Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, March 5, 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 Wednesday, March 5, at 2 p.m.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! I'm typing this from the top floor of the National Endowment for the Arts, where I have come for Reasons of State, or at least Reasons of Literacy. At all events, it's a pretty, sunny day here in DC and I'm hoping that this augurs well for an immediate advent of spring. It can't come too soon as far as I'm concerned.

But let's look at this week's queries and quandaries.


Fredericksburg, Tex.: Which linked-narrative story collections come to mind as among the most successful?

Michael Dirda: Two come to mind: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples. One might also add John Updike's Too Far to Go--an after the fact collection of his Maples stories about the break up of a marriage.


Nabokov: What's your view on the question (much discussed on Slate.com) of whether Dmitri Nabokov should follow his father's instructions and burn Vladimir's last manuscript? Me, I'm with the public who would be the poorer if Dmitri doesn't follow the example of those who disobeyed instructions to burn, say, all of Emily Dickinson's or Kafka's writings.

Michael Dirda: I haven't followed this story closely, but what puzzles me is why is it a story. Nabokov has been dead for a long time now--why is this news now? Shouldn't a decision have been made years ago whether to burn The Original of Laura or not.

Nabokov admittedly never liked the public to see him sweat, so like his character Sebastian Knight he tended to destroy rough drafts and false steps. But my view is that if he really wanted to destroy his ms, he could have done it before he died.

My suggestion is this: Give the manuscript to a library or institution and insist on its being sealed for 50 or a hundred years, when all those who might have known Nabokov would be dead.


Annapolis, MD: I was struck by your comment in your review of "Alfred Kazin" about how critics' work rarely outlasts their active lives. I think that criticism is the equivalent of journalism, the "first rough draft of history" in Philip Graham's famous phrase; criticism attempts to explain what is happening in art while it happens, and academic writing takes over after art passes into "history." And academic writing always seeks reinterpretation; literary critics still employ some of the principles Cleanth Brooks set out, but modified the New Critical approach when the approach's limitations became obvious.

Analysis rarely rises to the level of art itself. We still reread, say, Granville-Barker's prefaces of Shakespeare -- but only some of us do this; we would rather reread Shakespeare and reinterpret him for ourselves.

But criticism's role as "first rough draft," like journalism's role, is invaluable for shaping the ground. Everyone who writes about Eliot or Joyce today still has to deal with the things Wilson wrote about them, if not Wilson's words themselves.

Michael Dirda: I would basically agree with this, and build on your distinction. Criticism deals with works that people know, that are already,in some sense, established. You can say anything about Shakespeare or Madame Bovary and it really won't make much difference--the plays and the novel are above it all. Each is the Ding an sich, the thing itself. By contrast, reviewing deals with books that nobody but the reviewer has yet read. His or her job is to introduce the book to the world--and sometimes this can make a real difference. But once the book is out there, the reviewer's impact is lessened, and that of the scholar and critic comes into play. Admittedly, a few reviewers can manage to make their pieces into a kind of art--whether through their prose, the strength of their personality, or the brilliance of their insights. But in English literature we have Johnson, Hazlitt, Arnold and maybe one or two others as the only per 20th century literary commentators that anyone tends to read in the 21st century. And not much even then. Criticism does seem to need to be contemporary.


Great Falls, Va.: How do you pick the titles you read? Do you wander the "New Titles" section of your local library or local bookstore? Do you read whatever is sent to you from publishers/agents?

Michael Dirda: Page proofs--an advanced paperback form of the book itslef--are sent to Book World, so on its shelves are virtually all the trade titles of the coming months. Editors--and sometimes writers--browse those shelves, read Publishers Weekly (the trade journal of the profession, which features advanced notices), talk to publicity people, and generally try to make an informed judgment as to what is new, important or relevant.

In my own case, I used to pick most of the books I reviewed--after all, I was an assigning editor too and could always ask someone else to take on titles I didn't care for. Nowadays, my editor Marie Arana suggests books for me, I can refuse those that don't appeal and suggest others instead. I'd say that half the books I write about are my choices and half are hers. Often her books prove better than the ones I gravitated to.


Wilmington, Del.: Re: linked story narratives, how about Wendell Berry's "That Distant Land"? I heard about it first here and loved it.

Michael Dirda: I haven't read it, but do admire Berry's essays.


Pennsylvania: I was discussing the spirituality of food last night with some folks (how food creates bonds and community), and wondered if you could recommend any books on the subject. Not cookbooks -- books that discuss the role that food has in our lives (beyond the critical role of keeping us alive). Seems like a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject. Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: Food--hmmmm. There's a recent Library of America volume called American Food Writing, which is one place to sample all sorts of reflections on food. I am not really a foodie, though. My favorite writer in this genre is everyone's--M.F.K. Fisher. Fisher sees food from a Mediterranean perspective--as one of the sensual and necessary pleasures of life. And she write a prose that makes that pleasure palpable.

Fisher also has an anthology of food writing from the past--Here Let Us Feast--and she is the translator of the classic The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin.

But spirituality of food. I wonder if the Rule of St. Benedict comments on this.


Baltimore: Re linked narratives: I think you would have to include Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, which I think were only collected in one volume after his death.

Michael Dirda: Yes. But Anderson and Welty brought their stories together themselves. It was a later Scribner's editor who did this for Hemingway. At the same time, many collections of stories about a single character might seem to be a linked narrative, if looked at in a certain way--the Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance.


Baltimore: Is there a Willa Cather novel that is considered her masterpiece? Any works that should not be missed?

Michael Dirda: There are probably four contenders here: My Antonia, which is widely read; A Lost Lady, which is perfect; Death Comes to the Archbishop, which is an achingly beautiful prose poem; and The Professor's House, which is the critical favorite these days. A Lost Lady is the shorted. But you might want to see my Cather essay in Classics for Pleasure where I talk about it and Death Commes for the Archbishop.


Freising, Germany: There seems to be no doubt that Scotland Yard enjoys a good reputation, having been called to Pakistan to investigate the murder of Benazir Bhutto. I've even read that Scotland Yard investigators traveled to Africa to question a witch doctor, while trying to solve a crime involving ritual murder in the UK.

But how does Scotland Yard fare in classic literature? Is there anything that could compare to Sherlock Holmes, and could a Baker Street Irregular ever take literature seriously that features Scotland Yard as the heroes?

Michael Dirda: Several modern British detectives are official police and thus, I suppose, part of Scotland Yard: Michael Innes's Appleby; P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh. Are Scots policeman part of Scotland Yard? One could add Ian Rankin's Rebus. And how about Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse? Just because you're an official cop doesn't make you a dullard.


Baltimore: I would recommend Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Food, Miracle" to the poster in search of books about food and community.

Michael Dirda: Thanks. Certainly if we start to think about food in that way, and perhaps I should have, one could suggest Diet for a Small Planet or Stalking the Wild Asparagus. When it comes to spirituality and food, I immediately think: Simplicity, Plainnness, Organic, Homegrown, Healthful--words like that.


King?: Hi,

I know you like Lovecraft for tales of the macabre, but have you ever read or do you like Stephen King?

(Thinking about departing from the classics for a while for the literary equivalent of a hot fudge sundae with a deep-fried Mars bar for topping).


Michael Dirda: Mars bars! I haven't had one in years--though I did just eat a Three Musketeers since I haven't had lunch.

King is a a great American storyteller, and sometims more than that. I admire almost everything about him, except his tendency to write overlong books. I think his masterpices are the quartet of novels in Different Seasons--starting with Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

Last week, someone made favourable mention of a book (one I haven't read) by Chingiz Aitmatov. I'd like to mention another book by the same author: Jamila (there are various spellings/transliterations). The edition I read was in German, with a translated preface or introduction by Andre Gide in which he described it, perhaps quoting someone else, as "the most beautiful love story ever". I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but I do remember that it was exuberant and exhilarating. It might be just the thing for own of your more melancholy days. So I second the motion: you should read some Aitmatov.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Note following post.


Currently in Paris: It was a great pleasure to "run into" someone else who enjoyed Aitmatov in last week's chat -- no more seeing his work as somehow a quirky secret oeuvre meant for only a select few (a sense probably bolstered by having first encountered his works in German translations passed around semi-clandestinely in mid-80s East Berlin at a time when Soviet glasnost made for many interesting conversations). And on culling books and otherwise trimming collections -- I can't imagine not dragging the literally tons of books that make up my metaphorical hearth around with me, much to the distress of the movers each time I relocate. For those of us who keep nearly everything printed that reaches our hands, each week's discussion can only exacerbate what one might (were one so inclined) consider an unhealthy impulse to go out and find all as-yet-unread titles within reach. As always, thanks for your suggestions.

Michael Dirda: See previous post. I guess I need to look seriously for Aitmatov books.


University Park, Md.: Dear Mr. Dirda: we enjoyed Book World's highlighting of the Round House Theatre's production of "The Book Club Play" which we saw a couple of weeks ago. In response to BW's solicitation about which books generated the most discussion, one group responded with Iain Pears's "The Dream of Scipio." This was a favorite of mine but I'm not sure I should recommend it to my group. Have you by any chance read it and, if so, what did you think? I'd love some solid reasons to advocate for it.

Michael Dirda: I haven't read it, alas. I did read, and review, and admire immensely, An Instance of the Fingerpost--one of the most brilliantly plotted novels since Wilkie Collins. And full of interesting characters and matter. But it is very long. I recall the reviews of Scipio being admiring and respectful but not all that enthusiastic somehow.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: "Do you know where we can donate books?" Hospital patient libraries can also use your books, and places where the elderly live and are cared for.

Re: Request for Scandinavian writers - Hans Christian Andersen (fairy tales), Isak Dinesen ("Seven Gothic Tales," "Winter's Tales," "Out of Africa"), Sigrid Undset ("Kristin Lavransdatter," historical novel set in medieval Norway), and Knut Hamsun ("Growth of the Soil").

I read "The Thirty-Nine Steps" by John Buchan, and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" by Baroness Orczy (oh, the pepper bit!), both of which I have in cloth Everyman editions. I liked best the adventure, "The Scarlet Pimpernel."

Question: Thoreau or Emerson: Do you prefer one or the other, and if so, why? Which one do you think is the greater writer; philosopher; the most influential; and why? Thank you very much.

Michael Dirda: Good addtions to the Scandianavian list. I'm a particular admirer of Andersen and Dinesen. But I like fairy tales and Gothicky things.

My heart belongs to Thoreau, and I admire his strong, forceful prose as a thing of beauty, like an oak tree. But Emerson has such flashes of fire and aphoristic brilliance that I would want to be without him. "The more he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons." "In skating over thin ice, our safety lies in our speed."


Las Vegas: Loved your review this week of Bolano's Nazi Lit.

Have you read his "By Night In Chile"? I just finished it a few weeks ago and and loved it, but found it eerily similar to Bernhard's The Loser, perhaps just because neither has a paragraph break and both were kind of a long, rambling, beautiful stream of consciousness.

Any other recommendations of fabulous books without paragraph breaks?

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. No, I haven't read By Night in Chile, I'm sorry to say.

Novels without paragraph breaks--well, I'd point you to most of Jose Saramago's novels. Blindness is proably the most highly regarded. I haven't read Hermann Broch, but as I recall The Death of Virgil is without paragraphing--and it's certainly a classic. The novels in Beckett's trilogy are without paragraphs too (unless my memory deceives me). Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. And of course there's always Molly Bloom's soliloquy.


Washington DC: Inspector Morse is on the Thames Valley police, with his particular "patch" being Oxford. I am pretty sure that is a different entity from Scotland Yard, which I believe is part of the London Metropolitan Police.

Michael Dirda: Well, I took the poster's question to imply that Scotland Yard was the generic name for the official English police as opposed to private detectives or talented amateurs. But you're unddoubtedly right.


Kingsolver title:...is "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle."

Michael Dirda: Okay. Sounds corny to me.


Washington, D.C.: How do you feel about being plagiarized? Have you heard from the former deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison?

Michael Dirda: Huh! I can't stop now to check this out. I take imitation to be the highest form of flattery. I think.


Willa Cather: May I suggest "Song of the Lark," "O Pioneers," and "Lucy Gayheart"?

This last one, in particular, has stayed with me over the years. The main character, Lucy, moves to Chicago and takes singing lessons in The Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue, overlooking Lake Michigan. I also moved to Chicago as a young woman, and my boss had an office in the same building. One day I was looking out the windows at the lake and realized I was seeing the same scene that Lucy had. Eerie.

Michael Dirda: Yes, you may suggest them, of course. But we have now named virtually all of Cather's novels.


"Criticism does seem to need to be contemporary.": I don't know; I collect criticism because I enjoy the style and love being informed about what was being published, read, etc. in another era. H.L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan, Dorothy Parker, etc.

Michael Dirda: I submit that you're reading these writers for their style. They possess distinct voices on the page and that's what we go to them for. In this respect, they are artists of a minor sort. All reviewers and critics hope to achieve the distinction of possessing unique sounds or styles.


The Dream of Scipio: DoS is considerably shorter than "An Instance of the Fingerpost" but just as worth reading, IMHO. It's vertical rather than horizontal, so to speak; the same matters are taken up by people in three different (but similarly violent, turbulent clash-of-civilization-type) historical periods. I'd recommend it to any book club just for the experience. I don't recommend Pears's art-cop mysteries; they're very cookie-cutter, nothing like as brilliantly constructed or composed as Fingerpost or Scipio.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Lexington: Hi Michael, I see you're moderating a discussion with Jerome Charyn at Politics and Prose. He's a wonderful writer who seems to be under the radar for many. Would you describe him as a polymath of a writer-someone who has played with many genres? Started out as a post-modernist with such books as "The Tar Baby," still a great and entertaining read, moving on to his crime dramas and historical fictions, now back to the playful fiction of his earlier period. There don't seem to be many such polymath writers today, does there? Why is that?

Michael Dirda: Yes, he certainly is wide-ranging and restlessly inventive. He has also done graphic novels and screen plays.

I suspect that marketing has a lot to do with the decline of polymathery. (Is that a word? I doubt it.) Once a publisher has a success with a book, it wants the writer to keep on turning out the same book, again and again. It can be a better book, if possible, but what matters is that he or she has established a niche. From a marketing point of view, if you have a niche, you have sales. If you keep changing your styles or approach, no one quite knows where to place you.


Food for PA: I hope I am not too late. I love to read about food. M.F.K. Fisher is the best but there are others I have enjoyed. Calvin Trillin's Tummy Trilogy which is a compilation of essays about food he wrote for the New Yorker is funny and timely though written in the 70s and 80s. Laurie Colwin best known for her fiction wrote Homecooking about food, friends and family. It is a lovely book that makes one even sadder about her early passing. Ruth Reichl, form NYT restaurant critic and now editor of Gourmet has written three memoirs about her life and its relation to food Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table is excellent.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes: I love the Trillin books and have always meant to read Colwin's and Reichl's. Same goes for Anthony Bourdain. But how spiritual are these people? Of course, it all depends on what you mean by spiritual. In this sense, one could add A.J. Liebling's wonderful Between Meals.


St. Paul: Mr. Dirda,

I think you've expressed your admiration for Gene Wolfe in past chats. I'm finishing up "The Executioner's Shadow" right now. It's one of the more challenging sci-fi books I've read. It's strangely frustrating, with its veiled, almost indecipherable, allusions to artifacts and events from a distant past, and the quirky ramblings on strange indecipherable philosophies, it's kind of like someone relaying a long, murky dream that may have no point in the end. But still, it's interesting. I don't know, have you read all of the books of the New Sun cycle?

Michael Dirda: The Shadow of the Torturer is the title I think you mean. All the words in it are real words, and it is in fact a tightly if intricately constructed book. It's only murky because you need to figure things out a bit. Do you know, for instance, who Severian's father is? This is simple. But how about his mother? This is hard. But the prose is austere, grave and lovely.


Taipei, Taiwan: Hi

I have just finished reading your sublime book "Bound To Please." I especially loved your description of the life of a man of letters. I wish!

I am crazy about reading, books, the written word...have no other vice than reading. Yet, painstakingly built though my little library is (I am 30), I find that I haven't really "read" any of the books I own in the sense that you write of (in Bound...).

I haven't marked out lines, favorite quotes...and regrettably am beginning to forget pleasure-giving sentences, nuances from old favorites. Is there something to be said for discussing the book with yourself even as you read?

Michael Dirda: Thanks for the compliment.

When you read, you should be able to underline passages, scribble notes or ideas in the margins, fold back pages--whatever you like that will make the book personal, your own, a part of your being. I think one of the uses of a personal library is that you can just pick up a book, read a page or check a note, and put it back in its place, then choose another. Book in the house are books you live with, that become a part of your life.

But there's no question that we forget 90 percent of a book once we've finished it. But that's why God invented rereading. As Oscar Wilde said, if a book is worth reading at all, it's worth reading again and again.


Pittsburgh: After home phone lines and Internet connection came down in an icestorm, it was nearly a week before service could be restored.

Downside: Since I work from home, I was somewhat hamstrung by being unable to access email or do needed research -- not to mention missing my favorite WaPo chat last Wednesday at 2. I had my husband send out an email from his account at work to my main contacts apprising them of my incommunicado status, with the promise to email them as soon as I was back online.

Upside: Returned "to those thrilling days of yesteryear," where reading = dead-tree materials -- books, magazines, newspapers -- and I even sent a letter via snail-mail! Best of all, I felt considerably more relaxed by the more leisurely pace.

Am now trying to strike a balance between these two extremes. Since you work at home, do you have any techniques to recommend in order for a writer to keep from getting sucked back into the virtual world?

Michael Dirda: Well, I think you're on your way, but the virtual world has its seductions. Sometimes I think of getting rid of email, my cell phone and my telephone altogether--I do love the feeling of being beyond the tentacular reach of whoever wants to dial my number or type in my address. I like the feeling of freedom it gives. I do know that people with Blackberries feel oppressed by them, that they are never not working, are always on deadline.

Perhaps you can join a meditation or yoga group--I'll bet that would help keep your life in perspective.


Lenexa, Kan.: Reading "Book World" between your responses, I just read" "We thank him (Robert Pinsky) for a splended run." Who will be his replacement? I've loved them all.

Michael Dirda: Don't know myself. I suggested a few people long ago, but don't know who's been asked, if anyone.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Food - Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma," and A.J. Liebling books.

Michael Dirda: Thanks.


Pittsburgh: Wasn't Inspector Morse part of the Thames Valley police force (in Oxford)? Or is that part of Scotland Yard?

Michael Dirda: You're right. I guess it isn't part of Scotland Yard, if the Yard is just London police.


Rochester, NY: Just finished a fascinating book in Continuum Press's series 33 1/3 in which a notable music critic conducts a book-length 'close reading' of a notable pop music album. In the volume I just read, Carl Wilson, a music critic for the Globe & Mail took a different tack, and instead used a Celine Dion album for an extended eploration of 'taste' in popular music. One of his theses is that taste in popular music is largely a social construct and while a music critic may have some notions of what constitutes a good album: poignancy of lyric, musical innovation, emotional authenticity, but that upon close examination many opinions are highly subjective. I wonder if you can recommend any works that cover similar terrain for literary criticism?

Michael Dirda: I think you might enjoy the writing of John Sutherland. He's a great authority on Victorian literature--but also on modern best sellers. He's written often about popular fiction and what makes it popular, in several books and many pieces of journalism. He's a very wide-ranging and enteraining scholar-essayist. His most recent book is the insight and useful and witty How to Read a Novel.


Lenexa, Kan.: I recently completed Claire Messud's nicely crafted and very enjoyable "The Emperor's Children." In it, there are several references to Robert Musil's "The Man without Qualities." The name "Ulrich" is cleverly used in the plot. Along with Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time" (named after Poussin's painting), the Musil is something I hope to get to in the next several years. How much have you done with them? Assuming you haven't read either in its entirety, which would you rather have completed? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: They are both on my mental list of books to read in their entirety. For a while I thought it would be Musil I tried first, but now I think it'll be Powell--I have read a lot of his work, just not the Dance.

It is a wonderful game to stack up the books one wants to read, as if one could retire to a hermit's cabin--with food delivery--and just spend a year or two with the books one wants to read rather than those one is asked to read or feels required to read. I don't follow my own advice enough of reading at whim, or of reading for pleasure. Maybe the time is coming, though. We'll see.

Until next Wednesday at 2--keep reading!


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