Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, August 1, 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, Aug. 1, at 2 p.m.

A transcript follows.

Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's a sunny, hot summer day here in Washington, and outside I can hear the low moan of lawn mower engines. I've spent the morning in a "Big Lebowski" outfit -- unshaved, bedroom slippers, cotton gym shorts and a T-shirt that says An Evening of Literary Feasts (a fundraiser I spoke at for the University of Maryland Libraries). I've been going through my in-basket, appalled at the unanswered mail, old bills and various bits of memorabilia that need to be filed. I feel vaguely headachey -- I know you guys are just longing for these intimate details -- and guilty that I didn't hit the gym this morning. Which means I'll have to go later this afternoon. But, in truth, I've felt either sluggish or older than I realized for the past week or so. I think my recovery time from vacations is slower than it once was.
But enough of this palaver, on to this week's questions.
Oh, but wait: For people who enjoy my books -- both of you, as the joke goes -- you might want to take a look at Arthur Krystal's recent "The Half-Life of an American Essayist." Krystal writes about a variety of literary and cultural subjects -- laziness, Paul Valery, the Holocaust -- with wit and learning. Years ago, he used to do the occasional review for me at Book World, but then wrote a famous essay about how he was giving up reviewing books. One can sympathize with this view.


Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Last week someone posted here, "I am going to make my way through classics as opposed to non-classics or genre offerings." This makes it sound as if the poster thinks that "classics" and "genre offerings" are mutually exclusive, which of course is very far from being the truth. Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore," Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness," Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," Stephen King's "The Shining," Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," and Gene Wolfe's "Books of the New Sun" are all "genre" (horror, SF, fantasy, supernatural) in some way, but I'd also argue they're all classics as well, or likely to become so in years to come; which might upset anyone who thinks that the classical canon is full, or can't (heaven forbid) include anything that isn't firmly grounded in reality. But as you pointed out in a review some weeks back, some of the most exciting writing being produced now is in what's considered "genre" fields, and I'd have to agree: there are only so many beautifully honed depictions of adultery and loss in suburban America that I can take.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the apt comment. Of course, this argument lies at the heart of the much-anticipated volume, "Classics for Pleasure," which mixes the established and the marginalized, the mainstream and the genre masterworks.


Chapel Hill, N.C. (Audio Book Girl): Hi, Michael.

A few weeks ago Colorado mentioned having enjoyed "Stoner" by John Williams. I agree -- it's a small masterpiece. From the exquisite writing, the sensitively drawn characters, the depiction of university life at a particular time and place -- Williams is a magician.

On a audio note: I'm just finishing an Agatha Christie, read by David Suchet, who is marvelous. (It's interesting to contrast his performance with that of Hugh Fraser. See what you think!)

Michael Dirda: I've heard Suchet read at least one Christie -- could it have been "What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw"? -- which would be odd since you'd think of a female reader as the more logical choice. But he's a marvelous actor. What's he been up to, I wonder, since the Poirot's have slowed down or stopped production?


Glover Park, D.C.: As you're probably aware, the afterword of Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" centers around the story that Mr. Roth found all the first lines for each of his books typed out on a sheet of paper left behind in a New Jersey diner. Any idea if this is true?

Michael Dirda: I am not aware of this, but, if true, presume it's an instance of Roth being playful.


Indian Trizzle, North Carolina: Yo what do you think makes a book good or bad? And is your favorite book that you've read recently?

Michael Dirda: Yo? Yo? Hmmm. I've obviously been letting standards slip during this chat.

A good book is one that you would like to reread sometime in the future. A great book is one that you absolutely want to reread.

My favorite recent book is the four-part sequence by John Crowley called "Aegypt." Its last volume, "Endless Things," appeared this spring.


Boston.: Wow, no questions yet on Harry Potter..... Michael, I see that James Lee Burke has yet another Dave Robichaux(sp?) crime novel out. This must be something like No. 20 for him, and in my humble opinion most have been very, very good if not downright excellent. Ever meet Burke? And how do you think he manages to pull it off?

Michael Dirda: I haven't met Burke, though I love New Orleans and Louisiana -- at least as much of it as I've spent time in (NO and Lafayette). I suppose that he and Robert Parker were long viewed as the two heirs to Ross Macdonald as the preeminent American detective story authors. Nowadays, I suppose that Michael Connelly is the man.
As for how he pulls it off? Talent. And, no doubt, hard work.


Glover Park, D.C.: First came Bukowski. Then I found Ray Carver. And most recently I learned of the late Larry Brown. With the exception of Harry Crews -- who I'm moving onto now -- do you know of any other authors portraying this "grit-lit" style? Today I read parts of Willy Vlautin's "Motel Life" and found it to be what I'm looking for in a book/writer, however that's his only book/story available since he's a fairly new writer.

Michael Dirda: I presume you know our very own George Pelecanos, who charts the mean streets of DC and Maryland. You might also try Richard Price, who started out --a s a very young man -- with The Wanderers and has become a major "grit-lit" novelist. George V. Higgins's "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is one of the masterworks of the genre, though with an Irish poetry to it. Before that, you can go back to Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Paul Cain, Edward Anderson, et al. In fact, there's a two-volume Library of America volume devoted to hard-boiled American novelists. This sounds almost ludicrous but the books chosen are the great highlights of the genre (leaving out Hammett and Chandler).


Raleigh, N.C: Hey Micheal,

I am from a creative writing camp and we are talking about many things like: poems, sensory words, and autobiographies. I have a few questions:

What do you think is the best book that you wrote? What is your favorite book that you read when you were a teen?

Michael Dirda: The best book I've written. Gee, I like them all, and there all somewhat different (though books remain a constant theme) but I suppose if the chips were down - -and where does that expression come from? -- I'd go with my memoir "An Open Book." There's no substitute for one's own sweet life.
My favorite book as a teenager -- a very early teenager -- was probably Thoreau's "Walden." It's still a favorite. My favorite fiction included Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo," Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines," and the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and G.K. Chesterton.
When I applied to college I listed the five books that had meant most to me up to that time: "The Odyssey," "Walden," "Atlas Shrugged," "Zorba the Greek," and "Heart of Darkness." I'm a little embarrassed by the Rand, but she was a wonderfully melodramatic author and 14 is just the right age to read her. But don't take her philosophy to heart -- it's heartless, for one thing.


Mayfield, Ky.: Mr. Dirda: I hope you won't think this one of those questions that if one has to ask it, there would be no need to answer it because the answer is so obvious. So, here goes: How does one study a good writer to learn how to write? You've advised to "imitate" a writer one admires in order to learn how to write. Does that mean one should do an outline of the book? outline each chapter? Also, what do you think of Larry Brown (deceased) as a writer compared to other southern writers such as Madison Bell, Roy Blount? Thanks very much for taking my question. I love your chats.

Michael Dirda: First off, you should just read the writers that speak to you over and over, trying to understand how they work their particular magic. You'll learn a lot just by reading -- and thinking a little about style, structure, pace, characterization, etc. (I used to make lists of words that I wanted to use in my own writing.) To tear a story or novel apart will probably teach you more about the art of narrative than any course you take.


Mr. Roth found all the first lines for each of his books typed out on a sheet of paper left behind in a New Jersey diner.: I have a great book title I came across in a similar way, but alas, I read, not write novels.

I was sitting in the laundrymat reading the ads posted on the community board and one of those pieces of paper with the phone numbers you tear off on the bottom said:

" I desperately want to sing the Blues."

Michael Dirda: Neat. I like that. Me, I gotta right to sing the blues. I gotta right to feel low-down and hang around the river. . . Oops, getting carried away there.


Charlotte, N.C.: Re: Ashcroft, BC -- I love to read current novels, but I tend to read the classics. When I start a book, I want to be confident that I will enjoy it. I enjoy most classics, but I find it VERY hard to find a novel published within the past fifty years that I enjoy.

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. This does seem a rather extreme view of fiction. You mean to say that "The Recognitions," "Gravity's Rainbow," "Riddley Walker," "Beloved," "Gilead," "Underworld," "The Left Hand of Darkness," "The Man in the High Castle," "The Last Good Kiss," the stories of John Cheever, Eudora Welty and Steven Millhauser, "Little, Big," and various books by Bellow, Roth, Mailer, and a dozen others aren't somewhere close to being "classics of their time." And those are just Americans. None of these works may be "Ulysses" or "War and Peace," but still: One needs to participate in the literature of one's own generation -- if only as a reader.


Looking for Sci Fi: I've recently gotten into sci-fi. This year I read "Snow Crash" (Stephenson), "Sky People" (Stirling) and "The Left Hand of Darkness" (Le Guin). Tried to get into "Stranger in a Strange Land" (Heinlein) and liked the story, but found it too preachy.

Any recommendations for must read sci-fi -- either "classics" or more modern?

Michael Dirda: Sure, I once made a list -- for The Post's Weekend section:
H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine" and his other novels and stories
Olaf Stapledon, "Last and First Men"; "Star Maker"
Eugene Zamyatin, "We"
Aldous Huxley, "Brave New World"
Robert Heinlein, short stories
Ray Bradbury, "The Martian Chronicles"
Theodore Sturgeon, "More than Human" and short stories
Jack Vance, "The Dying Earth"
Roger Zelazny, "Lord of Light"
Ursula Le Guin, "The Left Hand of Darkness"
Alfred Bester, "The Stars My Destination"
William Gibson, "Neuromancer"
Gene Wolfe, "The Book of the New Sun"
John Wyndham, "The Day of the Triffids"
J.G. Ballard, "The Crystal World" and short stories
Philip K. Dick, "The Man in the High Castle"

That's probably enough for a start. Enjoy.


India fixation: Can you help? I'm reading "Two Lives" by Vikram Seth, and it's wonderful so far. I finished "A Suitable Boy" last week. I have a feeling India won't leave my system for a while, so who do I read next?

Michael Dirda: Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" and "Plain Tales from the Hills." E.M. Forster, "A Passage to India." The novels of R.K. Narayan. Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" and "The Moor's Last Sigh." Arundhati Roy. Shashi Tharoor.
Ten or 15 years ago there was a good anthology with a long introduction -- first published in the New Yorker -- to the then "new" Indian writing. You might be able to track this down.


Chicago: What's your opinion of Michael Frayn? I just finished "Headlong" and found it not terribly good (an opinion shared by many at Amazon). I can't even believe it was up for the Booker Prize.

Michael Dirda: As it happens, I reviewed "Headlong" and was rather chagrined to see that I had given it a mixed notice, while other critics seem to love it and indeed nominate it for the Booker. That said, I like Frayn's early fiction a great deal -- he's extremely funny, for one thing. "Sweet Dreams," "Til the End of the Morning" (is that right?), and the wonderful one about the computer company. His plays -- especially "Noises Off" -- are already in the standard repertory.


Anonymous: Poker chips.

Michael Dirda: Of course. But when would one say it? I've played poker and no one ever says "the chips are down." We only said "check" and "ante up" and a few other set phrases.


Raleigh, N.C.: Have you heard of the book Web site Bookcrossing? I think it's a great way of passing on books that you love and hoping that someone else will find them and love them too. Do you think this is disrespecting the author or taking away from a potential sale? Or is it a neat way or spreading the literary arts around everyday streets, and letting the beauty of words sneak into an unsuspecting life?

Michael Dirda: Is this the movement where you leave favorite books in waiting rooms or other public spaces? I think it's a neat idea -- so long as it's obvious that one can take the book home. I suppose they must use a slip inside the book or something. I guess I need to look into this.
But, really, there's just so bloody much on the internet that no one could really keep up. At least not and still have quiet time just to think and daydream, let alone read.


Arlington, Va.: My wife loves Agatha Christie but has exhausted Christie's oeuvre. Thanks to the PBS series, she's interested in trying some of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries by Gladys Mitchell. Can you recommend a couple of good ones to get her started? Also (and I'm sure you've answered this question a hundred times), what other mystery writers of Christie's generation would you recommend? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: Golden Age writers are plentiful and you could spend a lifetime reading enjoyable period mysteries by John Dickson Carr ("The Three Coffins"), Anthony Berkley ("The Poisoned Chocolates Case"), Dorothy Sayers ("The Nine Tailors," "Murder Must Advertise," "Gaudy Night"), Margery Allingham ("The Tiger in the Smoke"), Rex Stout (the Nero Wolfe books -- those of the '30s and '40s are best), Michael Innes ("Hamlet Revenge," "Appleby's End," "Lament for a Maker"), Edmund Crispin ("The Moving Toyshop"), Naigo Marsh ("Surfeit of Lampreys"), and a dozen others. Enjoy.
I think the Mitchell books are a little more demanding, at least I wasn't drawn into the one I tried. But perhaps I was in the wrong mood or something.


To India fixation: Read "The Raj Quartet" (four novels) by Paul Scott - The Jewel in the Crown, etc. (Then rent the Masterpiece Theatre DVDs.) I found them to be absolutely brilliant storytelling and they made me fixated on India as well. I don't reread very many books, but these are on my reread list.

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. I should have mentioned this quartet -- and its coda "Staying On."


Poker chips: You're not supposed to say it. You're supposed to play better when you're running out of chips.

Michael Dirda: Oh, one's chips are down. I was thinking that the chips were down in the middle of the table and no more bets could be made, hence the game was at its moment of crisis. This would certainly fit the way we use the term in ordinary parlance.


Raleigh: Did you plan to be a critic when you where a kid?

Michael Dirda: No, I planned to be, in order, Allan Quatermain, The Count of Monte Cristo, Maverick, Adam Troy (does anyone remember Adventures in Paradise?), or James Bond. Sigh, what a falling off is here!


Raleigh, NC: Hello - we are middle school students at a summer camp for creative writing. What were your favorite books were when you were a teenager? What books are good to read to inspire you to write? What if our teacher thinks that a book is bad but we think it's good? Thanks for doing this chat - we'll be here tomorrow!

Michael Dirda: You should look for "An Open Book" to find out more about my favorite books when young -- or see an earlier posting today. I think any book that excites a young reader can be one that will inspire him or her. The last question is the hardest: When young, we sometimes rush to judgment about the books we read and fail to give them a real chance. You shouldn't dismiss your own view of a book by any means, but do listen to your teacher and try to understand why he or she thinks a particular novel or play or poem is worthwhile. Young people too often judge a book for what it isn't rather than for what it is.
Still, you should definitely seek out the books that give you pleasure. At least outside of school and the classroom. That's why it's called pleasure reading.


Washington, D.C.: I don't think Raymond Carver should be lumped into a bag with hard-boiled or grit-lit writers (whatever that means). Granted, some of his characters are lower-middle-class, some are pot-smoking underachievers, and some are down on their luck and living in seedy circumstances. But in the long run he is more of an existentialist than a realist.

Michael Dirda: Okay.


Raleigh: Hey! Im currently in a creative writing class! My question is what do you think of the book "Storm Breaker"? Its been rated bad but I though it was pretty good!

Also if I really like an author how can I train myself to write like him?


My class would look forward to you answering these questions!

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Some summer writing camp has obviously discovered this invaluable resource.

I don't know "Storm Breaker" -- unless you mean "Stormbringer," the first of Michael Moorcock's Elric fantasy novels. Probably not.

If you like an author and want to write like him, just sit down at a computer, or take a piece of paper and a pencil, and try to write something in his style.

Have you ever read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography?
There's a wonderful couple of pages about how Franklin taught himself to write by imitating the style of Addison's essays. He would read an essay, then try to reproduce it--from memory--as well as he was able. Then he'd compare his work with the original and see where he went wrong. By continual practice he gradually acquired the plain and direct style he so admired. As Samuel Johnson said, if you would write good prose, you should give your days and nights to Addison.
Today, though, you might want to write like, well, whatever author thrills you most.


Jacksonville, N.Y.: Now I am as tickled as the next person to stumble across an essay by this M. Dirda fellow in the New York Review of Books, but when I find additional essays in such unlikely places as the SW Airline in-flight magazine, and the Chronicle of Higher Education I grow a bit dismayed. How many others essays, introductions, afterwords and epigrammatic graffiti is being churned out that I have not discovered? I must maintain my Dirda bibliography, particularly in this summer long hiatus from your regular reviews. Any chance you could lay down some heavy hints in this chat when something new gets published? Many thanks!

Michael Dirda: Hmm. And here I thought my work dropped like pebbles into a still pool -- with a quick ripple and then nothing.

Well, you can look out for the fall issue of Canadian Holmes, Canada's preeminent Sherlockian journal, for a jeu d'esprit called "A Case for Langdale Pike."

But my masters probably don't want me to use this forum to promote my other work, at least not for more than I already do.


Chesapeake Beach, Md.: I just finished a truly wonderful book, "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812." The book won the Pulitzer for history and several other awards. And somehow I had never heard of this book, not in a high school or college classroom, or wandering through a traditional bookstore. I found it in the women's interest section in the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore. Which made me think of all the other books waiting to be discovered by each reader but also about how one is exposed to books. I majored in History at college and was taught by both men and women but all my American History classes were taught by men and I cannot imagine any of them truly enjoying this book, let alone discussing it in a class. I do not feel books by woman and from a woman's perspective were thought of as less just not of interest to the professor. I find topics such as midwifery, education and daily life of intense interest, and when I thought of people to pass this book onto they were all women. Do you find that people are drawn to books by and about their own gender?

Michael Dirda: I suppose there is something to what you say, if only because men -- that limited sex -- has for so long ignored much of the world of women, at least that outside the bedroom.
But current history is very much aware of the kind of domestic history you speak of. Just look around the bookshops.
If you want a good book, from a woman's point of view, about the Civil War, you might enjoy Mary Chesnutt's famous Diary. There's a big recent scholarly edition MC's Civil War and a wonderful chapter on her in Edmund Wilson's "Patriotic Gore."


Raleigh, N.C.: Hello -- we are students in a creative writing camp for teenagers and wanted to ask you a question. You say that you never grew up and are a boy at heart -- so why are so many of your favorite authors and books serious adult fare? What about the most imaginative and purely delightful book of JM Barrie -- "Peter Pan"?

Michael Dirda: Fighting words. I am not just a serious adult, I am a playful and serious adult. Just because I enjoy the children's books of Daniel Pinwater and E. Nesbit and Diana Wynne Jones and William Joyce and a dozen others, doesn't mean I can't also enjoy Dante and Samuel Beckett. We enjoy all kinds of books in our life, and a great children's book -- "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," "Tom's Midnight Garden," "Charlotte's Web" -- can be enjoyed by any one of any age. But, you do need to be somewhat grown up to enjoy other books -- you must know something about love and marriage to grasp "Anna Karenina," you need to be middle-aged to feel the pathos of Stether in Henry James's "The Ambassadors." So, I think an adult can appreciate kids books, but kids don't really appreciate adult books -- at least not until they grow up.
P.S. Have you and your campmates actually read "Peter Pan"? You've seen the play or the Disney movie, I'm sure. But the novel is called "Peter and Wendy," and is far less of a kids' book than you'd think.


Raleigh: I don't remember how I first heard about "The Court of the Air," but its description ¿- A hugely engaging adventure set in a Victorian-style world -- a fantastical version of Dickens -- that will appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke and Philip Pullman ¿ grabbed my attention, especially since I greatly enjoyed Mr. Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. So, I purchased "The Court of the Air," reviewed it HERE and loved it! After finishing the novel, I just kept thinking about all of the wonderful ideas that the book explored, and wanted to know more about the author Stephen Hunt and the world of the Jackals. Unfortunately, after doing some research, I found that there wasn't really that much information on Mr. Hunt. Luckily, I ran across Stephen's literary agent, John Jarrold (Ian Cameron Esslemont, etc.), and through him was given the opportunity to ask Stephen some questions about "The Court of the Air" -¿ its influences and concepts, possible sequels and adaptations, etc. -¿ his other published novel "For the Crown and the Dragon," the Web site SF Crowsnest, and tons more. So, much thanks to John Jarrold for the hookup, Stephen Hunt for taking the time to enlighten us, and any readers who take this opportunity to learn more about a bright new voice in the SF/fantasy literary scene.

Don't you agree?

Michael Dirda: Uh, how could I not?


Lenexa, Kan.: You mentioned last week in your opening remarks that one of your sister has a condo in Las Vegas (the rest of us should be so lucky -- come on sis!). I've always found Las Vegas (Atlantic City, for that matter) to be peak experiences in my life's journey. All kinds of writers (Joan Didion, Frank D. Gilroy, Mario Puzo, Michael Connelly, Anthony Holden...) have written evocatively of Las Vegas. How do you rate the Las Vegas experience? Thank you.

Michael Dirda: It's everything you think it is. And more. Also, noisier, more crowded, wonderfully kitschy, etc etc. One can only hope that Islamic fundamentalists never see it -- they would be wholly convinced of America's decadence and immorality.

That said, what struck me was the contrasts -- the beauty of the casinos and hotels, the sexy women and cool dudes who worked in them -- and the frumpiness of the tourists who passed through the lobbies, gawking, playing the slots, etc. This contrast is what makes Vegas seem so kitsch. One expects to see a dapper tuxedoed James Bond and one finds nothing but figures who recall that Southern sheriff in a couple of the movies.

As for me: New Orleans represents my kind of decadence.


Herndon, Va.: Hello Mr. Dirda!

To what extent is William Empson still influential as a critic? I recently started reading his classic "The Seven Types of Ambiguity" (1930) in part because of my interest in his interpretation of some Shakespearean sonnets and plays. He has a reputation for both eccentricity and brilliance.

Michael Dirda: In Britain he is generally regarded as the greatest English critic of the past century (only F.R. Leavis comes close, and we leave out T.S. Eliot as an American).

I've written a lot about Empson -- including long pieces about Haffendens' two volume life. I think he's a fascinating man, critic and poet: "My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you."

But critics, like literary journalists, are mayfly creatures -- their influence lasts a generation and seldom much longer. Who now reads Cleanth Brooks? Kenneth Burke? Maud Bodkin? Even Northrop Frye's star seems to have dimmed considerably. But these are giants compared to the ephebes of the current moment. I am not an admirer of what's called "theory" and "cultural studies." They talk the talk, but they haven't actually read very much at all.


Lexington: Hi Michael, Wow! You are moving up to elevated company as a critic. NBCC runs a blog www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com that recently has been debating the importance of book review pages ( as they diminish ) and how critics contribute to the cultural discussion. One of the contributors who is an editor at a university press discussed important critics, Frank Kermode, Elizabeth Bowen, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Merton, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and Michael Dirda. On a lighter note, do you know of Jonathan Aycliffe? An excellent writer of ghost stories. One of his books was published by your friends at Ash-Tree, "The Talisman," but all of his books are excellent. One of his recent, "A Garden Lost in Time" is set in Cornwall ( always a great setting for English ghosts ) during the Great War.

Michael Dirda: Finally, the world is starting to recognize that a genius has walked among them. Oh, ye of little faith. Hmmm. getting carried away again. What a nice compliment.
I don't know Aycliffe's work, apart from his being regularly mentioned on the All-Hallows discussion board. By the way, anyone interested in ghost stories should check this out.


Montreal: Mr. Dirda - Loved "Light Years," thanks for the recommendation. Traveling to Vermont (Burlington and Stowe) for a weekend with the family. Besides Borders and B&N, where should I look for books, used and new? Thanks!

Michael Dirda: I recall a couple of used bookstores on the pedestrian mall in Burlington -- though I don't think I actually bought anything there. Your best bet is to go to one place and ask about others that might specialize in whatever interests you. Sorry I can't help more.


Capitol Hill, D.C.: I recently finished Boris Vian's "Foam of the Daze." It was quirky and heartbreaking. Have you read anything by him? Is there any reason he isn't more well known in the United States?

Michael Dirda: I read "L'ecume des jours" while I was living in Marseille, and picked up a half dozen of Vian's other books. As you may know, he is something of a legend in France: a jazz trumpeter, friend of Sartre (who appears in that novel as Jean-Sol Partre), handsome and doomed in a James Deany kind of way. I still remember one of his poems, about Albert Schweitzer, with its angry refrain: "Tu me fais chier, Albert Schweitzer."


Freising, Germany: Have you read any of Ingmar Bergman's novels or biographies about Bergman?

After reading his obituary, I have the impression that he was quite prolific in many facets of art and life, as well as a master filmmaker.

Michael Dirda: Nope, I've only seen the films. "The Seventh Seal," "The Virgin Spring" and "Scenes from a Marriage" are never wholly forgotten. I believe that John Simon wrote the introduction to a volume of his screenplays, and Simon is always good to read. That's where I'd start.


Apple Grove, Md.: I just finished reading "Middlesex" this week and enjoyed it. We're you surprised that it received a Pulitzer?

Michael Dirda: I'm always surprised at what or who wins a Pulitzer, though I was very gratified when Steven Millhauser, William Gaddis and Marlynne Robinson won.


Galveston, Tex.: Mike, I need a lead on some happy endings. Everything I pick up lately leaves me hunting around for a book marker with a Prozac prescription. I'm talking well-written, thoughtful stuff, "The Good Earth," "Blindness" (Saramago), "No Great Mischief" (Macleod), a copy of "The Road" (McCarthy) which I dare not open in my current state of mind. Got any ideas for me?

Michael Dirda: Okay. You need a little delight in your life, eh? If you can find Readings, there's a list of comic novels in it (a hundred or so). But I recently read John Hadfield's "Love on a Branch Line" -- a delightful novel about a British civil servant who wanders into an Eden-like Arcady and falls in love with three beautiful, and very different, daughters of an eccentric nobleman. Funny, sexy, touching. Out of print, probably, but findable in these days of the Internet. And there are always libraries.

And it's way past our deadline, folks. So, till next Wednesday -- keep reading! Sorry I didn't get to all the questions.


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