norton, 2005) Last year he brought out "Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life" (Henry Holt, 2006) and this fall Harcourt will publish "Classics for Pleasure."

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." Dirda is a member of several literary associations, including the Baker Street Irregulars and The Ghost Story Society. Despite a penchant for quiet and solitude, he enjoys giving talks, teaching, and traveling. People tell him that he can be pretty funny for a guy who usually has his nose in a book.

(He also thinks he can be pretty funny at times...)

An archive of his reviews is available here.

An archive of his discussions is available here.

Dirda was online Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 2 p.m.

A transcript follows.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to DOB -- I had trouble signing on today because I'm downtown using a borrowed computer at Book World. Very frustrating. So let's go directly to the questions and I'll skip my usual report on the weather and my mood.

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Washington, D.C.: I have yet to find any good used bookstores in D.C., can you point me towards a few that you like?

Michael Dirda: Well, used bookshops aren't what they once were. But Bartleby's in Georgetown, Second Story Books (especially the warehouse in Rockville), Bonifant Books in Wheaton, Silver Spring Books, and a half dozen more are all worth visiting. But because of the rents in D.C., many of the classic bookshops have closed their shops and now sell strictly over the Internet.

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: Who's the Cliff behind Cliffnotes?

Michael Dirda: Good question. I have no idea.

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"Cloud Atlas": I remember that you haven't read "Cloud Atlas" yet, but I hoped the chatters might be able to help. I was intrigued by the format of "Cloud Atlas" (interwoven short stories), are there others that have successfully pulled this off? Any recommendations?

Michael Dirda: Okay. I'm putting this out to the collective wisdom. But offhand Eudora Welty's "The Golden Apples" is a collection of interwoven short stories -- that is, a major character in one story will be a minor character in another, and over the course of the book we learn the fate of a half dozen people.

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Saint Louis, Mo.: Which is our greatest living writer? Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King?

Michael Dirda: Do I have to pick either?

Certainly Stephen King possesses some kind of genius, but people still argue about its nature. But you can't write so many fine books just by luck.

On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy is a writer beloved by a small number of people, at least till fairly recently. I tend to think "Blood Meridian" is a masterpiece, but many people can't bear all that gruesome violence.

I suspect our greatest living writer -- at least from the point of view of a hundred years from now -- will be someone we don't fully appreciate now.

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Book Group Member: Hi Michael,

I belong to a book group which just read a book entitled "Pilgrim Hawk," by Glenway Wescott. I had never heard of the book or the author before and frankly didn't know what to expect. It's a short novel depicting the American expatriate experience in France in the 1920's and has a real F. Scott Fitzgerald style. It was an astonishingly good read. Have you heard of this author? Could you recommend anything else of his?

Many thanks.

Michael Dirda: Glenway Wescott actually appears in "The Sun Also Rises."

Sic transit gloria mundi. "The Pilgrim Hawk" is probably Glenway's most perfect achievement but his early books "Goodbye Wisconsin" and "The Grandmothers" are also extremely fine. He was a major figure on the arts scene in the 1950s and 60s, becoming president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But in the second half of his life he suffered from writer's block and wrote very little. There is a terrific book of his essays and introductions called "Images of Truth" and his diaries are an important document in gay history. His longtime partner Monroe Wheeler was a major figure at the Museum of Modern Art and Glenway's close friends included Katherine Anne Porter, in particular. I never met him, but my first literary mentor Robert Phelps was his literary executor, so I read the unexpurgated diaries in Robert's apartment as a wide-eyed 24-year-old.

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Pittsburgh: I was just now searching online for the title and availability of a certain book I recall having read as a child a (classified) number of years ago. In the process, I discovered a website on which one can type in a book's title and get a list of libraries holding it, in ascending order of distance in miles according to one's zip code. I hope this will help some of the other chatters here who are looking for old or obscure books.

http://www.worldcatlibraries.org

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. This does seem useful.

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Cliff: For the earlier questioner: Cliffton Hillegas

Michael Dirda: Okay. Cliffton Hillegas -- that tells me almost nothing. I think I recall a Mark Hillegas who was a literary critic, but am not sure of this. Who Was CH?

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Interwoven stories: Samuel Delany's "Neveryon" cycle does this quite well.

Iain Pears's "An Instance at the Fingerpost" tells the same story from four perspectives, but they aren't exactly short stories -- really novellas.

And in film, you have "Run, Lola, Run."

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Multiple perspectives on the same scene is, of course, used in the Japanese classic "Rashomon," about a rape.

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Noah's Ark, Woodworm Quarters: BookWorld published a notice on Sunday of a new book about Gericault's "The Raft of the Medusa." If memory serves, this painting (and the events it portrays) are the focus of a chapter in Barnes's "History of the World." While it made for an interesting chapter, does it warrant a book?

Where do you fall on these sort of focused histories?

Michael Dirda: I'm not sure. There's been such a proliferation of these short 200-page books about a major writer, book or event that they've become a subgenre of their own. In some ways, though, they are rather like Encyclopedia Britannica articles writ large -- and not so large if one looks up some of the very long articles in the old 11th edition of the EB. But I also believe that the way to understand, say, poetry is two fold: 1) Read a lot of it indiscriminately and 2) really focus in, zero in on a single poem and explicate it to pieces. This latter notion goes back to Louis Agassiz's zoology classes in the 19th century, where he would make students spend half the semester or more dissecting a single fish. But he felt if you knew one fish inside out, you had a handle on all of zoology. The great doctor William Osler once wrote that if you studied syphilis in all its aspects you would command most of modern medicine.

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Greatest Living Writer -- Cormac or King?: Wait, did Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon all die?? I'm greatly saddened.

Michael Dirda: No one told you -- I guess they wanted to spare you. It was an elevator crash at the Knopf building.

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Toronto: Hi Michael,

Following a friend's suggestion, I read "Like Water for Chocolate" last night. I found it entertaining and funny, but of poor literary quality. After reading Carpentier, Garcia Marquez, and others, this little novel's use of magic realism seems like a cheap ploy to hide a lack of any real talent. What's this book's reputation? I had heard good things about it, but maybe I was listening to the wrong people.

Thanks

Michael Dirda: I haven't read it but it's claim to fame is 1) it mixed recipes with story, 2) it was sexy, and 3) it was written by a chica when not many books by Latina authors were being published. And then it was made into a movie.

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New York, N.Y.: From trusty Wikipedia:

CliffsNotes was started by a Nebraska native named Clifton Hillegass in 1958. He was working in a bookstore when he met the owner of a series of Canadian study guides called Coles Notes, who suggested that Hillegass create an American version. Hillegass started with booklets covering 16 William Shakespeare titles, with the first being Hamlet; CliffsNotes now exist on hundreds of works.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. An interesting note on Coles Notes: The great critic Guy Davenport wrote the guides for the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" -- these are among the scarcest titles in his bibliography. I've read the "Odyssey" volume -- and it's quite wonderful, both useful for students but still possessing those distinctive Davenport touches.

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Alexandria, Va.: George R. R. Martin -- have you read any of his "Song of Ice and Fire" series? Do you like them? Do you have any insider info as to when his next one is coming out?

Michael Dirda: George is an old friend of mine, but I don't know when his next book in the series is coming out. If you've never read his earlier stories, you should: "Sand Kings" is a modern horror classic.

Did I hear somewhere that the series had been sold to the movies and that GRRM was co-writing the script?

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WDC: Hi Michael,

I've never read any Maugham and am trying to decide which is the better starting place: "Short Stories" or "Cakes & Ale." Any guidance? Thanks!

Michael Dirda: Both are wonderful. Obviously the short stories will give you a sampling of Maugham and so you might start with those. Maugham once compiled a volume of his dozen or 15 best stories -- he was constantly recycling his work into various collections -- but most people would suggest "Rain" as his most famous single story, but I'm very fond of the loosely connected series of spy stories that make up "Ashenden." "The Hairless Mexican" is particularly celebrated.

As for the novels "Cakes and Ale" then "Christmas Holiday" are probably his best books, though others are more famous.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I'm tempted to keep this to myself, but the Book Alcove in back of a shopping center at Shady Grove Road and Gaither Road is fabulous. Huge stock, fairly priced, lots of literary works.

AND they sell big cheap bookshelves.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I know the place. If you've gone up to 270 you might want to go to Frederick sometime and check out WonderBook and Video -- talk about huge.

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Parnassus: Can you recommend oldish (early 20th-Century at the latest), bookish, light-read charmers along the lines of Morley's "Parnassus on Wheels" and "Haunted Bookshop"?

Michael Dirda: George Gissing's "The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft." You might enjoy the bookish period essays of A. Edward Newton, with titles like "The Amenities of a Book Collector."

The ne plus ultra of books about books is, of course, Holbrook Jackson's "Anatomy of Bibliomania" -- but the style is modeled after Robert Burton so isn't particularly lightsome.

The turn of the century, give or take 25 years, is a wonderful period for light fiction, whether in detective stories, thrillers, romances and adventure novels. You might check out "The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction" as a good guide.

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Washington, D.C.: My son's semester reading list was given to him a few weeks ago in 11th grade American Literature. I recognize almost NONE of the five books! The only one I recognize, but never read, was "The Autobiography of Malcom X." Are the classics dead? Has political correctness stolen the great American classics like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Twain and Hawthorne from under the noses of our children? Is it time for home schooling?

Michael Dirda: Well, I don't know what the other books are but most high schools tend to select books to fit various criteria, of which literary merit is only one. For good or ill -- and much can be said on either side of the question -- schools want to represent America's diversity, what kids might find interesting, and that are not too controversial. So you are likely to see authors who are women, black, Hispanic, gay, what have you, rather than the old white WASPY figures that you mention in your posting. This is a matter that provokes endless debate. But it seems to me that one needs to regard assigned high school books as pedagogical tools rather than supreme masterpieces.

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Saint Louis, Mo.: I was only kidding about the McCarthy/King thing -- although more often than not I sense genius in McCarthy.

Lots of great authors are still with us but the literary picture, I'd submit, is nothing like it was in the early 1950s.

Michael Dirda: I'm not sure. It may be that Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman or Harvey Pekar is far more crucial to literature's need to renew itself than King or McCarthy.

Moreover, books no longer hold the same central position in our culture that they did in the 1950s.

Oops. I'll be back in two minutes -- must pause for a second. Don't go away.

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Anonymous: Just finished the posthumous Douglas Adams book, "Salmon of Doubt." Made me heartsick all over again about his untimely passing. I knew him from his sublime fiction, but this book introduced me to the "real" man, in his non fiction writing. What a mind! What a loss.

Michael Dirda: Yes. The death of any writer takes away an entire archipelago of the imagination. Or at least the possibility of adding to it.

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Luzerne Ave, Silver Spring Md.: In response to the question about "Cloud Atlas" -- I haven't read it yet, but I am under the impression that it is closer to a series of nested stories than ones related by common characters or a common core of facts. So the reader might check out Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler."

Michael Dirda: Any recommendation of Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler" is a good one, for whatever reason.

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Interwoven short stories: If you haven't read it, check out Hemingway's "In Our Time." It was his first, and for my money, his best book ever. I'd be interested in what readers think about it. The stories read as one loosely connected narrative linked together by vignettes, typically from Hemingway's experiences.

Some of my favorite stories from the collection: "Big Two-Hearted River"; "The Battler"; "Cross Country Snow." These are very sensuous stories; note particularly how Hemingway handles food in each of them. Also, he has a way of creating space around his characters that reminds me of Stanley Kubrick's films. Anyway, enjoy!

Michael Dirda: Yes, those are Hemingway's best stories. Twenty years or so ago, all the Nick Adams stories were collected in one volume of that name, so that they form a loose kind of novel.

The description in "Big Two Hearted River" of Nick cooking the fish always makes me feel all warm and cozy inside.

That last is the kind of sophisticated literary judgment you've come to expect from this site.

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Washington, D.C.: The idea that literary merit is simply one among many criteria for selecting books for an "American Literature" class is, well, odd. The competing criteria implied by your response (read: identity politics) would seem more appropriate to a sociology course. Or is it really outmoded to believe in literature qua literature? What exactly is the subject of a course in literature nowadays?

Michael Dirda: Teachers have a hard balancing act. They need to appeal to kids from various backgrounds and they need to find books that kids will relate to. Just getting teens to read can be a major struggle without having the book be something hard like "The Scarlet Letter," with that dullish-seeming opening preamble, or as tedious as "Moby-Dick" is in some chapters. Not least, any book -- no matter how good -- is going to become just another dull title once it is included in a high school curriculum. "Silas Marner" is a very good novel -- but what kid who had to read it in 12th grade ever goes back to it?

In my own view, though, we should be teach the best possible books and the great patterning works of the imagination. Kids should be reading the Bible, Greek myths, classic folktales, ballads, Homer, Shakespeare and Cervantes. After that they can read anything they want. See my little mini-essay on this very subject in "Book by Book."

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Not an Angler: Michael, what are your thoughts on Walton's "Compleat Angler"? As an Anglophile, I'm strongly tempted by the praise of its coziness and charm. But I am no fisherman and so would hope those aspects don't overwhelm.

Michael Dirda: There's a lot of piscatorial stuff to deal with. Why not turn instead to his "Lives of Donne" and three other 17th century figures -- very charming and probably more appealing to an Anglophile.

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Ashcroft, BC (BR): Since it is a truth universally acknowledged that students will probably end up being bored by, or disliking, 90 percent of the books they are forced to read in high school, perhaps it's as well that many of the acknowledged classics of the past aren't being forced down their throats. That way there's a fighting chance they'll actually enjoy them one day.

As for turn of the last century light fiction, I'd like to mention a half-forgotten gem of a series which ought to appeal to everyone who likes TV shows focusing on the solving of "cold" cases: Roy Vickers's "The Department of Dead Ends," in which a detective is assigned the task of investigating a series of mysteries which have been abandoned as unsolvable. The three dozen or so stories in the series were originally published between the 1930s and the 1950s, and they're extremely enjoyable (not to mention ahead of their time).

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Who was the mystery author who wrote about "The Department of Queer Complaints"?

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Washington, D.C.: Apologies if you answered this question previously, but you say that you love Watteau's "Departure for Cythera." Is that because of its melancholy tone? Do you also like Verlaine because for the same reason?

Michael Dirda: Yes, melancholy tone. I'm very fond of the 18th century, especially as an age that combined gallantry, wit and stoicism. Also, when I first saw the picture in the Louvre I was told that there was controversy over whether the lovers were going to or coming from Cythera, the island of love. It's now believed that they are leaving it to return to the "real world." But the art historian telling me about the painting in 1968 thought that they were going to Cythera. Part of the myth, she says, is that many couples set out for the island of perfect love but none ever arrived there.

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D.C.--Ayn Rand: Should I read "The Fountainhead" first or "Atlas Shrugged"?

Does it matter?

Michael Dirda: Well, I'm not sure you should read either, though both are exciting melodramas. I read "Atlas Shrugged" first and it's my favorite. It's also probably her major work. By comparison "The Fountainhead" is a bit narrower, but may be a better tighter novel.

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Interwoven Stories: Can't remember if I'm spot on, but doesn't "Winesburg, Ohio" do this as well?

Michael Dirda: Yes.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Attended the Auden Centenary yesterday, and came away inspired to learn more. What are the best concise, (relatively) straightforward introductions to his poetry? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I'm tempted to say that the best brief introduction to the man is my essay on him in "Classics for Pleasure." But there's only one introduction you need for the poetry: "W.H. Auden, Selected Poems: New Edition," edited by Edward Mendelson. There are dozens of books about Auden and his oeuvre. The other book I'd recommend is his charming "Letters from Iceland", which includes the very witty Letter to Lord Byron.

If you want a good overview, I'd still say that Monroe K. Spears's book is the place to start. There's a mammoth commentary by John Fuller and several good biographies.

w

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Author of "The Department of Queer Complaints": John Dickson Carr, under the pen-name Carter Dickson.

Michael Dirda: Just seeing if you were on the ball. Carr is one of my favorite mystery authors.

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Freising, Germany: While browsing through a local bookstore today, I came across an interesting quote in a book by journalist, Peter Scholl-Latour.

Scholl-Latour quoted Marquis de Costune (not sure of the spelling here) as having once said, "If you scratch the Russians, you will find the Tartars".

I'm not too familiar with the Tartars, but I recall the story, "The Right Hand" by Solzhenitsyn, where he describes an old warrior as a Tartar that slashed at his victims with a sword while riding horseback.

Do you see any literary merit in this observation, that below the surface, Russians or Russian culture is essentially from the Tartars?

Michael Dirda: That's the Marquis de Custine.

Those Tartars sound a lot like mine own people, the Cossacks.

I do think people grow up in cultures that value certain traditions and they tend to adopt those traditions -- or violently reject them. So the French value intelligence and wit because they feel it's part of being French. The Russians know they have Great Souls and are Great Sinners, and tend to live up to those inner role models. If you want to know about the Russians, read Dostoevsky and Chekhov.

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Bethesda, Md.: How does one become a member of the Baker Street Irregulars? Is it a dunning thing? Or does one have to be rich and/or famous?

Michael Dirda: Dunning? No, you have to be invited to attend the banquet, go for a while, and then if you're lucky be invested. Those who are invested tend to be people who've contributed to Sherlockian studies in some way -- whether as collectors, librarians, critics, what have you. The group is composed of a good many well-to-do lawyers and doctors and business people, but what they share is the passion for Holmes. At the same time, there are plenty or "ordinary" people who are also devoted to Holmes in one way or another.

But you can start to find out about this world by attending meetings of a local scion society, i.e. a group of Sherlockians in your city who meet regularly to talk about the canon. For these, interest is the sole criterion for entree.

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Re: Interwoven Stories: Let's not forget J.D. Salinger's "Nine Stories."

Michael Dirda: Not all of them are interwoven, are they? I only remember three or four being about members of the Glass family. But it's a long time since I read them.

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Baltimore:"Song of Ice and Fire": see Martin's Web site. There he says that he's working on the next book, and confirms that HBO has optioned the series for a serial treatment with GRRM himself as scriptwriter.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Parnassus Again: WOW. You are good! As it happens, I have read four volumes of Newton (including Amenities) and Henry Ryecroft is a particular favorite I've read several times. And they are so spot-on as answers to my query! (But too bad I already read them....) You do amaze!

Michael Dirda: Oh, it's nothing, he said, sheepishly scraping his shoe on the sidewalk while quietly beaming inside.

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Colo.: I read "Like Water for Chocolate" recently also. It transported me into a total fantasy world with the dramatic affects food had on people.

Greatest living writer has to be Roth. Seriously, he's my favorite. Did his latest award surprise you and did you ever get around to reading "Everyman"?

Michael Dirda: I admire Roth a lot, but still haven't read "Everyman." He's a great writer but I don't know that he's a writer that really has shifted the course of literature. And that's what a really great writer tends to do.

What's more problematic is the case of classicists -- novelists who don't break the mold but try to create perfect works of art. These, in the end, tend to end up as minor masterpieces, period pieces. Recently I was thinking about "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson -- certainly one of the most perfectly achieved and beautiful novels of our time. But does it have any real impact on the course of fiction? I don't think so. But maybe that doesn't matter. And yet the canon wants works that are strange and new. In this regard, her first novel Housekeeping has a better shot at immortality -- it's less perfect but certainly far more original and strange.

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"Big Sleep" (from last week): Just wanted to say thanks for posting my comment on "The Big Sleep." I read it on the beach this weekend in Puerto Rico and it was great! However, I was wondering if there is some sort of lexicon out there that could help me out with some of the obscure phrases and words that are from that era of writing. There were points in the book where I wasn't entirely sure what Marlowe was talking about.

Or is that all part of the charm?

Michael Dirda: A good dictionary can help. And there are special lexicons of slang. But I suspect you should just go with the flow. Most of the phrases can be figured out in context.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Used bookstores:

The huge library store at the Wheaton library has tons and tons of stuff, with many treasures amid the dross.

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. It's one of my favorite hangouts. I try to go to the library and end up drifting down to the sale room.

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Dupont: Someone recently recommended Cowper's letters to me. Have you read them? What do you think? They do sound tempting....

Michael Dirda: I used to own Cowper's complete works in many volumes, but sold them. There is a Selected Letters in a 1950s series of selected letters of Keats, Byron, Henry James et al, all edited by notable critics of the era. Cowper is appealing because of his madness and his melancholy -- he was convinced he was damned and that there was nothing he could do about it.

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New York City: I just read my father's old copy of the 1951 Whittiker Chambers book "Witness," about his involvement in the Hiss-Chambers spy case. It was one of the greatest books about historical/political insight I have ever read. None of my political-minded friends have ever heard of it. Is it because it was written over a century ago, or because it is decidedly anti-communist that this book seems lost in the attic of important historical works? Chambers was at the center of one of our most important episodes in our Cold War history AND he was a magnificent writer!

Michael Dirda: Hmm. 1951 is only half a century, and "Witness" is still a relatively famous book. The whole Hiss-Chambers morass has never been fully clarified to me, and people have come out on both sides of the issue. But I've never read "Witness" myself. Tony Hiss, a New Yorker writer and son of Alger, has written a memoir of his father.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Last week someone mentioned Auden's centennial. I just read an Oxford professor's tribute in last week's TLS. Auden is so influential (one thinks of his tribute to Yeats, lines like "Time will say nothing but I told you so," and "Stop all the clocks...." from "Funeral Blues"). There can't be many, but what other 20th-century poets might you consider as having perhaps equaled or exceeded Auden's achievement? Thank you.

Michael Dirda: W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens are his superiors. Thomas Hardy, Pound, Larkin, Williams are his near equals.

But I am very fond of Wystan.

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Capitol Hill: Dear Michael,

The Victorian ghost story comes up in these chats quite often, so I thought that either you or Ashcroft might be able to answer this question. Do you know of any modern novels that incorporate Victorian-style ghost stories as well as "The Ghost Writer" and "Ghost Story"?

Thanks!

Michael Dirda: There are a number of pastiches of Victorian ghostly fiction -- Susan Hill's "The Woman in Black," for instance.

But maybe Ashcroft -- a real authority on these matters -- will have time to register a fuller answer.

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Lenexa, Kan.: I thought Jon Yardley in a recent BW review really nailed our love of James M. McPherson. The tall, handsome, charming, erudite Civil War scholar always comes across as respectful of other viewpoints, but infallibly insightful in his rendered opinions. With his avuncular warmth and humor, he's also marvelous in giving tours like at Gettysburg. Once, when a reader pounced on a rare error in an NYBR essay, he responded simply: "I stand both embarrassed and pleased for the correction."

Civil War buffs have made a kind of chess game -- different viewpoints being like gambits -- of the war. McPherson, fielding questions on Book-tv, told Connie, "I can usually figure out where they're coming from." McPherson and other academics like Virginia's Gary Gallagher (resembles McPherson in so many ways) have at times been somewhat critical of Foote (a non-academic historian -- a novelist, rather, approached by Bennett Cerf to write a narrative history of the war). McPherson's eulogy, though, when the beloved Foote died showed only his praise for Foote's enormous "gifts."

QUESTION: Just wondering if you know or have dealt with McPherson and/or Gallagher (the latter does "The Great Courses" Civil War)? Thanks again.

Michael Dirda: I introduced McPherson at the National Book Festival a few years back and admire him as you do. But I've never reviewed his histories.

I may have said this before, but I once had dinner with Shelby Foote, Harry Anderson and Harry Shearer. Foote was courtliness incarnate, Anderson did card tricks, and Shearer did voices from "The Simpsons." A very fine evening -- at least for me.

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Wilmington, Del.: I recently suffered a major professional setback. I am feeling quite depressed about it and more so because I think I was treated unfairly. Can you recommend a biography of someone who suffered a lot of problems, but managed to right themselves over time?

Michael Dirda: Walter Jackson Bate's "Samuel Johnson."

Most people who accomplish anything in the world usually fail again and again. But, as Beckett says, they learn to fail better.

Also, I like to remember Cardinal Newman's counsel: It is a rule of God's providence that we succeed by failure.

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Oak Park, Ill.: Currently reading "The Third Policeman" and wonder: Do you know if there was anyone who O'Brien modeled "de Selby" (the philosopher in the background) on, or is he an entire figment of O'Brien's fertile imagination?

Michael Dirda: I think there is, but the place to go is Anthony Cronin's biography of Flann.

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Michael Dirda: Gak--it's 3:30. I'm sorry I didn't get to all the questions this week. Please try again next Wednesday. Till then, keep reading!

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