Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, October 3, 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, Oct. 3, at 2 p.m.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's grown into another sunny, unseasonably warm day here in Washington. Not a day to go out into, at least not before evening, when it will be just perfect for an after-dinner walk with Seamus, the Wonder Dog. Till then, best to stay inside with the air conditioning or a nice open window or two and read a book. Or follow this discussion.

Let's look at this week's questions.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: "Lolita": That is a great scene that you chose, "where Humbert hears the 'concord' of the distant voice of children and realizes what he has deprived Lolita of: her childhood." I think it's one of the most poignant scenes in the book. I thought of one of my best friends, Bruce, who works for D.C.F.S., and my younger sister, who is a social worker, and their struggle to try and help kids who have been deprived of their childhood.

Thanks to Richmond Hill for relating the anecdote on G.K. Chesterton and the origin of the Father Brown stories.

I, too, hate it when open secondhand bookshops close their doors. Alas, this past year they shut down BookZeller in Naperville, which was the largest brick-and-mortar used-book store nearest to where I live. Many were the times that I would travel the hour drive from here to there. What joy it was to browse amongst their bookshelves, I never knew when a serendipitous moment would occur.

On the Library of America series: As I read "Indian Summer" and "Country of the Pointed Firs," I repeatedly wished that I had them in stand-alone hardcover copies instead of the compilations contained in the Library of America editions. Ah, now that would have made the whole reading experience considerably more pleasurable. For me, there is a sensuality about a book as an object. In truth, I own many Library of America books, but they are not my favorite format.

Questions: Will you be writing anywhere about your summer vacation's reading of "Indian Summer" and "The Country of the Pointed Firs?" I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about the two books. Will you be coming to Chicago to sign books for your highly anticipated upcoming release, "Classics for Pleasure?" Have you had any prior book signings in Chicago?

Michael Dirda: Well, I was lucky to have older copies of both these books -- in fact, a first of "Indian Summer" and a near first of "Pointed Firs." In fact, I had to supplement the latter because Jewett added two long chapters/stories to the original edition, and it is this that most people now read.

I don't have any immediate plans for writing about either book. But who knows when an opportunity might arise?

Yesterday I received the advanced copies of "Classics for Pleasure" -- a very pretty volume (though we must not call it Homer -- an arcane in joke: Pope/Richard Bentley). At the moment, most of my publicity for the book, at least that in person, is confined to the East Coast. I'd love to sign in Chicago, though. I did speak there this past spring and signed copies of some of my earlier books -- this was when I lectured on Babel in D.C., Chicago and Seattle.

I'm sorry to hear about the closing of another bookstore. It diminishes us all.


Book Festival Blues, Va.: The good folks in the District of Columbia closed down 7th-15th Streets along Constitution Ave. Saturday morning. I made the mistake of driving my two young kids to the National Book Festival, and spent about 45 minutes crawling over the Roosevelt Bridge. After finally reaching 17th St. on Constitution, all traffic was diverted onto 17th, at which point the 3 lanes on 17th immediately went down to two, then down to ONE LANE within two blocks of Constitution! Recall that this was the ONLY route for inbound Book Festival Guests using Rt. 66, because the E St. and Independence Ave. exits off the bridge were CLOSED.

I wondered what the mayor would have to say about this. The Post wrote a story informing me that Mr. Mayor was a PARTICIPANT in the triathlon that led to the closure of the main thoroughfare to the book festival! Unbelievable.

We did spend an hour at the festival and enjoyed it, but to call the planning incompetent doesn't do full justice to the level of dunderheadedness on the part of D.C. officials.

The Book Festival is Laura Bush's event, so I guess we can just blame Bush, too, right? Everyone else is doin' it...

Michael Dirda: A good complaint, and I hope that it's picked up by someone in city government. I myself ran into similar trouble: I was to introduce Terry Pratchett at noon. Well, I got on the Red Line in Silver Spring and it took me an hour and forty minutes to get to the Mall. I made it to the fiction and fantasy tent with three minutes to spare--and that was by racing through the subway and up the stairs and through the crowd. The Metro system, in its wisdom, single-tracked on the Red Line between Takoma and New York Avenue, then went slowly even then, it being the weekend. There were a lot of nervous, then irate readers on my train, fearing they would miss half the festival. The Pratchett crowd was much in evidence, and all of them must have been only able to stand on the distant outskirts of the event, given the amount of time we spent en route.

Ah, Washington! I would never have lived in this city, if it hadn't been for one fact: Thirty years ago, my wife had a good job here, so I stayed on. It's worked out reasonably well for us both, but I've never really liked it here. I'd rather live in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, or -- let us dream -- Paris or London.


Alexandria, Va.: I stumbled across a great site that delivers a book to you in chunks, via email, for free! This is my kind of reading. I was wondering if you could check it out and make some recommendations? http://www.dailylit.com/

(and no, I have no affiliation with the site).

Michael Dirda: I'll try to remember to do this, as part of my program to become more savvy about the literary ways of the Internet. Still, I can't help but feel I spend too much time in front of a screen as it is.

I can remember reading one of Dale Carnegie's self-help books, where someone recommended tearing the covers off a book, separating the text block into the signatures, and then simply carrying one or two sections in your purse or brief case. As you finished each, you could either discard them, or save them and rubber-band them together. Would make for a rather unsightly, albeit impressive library.


Pittsburgh: What books prominently featuring dogs does Seamus recommend? Cat books? I recall a particularly good memoir in my youth by Farley Mowat, "The Dog Who Wouldn't Be," about the iconoclastic mutt of his Canadian childhood.

Michael Dirda: Dog books! Every one has a dog or cat story or two to tell. Willie Morris wrote a terrific memoir about his dog Skip (I think), there's the Mowat, and there are all those old children's books from "A Dog of Flanders" to "Lassie" to "Lad: A Dog" to "The Call of the Wild" and "Where the Red Fern Grows."

Personally, I don't read "animal" stories much: They either end sadly or contain within them enough occasions for sadness that I am constantly on edge.

Why is it, though, that the deaths of animals in books often affect us far more strongly than the deaths of people?


Arlington, Va.: Thank you for doing this chat!

Science Fiction writer E. E. Knight recently wrote an entry in his online journal with a list of 20 writing blunders. One of his pet peeves was "waking up scenes," which he says should be limited to one per novel and should really never be at the beginning. How do you feel about this? As a literary columnist, do you have any pet peeves of your own?

Michael Dirda: Pet peeves? Let's see, "As I stumbled from bed this morning, and stared at myself in the mirror: Yes, both eyes were still there, as well as a few remaining teeth. . . "

I guess my pet peeves include the misuse of certain words -- "hopefully," for instance -- and excessively vulgar and crude language, either spoken or on the Internet. I'm all for cursing, and there's not a single forbidden word I haven't used from time to time, but in the appropriate context. But the sheer pervasiveness of obscenity and vulgarity in our spoken culture makes me long for some idyllic earlier age of grace, beauty and good manners.


McLean, Va.: Following up on your commentary about "Proust and the Squid" (M. Wolf), where you point out that the important questions about the effect of the current technology are not answered, and would be "the basis for a much needed book". Have you read Jane Healy's "Endangered Minds", and "Failure to Connect"? My very first pick as required reading for any parent. Regards, Kristina Caplin

Michael Dirda: Nope, but I know of them now, and will keep an eye out for them.


Venus: Michael, you may not be too happy that you live in the D.C. area, but we are thrilled to have you.

Michael Dirda: Oh, you're kind to say that. I just wish the traffic were better, the heat and humidity less, and the citizenry more like you.


RE: dailylit.com: I don't think I could read like this. It's hard for me to think of a time when having the actually book wouldn't be better. Maybe if you were traveling a lot, and didn't want to carry books.

Michael Dirda: Thanks. I'll know better after I check it out.


Colorado: I enjoyed your review of "Exit Ghost" on Sunday. Not having read the other Zuckerman novels (although I did the the movie "The Human Stain") is Exit Ghost worth a read or have I missed too much to get the gist?

Michael Dirda: As I say, it's a powerful book, though not a very good novel. If I were you, I'd start with the first Zuckerman book: "The Ghost Writer." It's a perfect short novel, and this new book is, in part, a coda to it.

The Library of America has now gathered the first three Zuckerman novels together, along with the novella "The Prague Orgy." These are among Roth's best, and most entertaining, books.


Edmonton, Canada: Our book club has recently read a series of harrowing novels set in Iraq, Afghanistan, and India, and equally harrowing non-fiction on the state of the planet. Now that it's my choice, I'd like to suggest something that, while easier on the spirit, is still a book with meat on it.

Something that will challenge, entertain, and be well written. (We've all read Austen.) I've narrowed my choices down to "Wicked," "The Leopard," "Snow," "Cloud Atlas," "Feast of Love," or "Will in the World." Which would you recommend?

By the way, I picked up your book, "Book by Book," on the weekend, and it has terrific reading suggestions, but they made my decision even harder. Am I being too obsessive about this?? Help me Obi-wan-Kenobi. You're my only hope.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Yes, we don't want you giving into the dark side in all your reading. Of the books you suggest I would choose "The Leopard" -- it's arguably the greatest Italian novel of the 20th century, it's about the passing of the old order and the death of much of what it stood for, it evokes Sicily wonderfully, and it is deeply moving. Those who love the book can then go on to the movie, one of the few instances when a great book was made into an equally great movie. Visconti's film is out in one of those ritzy Criterion editions, with commentary, and it's a visual and thespian knockout. People fussed at Burt Lancaster as the Prince but he's just superb; Alain Delan and Claudia Cardinale as the young and callow lovers are great too. Yes, and with this hot weather continuing this is your book.


Chicago: Possibly I haven't been reading the chats long enough or you might have already mentioned this, but what's your opinion of the Oprah book club?

Michael Dirda: I've never seen Oprah or her book club, so nothing I'm about to say can carry much weight. I mean, it's on in the middle of the day, when most of the world is working, or should be.

But my impressions are these: She picks good books, occasionally great ones; likes those that focus on family and love; and certainly sells a lot of books for her chosen authors. I understand, though, that only the Oprah titles sell -- that there's not much carryover to a writer's other books. This is somewhat like the Harry Potter phenomenon -- kids read Harry Potter, but many don't read anything else.


Easton, Md.: Hello Mr. Dirda! Question, have you heard anything about a new children's book with a similar plot to that of "Watership Down" called "A Taste for Rabbit"? It looks interesting and I'm thinking of reading it and then giving it to my 11-year old niece.

Michael Dirda: Don't know this book, but that title doesn't sound very bunny-friendly.


Perryville, Md.: My book pet peeve: too small print. And I'm only 41! It shouldn't be this hard to read small print! I suppose those are the footsteps of the Grim Reaper I hear.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes, I hate small print too. But I'm older and have been using reading glasses for three or four years now. I've always asked that my publishers make sure that the type in my books is as big as possible, with lots of white space and margins.

I'm an admirer of a ghost-story writer named Robert Aickman and own most of his books in one format or other. But there's a handsome two volume Collected Stories, which I wanted to buy, but didn't because the type was minuscule. I didn't think I could read the pages. This also happened with a wonderful complete works of Hazlitt, edited by P.P. Howe. This is the standard edition, in many volumes, and though the margins are huge -- as sometimes happens in late 19th, early 20th century books -- the type in the middle of the page is Lilliputian. I sold the books because I couldn't read them.


Dogs in Books: "Where the Red Fern Grows" was a great book with prominent dog characters.

I think the deaths of animals in books affects us strongly because they have such unconditional love and trust for us.

Unless we're talking about characters like "Cujo," of course.

Michael Dirda: Yes. Well, that's the horror, isn't it -- that which we love and trust turning on us?

I suppose that Santa's Little Helper is the most famous TV dog these days.


Baltimore: Not a dog or cat story per se but I recently read a few books that featured animal narrators, including "Watership Down," "Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile" and "3 Bags Full." Timothy was especially enjoyable.

Michael Dirda: Just the title sounds inviting. "Abject -- such a good word. A word I should remember when trying to describe my mental state when down in the dumps -- "pathetic," "whiney" and "self-pitying" being somewhat overused.


Good Dog Books: Well, not a book, but a story: I like James Thurber's story about his demonic terrier, Muggs. I think it is told retrospectively and that Thurber mentions something about the dog's passing. We are spared sad details. If anything, we feel some relief that that particular dog has died.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes, "Thurber's Dogs" -- there's a whole book devoted to them, isn't there?

I once spoke at Thurber House in Columbus -- scene of much of "My Life and Hard Times" -- and brought home T-shirts and mugs with the Master's dogs on them.

Of course, my favorite Thurber cartoon is the one set in a courtroom. One of his milquetoasty husbands is on the stand. The prosecuting attorney is standing belligerently in front of him, pointing at a very large kangaroo at his side. The caption is "Perhaps this will refresh your memory."

The other I'm fond of is the one where the butler, wearing a silly clown mask, frightens the rich family at dinner. The caption is "It's just Smithers, sir! We're having a bit of a time downstairs!" That name is wrong, I know, but that's the gist of it.

And then there's the one about the wine, which I think you'll find rather amusing. . . .


Philadelphia: Hi, thanks again for doing the chats. Here's a name to conjure with -- Stephen R. Donaldson. I am just finishing the first of his new series set in "The Land" and I'm impressed with his advancement of his ideas, and improvements in writing and plot development; He's re-invented his creation very well. What do you think of his writing and ideas?

Michael Dirda: I've met Donaldson and heard him talk, and was very impressed by him. My friend John Clute -- the world's leading critic of fantasy and science fiction -- has written admirably and insightfully about Donaldson's achievement. But I've never read the Thomas books. Maybe the leper stuff put me off. I don't know. More likely their sheer length and an innate suspicion of multi-book series (apart from those of Wolfe, Crowley and Vance).


Friendship Heights, Washington, D.C.: Hi Mr Dirda,

Very glad you do these chats (thank you!) and I've missed reading them the last two weeks.

I just got back from 10 days in Kyoto, and had a wonderful time (I'd read the "Tale of Genji" on your recommendation and was glad I did). It was unseasonably hot there, too (90+ and 100 percent humidity every day).

I'm a vet, and as for dog stories, I always liked James Herriot's books (though not solely about dogs there are dog stories in the mix), but I agree with you, they often end sadly, and I see enough of that on a daily basis.

Thank you!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. My dog Seamus is about 10 years old, and he's moving slowly and creakily, as labs do about now. He's a bit overweight too. Like his master I guess, though I've been running lately and by the end of the year I'll be back in full racing trim! He said, hopefully.


Chestertown, Md.: Hello, I'm on a Larry McMurtry kick lately and am finishing the saga of Duane Moore ("Last Picture Show," "Texasville") with "Duane's Depressed." What are your thoughts on McMurtry? I think he's a great American writer but he doesn't seem to get the recognition of writers like Stephen King, etc., (more popular fiction but still taken seriously). I didn't enjoy "Texasville" as much but "Duane's Depressed" is quite good.

Michael Dirda: Like Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, Larry M's prolificness probably works against him. He's written so much that it's hard for new readers to get a handle on him. Plus, truth be told, many of his books are first-rate -- "Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove" -- but just as many have been cranked out, probably to pay some bills. But McMurtry at his best is wonderful -- in his essays as well as his fiction. His memoir "Reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen" and his many long essays for the New York Review of Books shows this.

I don't know him, but I've met him a few times, and was briefly his editor at Book World -- there's a story. He really did used to sport a sweat shirt emblazoned "Minor Regional Novelist."


Pittsburgh (again): You ask, "Why is it, though, that the deaths of animals in books often affect us far more strongly than the deaths of people?"

I'd hazard because the love between human and animal is so unconditional, which is more than can be said of most inter-human relationships.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I think you're right. Plus, in the case of animals, they really just don't understand. I'm getting weepy here.

Talking about sad animal stories: I don't remember if I told in "An Open Book" -- and certainly not in detail -- about the Christmas morning my sisters and I woke up and found our dog dead. Not the best Christmas holiday ever.


Book group reader: Michael,

A member of my book group has suggested a writer by the name of Edmund White for a future book group discussion. Don't know anything about him. Worth reading?


Michael Dirda: Edmund White is, arguably, the leading gay writer of his generation. He's a superb writer. His late novel, "The Married Man," is an extremely moving love story, made harrowing by the advent of AIDS. He's also an excellent literary essayist and cultural journalist. Of his early books, "A Boy's Own Story," might be the most admired.

White got a leg up on every other novelist of his generation when the elderly Nabokov named "Forgetting Elena" -- White's first book -- as being worthy of, well, worthy of admiration by Nabokov.


Woodbridge, Va.: Not sure I'm remembering the name right -- I think it was Marley -- I'm talking about the memoir about the yellow lab that was on the bestseller lists for over a year. Although a tearjerker at the very end, when the dog gets old and dies, that book is well-written and during the parts about dog's earlier life, often funny.

Michael Dirda: Yes, Marley. I kicked myself when that book came out because a) I too am a writer, b)I have a yellow Lab, and c) I could have really used all that best-seller money. Still could.

What do you think about this for a book proposal: "My Cat Cinnamon"? She's a Wonder Cat, just as Seamus is a Wonder Dog.

In years past, when my sons were younger, we used to keep most of the evolutionary scale in this house -- from newts and crabs to snakes, rabbits, parakeets, etc etc.


Buffalo, N.Y.: Is "Underworld" by DeLillo really as good as the reviews? For someone new to DeLillo, would you recommend an earlier work or should I jump right into "Underworld?"

Michael Dirda: You could read my piece on the novel in "Bound to Please." I think it's a wonderful book, but its opening 60 pages -- set at the baseball game -- are by far the most wonderful thing in it. So you could read it and if it didn't work for you, I'd just stop and go to another book.

Of DeLillo's earlier novels the most admired have been "White Noise" and "Libra."


Missoula, Mont.: Michael,

Based on references I saw in these chats, over the past couple of months I've read two of James Salter's books -- first his collection of short stories, "Last Night," and more recently, "Light Years." His writing appeals to me so much; I found myself stopping and rereading sections simply to enjoy them over again, and I purposefully took my time completing Light Years just to prolong the experience. It's been a long time since I've been so impressed -- and touched, really -- by a writer's style and talent.

Reason for writing, other than to thank you for facilitating my enjoyment of these books, is to let you know how pleased and surprised I was to open up the September issue of Vogue and find a lovely essay by none other than Salter himself, recollecting his acquaintance with Nabokov! It's a beautiful little piece! I recommend you check it out.

Michael Dirda: I will. I can remember reading Salter's article in People magazine about VN, lo these many years ago.

"Light Years" is really beautifully done, if one accepts a certain elegance of language and pace. You should go on to the stories of "Dusk" -- which won a Pen Faulkner Award--and his seriously sexy novel "A Sport and a Pastime. " "It seems these luminous days will never end."


Lenexa, Kan.: You've always been good with cartoons. My favorite is your description of the lobster's hopeful eyes -- thinking he was back like Dorothy.

Michael Dirda: Oh, yes, the Larson! Gahan Wilson is also good: I remember one of his I liked as a boy. Two fat people are on a street corner, the man holding a huge rifle, which is broken open. In front of them is a gigantic bull elephant, dead at their feet. The caption from the wife: "I'll never make fun of your carrying that elephant gun again!"


Capitol Hill: My husband has recently become of a fan of adventure tales, especially true ones, that involve shipwrecks and stories of living off the land. We're looking for some new ones to add to his collection. Do you have any suggestions for him? Recent favorites include: "A Voyage for Madmen," "Into the Heart of the Sea," "Island of the Lost," "Alive," "Into the Wild," and of course, the classics -- "Robinson Crusoe" and "Treasure Island."

Michael Dirda: One half of Ashcroft is a great aficionado of polar exploration and survival stories of all kinds. But, given her absence, I would suggest: "The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst"; Alfred Lansing's "Endurance"; and Nicholas Philbrick's book about the wreck of the Essex (which gave rise, in part, to "Moby-Dick").


Chicago: As a longtime Chicago resident and before that a longtime D.C. resident, not a week goes by that I don't miss something about D.C. It has hills, for one. You can actually get a decent workout just by taking a long walk. Not possible in Chicago. And our subway system here is just as bad as, if not worse than, D.C.'s. (Slow zones, anyone?)

Michael Dirda: Actually, D.C.'s subway is normally really quite good. Ah, but Chicago -- that toddlin' town. I saw a man who danced with his wife, in Chicago, Chicago. . . Nobody writes songs about Washington.


How do you find out about different editions?: Your mention of the Jewett editions reminds me of a couple of unfortunate experiences I've had buying out-of-print books. I skim Project Gutenberg and UPenn's On-line Books Page and have found some real gems. BUT. I fell in love with Elizabeth von Arnim ("Enchanted April") and her "Elizabeth and her German Garden" by reading it on line, but when I bought a secondhand hardback, it turned out to be missing several of my favorite anecdotes. How do you find out about this before committing your cash, especially when buying online? Yes, I try to get to bricks-&-mortar stores as often as possible, but I love the worldwide availability of consortia such as MX Book Finder. What's a book-lover to do?

Michael Dirda: I'm surprised that these books had been edited or amplified. That doesn't happen much any more. (There was the case of the English and American editions of "Lempriere's Dictionary," Lawrence Norfolk's novel being trimmed of much of its fantasy content for the American version).

I would think you could call up a librarian who might be able to consult a bibliography that describes an author's various editions. Much of this kind of material is now available at author Web sites. But I wonder if Elizabeth von Arnim has enough readers today to generate Web activity?

There were all these interesting women writers of that 1920s era: Think of the anonymous novel "Madame Solario," the work of May Sinclair (best known for her wonderful ghost stories), . . .


Favorite Thurber cartoon: A man is standing next to a bed wearing pajamas. The top is striped and the bottom is polka dots (or vice versa). A woman in the bed says "Well, it matters to me!"

Michael Dirda: Nice.


Tampa, Fla.: I recently read all four volumes of "The Alexandria Quartet," and found them to be beautifully written. Are these well thought of, and are there other works by the author (whose name slips my mind in another of my "senior moments") which you would recommend?

Michael Dirda: Lawrence Durrell. Yes, they are exquisitely written -- in fact, some readers fault them for just this. General consensus is that "Justine" is the best of the Quartet and the Quartet the best of Durrell. The possible exceptions are his travel books about the Mediterranean, a handful of his poems (I'm very fond of "Je est un autre" -- taken from Rimbaud), and his funny stories about a diplomat, whose name I've forgotten. He also carried on an interesting correspondence with Henry Miller.

Naxos has a very fine abridged reading of the Quartet. Quite seductive -- like the sensuous city of Alexandria itself.


Fair Oaks, Va.: A couple of weeks ago, people were discussing authors who chose good names for their characters. I don't think I saw Anthony Trollope mentioned. I love some of his characters: the Duke of Omnium (a reeeallly rich man with LOTS of real estate); Mr. Quiverful (a father of 14); Mrs. Proudie (an arrogant Episcopal wannabe); Mrs. Lookaloft (a social climber). There are also people named Bold, Goodacre, Jupiter and Thorne. I've always liked the name Obadiah Slope, too, 'though I despise the character as I ought.

Michael Dirda: Good point. I like most of these names except the Duke of Omnium, which has a contrived overly Latinate flavor, just as Quiverful and Lookaloft seem too obvious. Proudie, though, is just right.


Dog books: Surprised you didn't recommend "My Dog Tulip"...

Michael Dirda: Oh, I do recommend "My Dog Tulip" -- the only dog book that makes canine defecation the subject for art. The author, by the way, is J.R. Ackerley, author of the wonderful Indian travel book, "Hindoo Holiday," and the notorious memoir "My Father and Myself."


Lenexa, Kan.: I remember your fun comments on appearing recently with Jane Smiley--her reading about the Russian maids. I enjoyed her recent novels a lot: "Moo" and "Ten Days in the Hills." She has a very interesting (sad but telling) essay in the current "The Nation." Everyone should read it.

I'm so enjoying the Burns-Ward-Novick WWII film series and book--such poignant portraits (Glenn Frazier, Quentin Aanenson, Sascha Weinzheimer, et al.). It was neat getting the Burns coverage on Book-tv at the Washington Fall Book Festival (always fun to see Maria and other BW staff). I was wondering if you know Ken Burns personally. Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Don't know "Ken Burns" at all -- but clearly his portrait painter is better than mine. I keep looking as if I'm in my forties; he still looks as if he's just entering puberty.


Houston: I noticed that you are a member of the Ghost Story Society. Do you enjoy the work of Robert Aickman?

Michael Dirda: See earlier posting. Yes, I do: I have a brief essay on Aickman and his perplexities in "Bound to Please." He bookends his career with two masterpieces, "Ringing the Changes" and "The Stains."


Transplant from Texas: I loved the National Book Festival this weekend. However, being from Texas, I am perplexed at how little the National one has grown. In Texas it is a whole weekend. We have panel discussions, not one author speaking at a time. There are also tents with publishers, editing services, etc. Here we have the author's tents, the LOC tent, the sales tent, and the states tent. Oh and the PBS tent to meet the characters. Furthermore, not only is it not growing into the wonderful event I know it can be, there are rumblings it may end with this administration. Please, it's the nation's capital, why can't we have a truly great National Book Festival?

Michael Dirda: Well, I guess the Bushes love Texas more than they love America.


Athens, Greece:

Dear Dr. Dirda:

Thank you de profundis for this weekly gift from heaven. It certainly brightens my day.

Do you or any of the fellow posters know of any (non-fiction) books about the Mississippi River?

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Sure. Here are two classics, one old, one modern:

Mark Twain, "Life on the Mississippi" (there's a shorter version called "Old Times on the Mississippi")

Jonathan Raban, "Old Glory" -- about a modern trip down the Miss on a raft


Washington, D.C.: I am starting a book club that will incorporate people of all ages, genders, races. Any good suggestions on a good first pick?

Michael Dirda: Yes, the first book I chose when Book World used to have a book club: Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." Beautifully written, deeply moving, it raises issues of all kinds about race, sexuality, culture. It's also one of the greatest science fiction novels of our time.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

"A Life in Letters" is the new Arthur Conan Doyle book of letters to his mother. It reads like an autobiography. Have you read it? The first two volumes of a planned 140 volume letter's of Henry James has also been published. Any thoughts about books of letters? All letters by an author versus selective correspondence between just two people?

Michael Dirda: I've just seen a copy and haven't even had a chance to crack the cover.

I love letters -- the more, the better, and I like lots of annotation too. I do have the four-volume edition of James's letters, compiled by Leon Edel (reviewed volume three, I think it was). And they are wonderful: In fact, I write about James's letters and nonfiction in "Classics for Pleasure."


Cleveland, Ohio: Michael: I'm having an interesting time with Jim Crace's "The Pesthouse." What are your three favorite post-apocalyptic novels, and why?

Michael Dirda: I'll skip the why because it's time for me to do some other work:

Walter M. Miller Jr., "A Canticle for Leibowitz"

Russell Hoban, "Riddley Walker"

and a short story, Stephen Vincent Benet's, "By the Waters of Babylon"

And that, friends, is it for this session of Dirda on Books. Sorry I didn't get to everyone. Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!


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