Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, January 16, 2008; 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 Tuesday, Jan. 8, at 2 p.m.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's grown cold here in Washington, but the sun is out and that makes up for at least a 10 degree drop in temperature. I've been a busy guy lately--this past weekend off to New York for the annual Baker Street Irregulars banquet and tomorrow off to Columbus to speak at a cocktail party/fundraiser for the admirable Ohioana library. Somehow I will keep up my reading and writing.

But for now, let's see what questions there are this week.


Lifeless Office Building: I'm reading Richardson's bio of Thoreau and it makes me want to reread Thoreau. And then read his contemporaries. And read the books he read (Linneaus, and basically everything written before him on American Indians, exploration of North America, other travel/naturalism, Eastern sacred texts). But, I don't want to spend my whole life reading ever widening circles around one author.

Question: How do you know when to stop and read elsewhere?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Why not? This would be an excellent way of reading--and educating oneself. I mean, it's really what Biblical and Classical scholarship were based on--read the texts, then study the archeology, art, law systems, coinage, what have you, as a means to further penetrate a lost civilization. Coleridge read in just an associative way, which is why John Livingston Lowes in The Road to Xanadu could reconstruct his reading and see how those texts contributed to Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner.

But if you have to stop sometime, well, I think you'll know: You'll just feel that that's enough. In my own case, having weekly deadlines, indeed having deadlines in general, limits the amount of time you can spend on any one project.


Bangkok, Thailand: I read Milan Kundera often mentioned Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz. Have you ever read these three writers?

Michael Dirda: In fact, I've read bits and pieces of all three, but wouldn't say I've read them. I started Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke in two different translations and it didn't sustain my interest; Broch's Death of Virgil is extremely daunting--perhaps the hardest of all the modern German classics--and I only read enough to see how the book worked. Musil is the one I actively have on my shelves now--Five Women, Young Torless, Man Without Qualities, journals. I plan to read him before too long.

Sigh. On the other hand, I have read Cervantes, Diderot and others admired by Kundera, plus Kundera himself. Really, I have. I'm not such a dope as I might seem, not having read Music, Broch and Gombrowicz. Or maybe I am.


Michigan City, Ind.: Michael,

Since we are entering the heavy primary season, I have a political question. What do you believe is the best "inside politics" novel, along the lines of "All the King's Men," which happens to be the only one I can think of at the moment?

Michael Dirda: Modern politics is probably rather different now, because of the heavy reliance on media, the internet, spinning and money. But there are some interesting election books: Frank Conroy's The Last Hurrah (about Boston politics), Ross Thomas's The Seersucker Whipsaw (about an African election), even Allen Drury's Advise and Consent. I've never read Brammer's The Gay Place (about Texas politics), but am told it's masterly. Nonfiction is easier to think of: Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus; Hunter Thompason's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Theodore WHite's The Making of the President.


Bethesda, Md.: Is ther some sort of convention that you are aware of, regarding the translation of passages in a foreign language, included by a writer (e.g. the sections in French used by Tolstoy)? Sometimes it is difficult (at least for me) to fathom the purpose of such practice, and I guess it may be also puzzling for some translators...

Michael Dirda: Do you mean why do translators leave somethings in a foreign language? Usually, you find this in works of scholarship or older classics. In the first instance, it is expected that if you are reading a textual analysis of Propertius that you will know enough Latin to understand the poem. In the second, a gentleman is expected to know a smattering of Latin and even a bit of Greek, and certainly French. At times, though, indecent material, or passages not fit for delicate ears, were kept in the decent obscurity of a foreign language.

The Tolstoy passages in French are translated at the bottom of the page (in the recent new version). I myself agree that it is a nuisance for an American--we known no languages but our own--to have to struggle with phrases in Italian or German.


Atlanta: I read the first novella in Paul Theroux's "The Elephanta Suite" last night. It was so evocative that I dreamed I was in a small plane crash, which I blame, tangentially (if that's a word) on the story. Have you read it?

Michael Dirda: Yes, I reviewed the book, which I liked a great deal. But why did you dream of a plane crash? There's no plane crash in that first story. There is, I admit, a kind of crash at the end.


Lenexa, Kan.: I've completed Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore"--has one really stunning part. In the last two years, I think there have been two really fine novels--written with literary artistry--that embody myth and fantasy in otherwise realistic settings. The other was Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell." I think both are substantial creations. I believe you reviewed the Clarke novel and have plans to read and write about "Kafka on the Shore." I hope sometime when it's appropriate, we could get a comparative evaluation of the two from you.

Also, in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Sophie Gee makes an interesting statement: "Homer was rewritten by Virgil, who was rewritten by Dante, who was rewritten by Milton, who was rewritten by Pullman." As a critic, how highly do you rate Pullman's achievement? Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: Well, I admired the idea of Clarke's novel--especially the footnotes and the convincingness of fantasy being part of a realistic world--but the storytelling itself was often dull. Not enough excitement for my jaded sensibilities.

As for Pullman: I reviewed all three of the books in the Dark Materials trilogy and admired them all, especially the first. (The essay on the last volume is in Bound to Please.) I do think it's a wonderful work of imagination and adaption. That said, I would argue a bit with Sophie Gee's lineage--yes, these authors all worked in the epic tradition and were aware of their predecessors, but the Aeneid isn't very much like the Commedia and the Commedia isn't much like Paradise Lost.


Atlanta: I suppose it was the crash, of sorts, at the end of the story (Monkey Hill). Fortunately no one was killed.

Michael Dirda: Are you teasing?


New Lenox, Ill.: Thanks to your Winter's Tales on Barnes & Noble Review, I was prompted to finally read my copy of Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen (a first edition). My favorite was "The Deluge at Norderney." They were not like any other stories that I'd read before.

Re: loading your laptop with music. What kind of speakers do you have on your laptop? (Both of my personal laptops have Harman/Kardon speakers - four of them on my Qosmio G45-AV680.) What are some of the classical selections that you put on your computer for your listening pleasure? Thank you.

Michael Dirda: I, too, love the Norderney story. It has a wonderfully evocative opening. Dinesen is a bit like Heinrich von Kleist and E.T. A. Hoffmann, if you're looking for further reading.

I don't listen to music from my computer. My sons do have some kind of speakers on this computer--or rather used to. I complained enough so they mostly listen through earphones.

What did I load on my Nano? Let's see: Mozart operas, to start: the Giulini Don Giovanni, the new ABbado Flute, the Mackerras' Idomeneo, and the Jacob Cosi and Figaro. I also included all the Debussy piano music (Giesking), the Ravel piano music (Thibaudet), a bunch of early music (Gesualdo, Gabrieli, Monteverdi), some Bach cantatas, some Mozart piano concertos, the 4th Beethoven piano concerto (Fleischer/Szell), Tristan (the Barenboim, mainly for the sound, though I may go back to the Furtwangler classic), and a lot more. I also recorded 10 CDs of classic rock love songs from the 1960s, a bunch of country-western songs, including favorites like Pam Tillis's Maybe it was Memphis and Jimmy Dale Gilmore's I Was the One. A lot of the American songbook--mostly drawing on the Smithsonian Composer's series with various artists (Gershwin, Porter, Kern, et al), some Diana Krall and Eva Cassidy, and also a reading (in English ) of Swann in Love, Candide read in French, and a couple of hours of Italian lessons.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

I just saw the scroll manuscript of "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac on display in the New York Public Library. I was reminded of what Truman Capote said, "that's not writing, that's typing." What is your opinion of the Beats and Kerouac?

Michael Dirda: Hey, Dick, hi! I went to see the Kerouac exhibit on Saturday afternoon (skipping out on the cocktail party). I very much enjoyed the docent's tour--very informative.

WEll, looking at very tightly single spaced prose without pargraphs that runs for a hundered and twenty feet--it's just not my kind of writing. I do think the Beats are important and there are a half dozen books that will last: On the Road, Naked Lunch, Howl. But none of them ever seemed to get better as writers. They nearly all produced their best books when young, often as their very first books. After that they tended to live up to their images or repeat themselves.


Ashburn VA -- Adding a vote in support of "Kafka on the Shore": Okay, another "Kafka on the Shore" fan -- it's the best novel I read last year. If you haven't read "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," run out immediately and buy it. It's also incredible (and my personal favorite from Murakami; for whatever tiny bit that's worth).

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Michigan City, Ind: Agreed. Political insight non-fiction is much easier to remember. I still remember reading White's "The Making of the President" when it was new, as well as Mitchner's "Report of a County Chairman" - also about the 1960 election, and a (very) little known book.

Still, fiction seems to hold together better in the long run, perhaps it's "the lie that tells the truth" aspect of fiction. Is there any non-fiction or history book that could tell the story of the French invasion of Russia better than "War and Peace"?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I would hope so. Art is so selective. Tolstoy only describes a couple of battles and he focuses on the Russian side. Hugo's great poem about the retreat through the Russian winter--what is it's title, the poem begins and repeats the increasingly haunting phrase: "Il neigeait"--it snowed--is powerful but again focuses on one aspect of the campaign. A good work of history will try to comver all the bases, put things in perspective. Just studying a book like Chandler's The Campaigns of Napoleon will give you insight that you won't find in a novel. Still, novels do make things seem so . . . real. But they can do that because they are fiction.


Easton, Md.: Hello Michael, I ordered "Home Coming" for my (German) mom who read your review and expressed interest. I also got her "The Reader." I hope she likes them. On a lowbrow note, I want to read Stephen King's "Duma Key." Have you heard any buzz (good? bad?)? Also, are his son's books worth reading? I seem to be on a horror binge lately. I read "I Am Legend" and really enjoyed it as well as some of the other stories.

Michael Dirda: I see that my old boss Brigitte Weeks' reviews Duma Key in today's Post. But I only read her opening grafs--it's been a busy morning. Still, I think she likes it.

Joe Hill is a very hot writer in the horror field. Start with Twentieth Century Ghosts.

Matheson's short stories are well worth looking for--I used to have those old Dell paperbacks of Shock and Shock II and Shock III. You know he was the guy who wrote "Duel," the famous trucker/car movie that Spielberg did for TV? And, years before that, The Incerdible Shrinking Man. He was also one of the principal writers for the old Twilight Zone. If you like time travel stories, you should check out Matheson's Bid Time Return (made into a schmaltzy movie called Somewhere in Time).

Still, if you're going to read horror, I really recommend checking out Ash-Tree Press, which specializes in classic supernatural fiction and modern supernatural fiction in that tradition. You should also pick up the anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, the long time editor of The Years Best Fantasy and Horror--a massive annual anthology that is worth acquiring. It's been going on for close on 20 years.


A regular (but too embarrassed to ID myself): Did you catch today's "Reliable Source" chat today at noon? Amy Argetsinger confessed that she missed this season's first "American Idol" episode (and forget to tape it) last night in order to attend her book club, where they were discussing "Brideshead Revisited." Are you impressed, or what?

Michael Dirda: No, because I can't imagine ever wanting to watch American Idol.

Also, I secretly think that the BBC miniseries of Brideshead is better than the novel. One of those rare exceptions to the general rule. The great Waugh novels are Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. All the others have serious flaws, even the Sword of Honour trilogy, which drags in places, just as Brideshead is a little too bittersweet.


Baltimore: Re Capote's comment on Kerouac: I believe he said that on the Jack Paar Show. I have read in several books that, when they cut to commercial, Capote said to Paar, "You know, I shouldn't have said that. I've got this teeny talent for ridicule."

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I don't know, I seem to remember reading the comment in Capote's Writers at Work interview for the Paris Review.


Pittsburgh: While in Columbus, have you ever had your picture taken next to the dog statues in the garden of Thurber House?

Michael Dirda: I've been to Thurber House, and spoke there too, and bought a mug and a framed print of my favorite cartoon: (Law court, giant kangaroo being pointed to by lawyer, started man in witness box, caption--"Perhaps this will refresh your memory!"). But somehow I don't remember a giant dog statue. Obviously I need to go back.


Atlanta: No, I'm serious. No one was injured in my dream. And I think Audie & Beth Bunden survived their "crash", of sorts, as well, though I haven't finished the book yet. I'm holding off reading your review because I don't want to read anything that will spoil the developing story.

Michael Dirda: Okay, I'll let you live with your fond illusions for a while longer.


Signed Books: Do you know the easiest way, if there is a way, to get books signed by an author no longer making appearances? I'm a fan of such an author and would love to have a copy or two signed and don't want to chance paying exorbitant amounts of cash for something that may or may not be authentic.

Michael Dirda: Well, unless an author is really famous or the books incredibly scarce, there aren't many people forging autographs for modern firsts. You can also consult with book dealers about authenticity--for instance, Quill and Brush offers Author Price Guides that include a replica of the authentic signature.

That said, you can write to the author in care of his publishing house, or his agent, if you know who it is. You ask them to forward your letter on to said author. If he or she is interested in talking to you, bingo. If not, you're only out a stamp and your time.


Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Translations: If a work is being translated from another language - say Russian - into English, and the original also contained passages in, say, French, then I'd prefer that they be left in French and then translated ina footnote; presumably the original (Russian) author had characters speaking in French for a reason (to indicate their social standing?), and translating this into English as well would detsroy some of the nuance intended by the author.

"Kafka on the Shore": I'll second (third?) the high priase. One of the very best books I've read for a long time.

Just finishing George Saunders's collection of essays "The Braindead Megaphone", which I'm finding very enjoyable, as well as thought-provoking. Interesting sections on such diverse literary talents as Esther Forbes ("Johnny Tremain"), Mark Twain ("Huckleberry Finn"), and Kurt Vonnegut ("Slaughterhouse-Five"). Also enjoying Geoffrey Household's "Rogue Male"; thanks for recommending it.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Freising, Germany: Regarding my question last week about modern German literature translated into English, I was mistaken in mentioning Koestler and Zweig. I thought that those two example were much more modern than the examples that you gave afterwards.

I was actually thinking of much modern German works. I'd once read an review of Sven Regener's novel, "Herr Lehmann", where a reviewer mentioned that the book avoids traditional German heavy, political prose in favor of lively storytelling. I think that famous German literature is most remembered as heavier with political themes. Heinrich Boll would be another good example, don't you think?

Also, many thanks to Pittsburgh with his or her tip on Charlie Rose's TV PBS interview with Kapuscinski.

Michael Dirda: I do think of Koestler and Zweig as writers who flourished in the first half of the century (certain true of Zweig, who killed himself just before WWII).

There are, in the past, examples of light, almost airy German prose--Hoffmann's tales, Kleist, and even Mann's wonderful Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. I've enjoyed the work of Gert Hofmann too--e.g. his little novel about Lichtenberg. And a week or so back I reviewed the new Bernhard Schlink.

But it's true, not much German is translated and most of it is pretty heavy going.


Montreal: Good afternoon Mr. D.,

With the success of the movie "There Will Be Blood," I am curious about the work of Upton Sinclair.

What are your impressions? Worth my time?

Many thanks for this chat.

Michael Dirda: I read three or four Lanny Budd novels when I was a very young teen--perhaps even a preteen--and only vaguely remember them as melodramatic and polemical political novels. But people have written in to this forum recommending them. Are they in print? I wonder.

Then, of course, The Jungle is still taught in high school.

My colleague Jon Yardley reviewed a couple of books aobut Sinclair over the years, one about his California politicking, but I can't remember the title.


Biography fan: Hi Michael,

I'm a biography enthusiast and very much enjoy reading them. Just started one on Lincoln Kirstein by Martin Duberman. I didn't really know much about Kirstein, but apparently he was quite important in New York City's cultural history. Do you know anything about him?


Michael Dirda: I reviewed the Duberman biography, which I thought was extremely well written and often enthralling. Kirstein was the money man--the very cultivated moneyman--behind much of modern art: the magazine Hound and Horn, the early days of MOMA, and, most of all, the New York City Ballet. You're in for a treat.

His sister, Mina Curtiss, translated Proust's letters.


Fredericksburg, Tex.: The art of the novella or short novel differs, I think, from that of the short story and the traditionally longer novel. Who have been the best artists over time in world literature in this particular in-between genre?

Michael Dirda: Oh, this is a subject dear to my heart: I've taught the Short Novel a couple of times. There can be problems of definition--is Gatsby too long, or not? There are also a series of old hardbacks with titles like Great English Short Novels (edtied by Cyril Connolly), Great Short Novesl by Dostoevsky (Phiip Rahv), etc etc. I'd say the masters of what James called the beautiful and blessed nouvelle are Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, James, and, oh, a dozen others. But in truth many writers often produce just one or two perfect novellas: Glenway Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk, James Joyce's The Dead; Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine, Melville's Benito Cereno and Billy Budd; Kafka's The Metamorphosis, etc etc.


Pittsburgh: Agree with others on political non-fiction. Was utterly blown away by White's "Making of the President 1960" in high school. Don't forget coverage of the 1972 election in "All the President's Men" by a couple of Posties!

Michael Dirda: ANother example where the movie was better than the book--just teasing, Bob and Carl! Really. (Or was I?)


alexandria va: How was the Sherlock Holmes convention? Learn anything/find anything neat to read?

Michael Dirda: Lots of fun, and lots of food and drink. I bought some books, but nothing Sherlockian aside from a volume of essays in tribute to the late Richard Lancelyn Green, the most eminent collector of Doyle in our time. Oh, and I did buy a very nice copy in dj of Books Alive by Vincent Starrett, since my talk at the BSI dinner was about Starret--sort of. As I stayed with my friend Peter Straub, I also came home with a couple of his most recent titles, and since there was a Ghost Story Society dinner on Wednesday, the people from Ash-Tree Press brought some recent publications that I'd requested from them: EXotic Gothic, the first volume of the stories of Henry S. Whitehead, a hard to find volume of E.G. Swain stories, and something else that escapes me right now. I was happy to pick up a first of The Three Mulla Mulgars by Walter de la Mare at 12th St. Books--I've been meaning to read it for years and had only the later revised version, published as The Three Royal Monkeys.


Baltimore: We are sitting in the faculty room brainstorming non-fiction titles that would be appropriate for seventh graders to read independently. They are smart girls. We are thinking maybe "Three Cups of Tea," perhaps "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat"? Thoughts?

Michael Dirda: SIgh. This is hard--since I only had sons. Let me think about this--try me again next week!

And that, my friends, is it for this week's session of Dirda on Books. I've got to get back to work. And so do some of you. Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!


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