Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, April 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 last fall Harcourt published "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, April 16, at 2 p.m.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! Well, those who follow these meteorological and spiritual reports should know that it's much sunnier here this week than last. Still a tad cool, but trust that things will soon warm up even more. But there were some rough patches there, when the world was and looked pretty gray and gloomy. (How long can I sustain this parallelism? This is probably long enough.)

Anyway, I did finish some big projects, only to have others take their place, but I'm hoping for a summer break come the end of June. Not, probably, from this discussion board--or whatever the proper term is--but from reading and writing. Maybe I'll start another book, maybe I'll run away to sea. Keep watching this space.

For now, though, let's look at this week's questions.

I do believe we had an unofficial theme of books we should have read in high school and didn't. Let's see if I've remembered this properly.


washingtonpost.com: ADVISORY TO READERS: We realize there may be problems in the discussion page updating. Please try holding down the Control button and hitting Refresh on your individual computers. That should temporarily help. We are working on the problem.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Dear Mr. Dirda;

I know there was a consensus from last week that we discuss the great books we haven't read (MOBY DICK for one for me), but there was also a lively discussion of biographies last week. What are some of your favorites? And what do you think a good biography should do? One of my favorites is A. Scott Berg's biography of Maxwell Perkins. I was genuinely upset at Mr. Perkins' death because the book had let me get to know and like him.

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: I do like biographies--partly because they help give one a little perspective on one's own life. So many of the same issues, heartbreaks, mistakes, misjudgments, occasional triumphs, eventual decline--what have you. Biographies are by their nature palliative--the end for all of us is roughly the same. As Thomas Gray famously said, The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

My favorites tend to be literary biographies--little surprise there. Aubrey's Brief Lives, Boswell's Johnson, Ellmann's Joyce. But it's a rare biography that I actively dislike--I can read the giant fat ones, full of every archival detail or the slender artful ones with equal pleasure. But there's one I haven't read that is supposed to be a masterpiece: David Cecil's Melbourne--in two volumes, about the English prime minister and advisor to the young Victoria.


Chicago, Ill.: Michael, you will certainly be thrilled to hear that Dictionary.com's word of the day on April 11 was caesura, and you were one of the four writers quoted:

"Say her name today in the right circles and you'll notice a sudden intake of breath, a caesura of pure awe."

-- Michael Dirda, "In which our intrepid columnist visits the Modern Language Association convention and reflects on what he found there," Washington Post, January 28, 2001

I can only think you were referring to Oprah.

Michael Dirda: Nope, it wasn't Oprah. But I can't remember the context at all. My brain is going.


Lenexa, Kan.: You showed your usual good heart last week defending (at least sort of) the writers of book club questions. It's presumably a useful effort that does help sell books and aid readers clubs. I'm sure it's not a writing assignment many seek. I, for one, would only be interested in book clubs where one primarily learns about writers and literature. Years ago a girl I worked with wanted me to join their group: "We spent three hours last night discussing what the writer was really trying to get at." I'm sure I speak for many that a night like that wouldn't be my/our "cup of tea" -- as Eliot once put it when asked about EAR's poetry.

You begin your piece on C.P. Cavafy in "Classics for Pleasure" with E.M. Forster's famous (and altogether delightful) statement that at times one could glimpse Cavafy standing in the streets of Alexandria "at a slight angle to the universe." Whenever I read about Forster -- and I've also read several of his novels and seen at least three movies based on his work -- I'm overwhelmed by the sheer talent of the man. As a scholar and critic, how high do you place Forster and his achievement in the overall scheme? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: Forster's star was once at the very top of the celestial hierarchy, and A Passage to India sometimes judged the greatest 20th century English novel. But that star has fallen somewhat. Because his work was so costive--just a half dozen novels--he doesn't seem to have enough heft--plus he stopped writing fiction relatively early. In later years he became a gay icon and has always been notorious for choosing to betray his country rather than his friend (if he had to choose). But I like Forster too. He was wonderfully spikey and shrewd about a lot of things. I own firsts of India and most of the other books.


Washington, D.C.: Have you read any of Gregory Maguire's books? I am reading "Wicked" about the rise of the Wicked Witch of the West (from the Wizard of Oz, not to be confused with my mother, whom my husband calls "The Wicked Witch to the West of Washington").

The book is, well, different.


Michael Dirda: Nope. I know of the musical and I have seen the book. It's a clever conceit. Re your mother's nickname. For a while I used to answer the phone as "the second most dangerous man in Washington." The allusion being to Colonel Sebastian Moran, Professor Moriarty's chief lieutenant and a crack shot.


Worcester, N.Y.: In your opinion, what popular book (fiction or non fiction) does not live up to its hype?

Michael Dirda: What one does?


washingtonpost.com: Found the reference, Michael! Not Oprah, but Barbara Johnson, a college classmate-turned-Harvard prof you saw at the MLA convention in 2001. It's great that your brain has backup in the Post archives.

Michael Dirda: Oh, yes--Barbara and I were in several French classes together at Oberlin. She became a noted deconstructionist and translator of Derrida--and much more. We talked once or twice on the phone some years back, but have fallen out of touch. I wish her well. I can still remember sitting with her at our first MLA--she was offered a teaching job at Yale. I went down to Washington looking for work. So it goes.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

My submission under this week's heading of "books I should have read" is Crime and Punishment. On the other hand, my sister files that one under "books I have read and wish I hadn't", so ...? My submission for that category is Wuthering Heights. (When I really don't like a book, I say that it "W-O-O-O-thers".)

I suppose the most shameful gap in my reading is that I never got more than about a third of the way through the Bible. In my defense, I was trying to read the King James and Luther versions simultaneously, and it was just too much. Twice the begats and half the fun, as it were.

Michael Dirda: Crime and Pun is one of my favorite books--one of the few novels I've read more than twice. I can't imagine why your sister doesn't like it. She needs to see my essay on the book in Bound to Please.

I can't say that I love Wuthering Heights--what I most remember is the trickiness of the narrative structure and Cathy crying out "I am Heathcliff." But most readers tend to be swept up by its stark passion.

The Bible--well, you probably got stalled in Leviticus or Numbers. Anyone could give up about then. The Bible is one of those books that gains by useful skipping. You shouldn't miss Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, the Gospels and Revelation.


Houston: Last week you commented that you preferred academic or scholarly histories when discussing McCullough's "Adams". I was wondering if you would name a few recent scholarly treatments of the Revolutionary period that you think are worth reading. Thanks.

Michael Dirda: As I said, I don't know the Revolutionary period very well. I think all those wigs put me off as a boy. But I would start with the appropriate volumes in the Oxford History of America--I think that's the generic title. Virtually all these volumes have garnered prizes as well as critical acclaim. Think of James McPherson's volume on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. This year's Pulitzer went to the volume on the first half of the 19th century.


RE: Maybe I'll start another book, maybe I'll run away to sea.: Michael, do BOTH!

Michael Dirda: Where do you get seaman's papers these days? And can I have one of those big tubular packs and a striped jersey and a twinkle in my eye for every passing beauty? Ah, the sailor's life for me.


Chicago, Ill.: In honor of the Pope's visit to your fair city, please tell us who your favorite Catholic author/writer is.

Michael Dirda: Many writers I admire are Catholic, though we don't always think of them in that way: Alexander Pope, for example. I guess I'd pick St. Augustine among the classics, and Evelyn Waugh among the moderns.


Alexandria, Va.: Books I read in high school, and I'm glad I did: War and Peace. I heard it was the world's biggest novel and I wanted to be known as a "brain." I'll probably never get around to re-reading it.

Books I never read in high school: Huckleberry Finn. I cribbed from the Cliff Notes (Sorry Miss Posey, my English teacher).

Books I read in high school, and regret: Kurt Vonnegut. All. Of. It.

Book I still want to read: Remembrance of Things Past. I still want to be known as a brain.

Michael Dirda: I read War and Peace in 9th grade for a similar reason (see An Open Book). But if you could read Tolstoy, surely Twain would have been a treat? And why do you regret spending time with Vonnegut--the voice of a generation and very funny too? As for Proust--go for it, brain!


Indianapolis, Ind.: Mr. Dirda;

What with the current administration, I doubt you could be among the top ten of the most dangerous men in Washington. (And I mean that as a compliment.)

Michael Dirda: Indeed. My claim only made sense because it was made by an assistant book editor. On the other hand, Professor Moriarty was a former mathematics instructor and he could look pretty harmless (aside from the serpentine eyes and visage). I've always been fond of the "Sugarfoot" archetype. Those of you who remember the old Sunday evening western know what I mean. This cowboy is called sugarfoot and is always pushed around and takes it, takes everything easy. Until, as the song said, "if you get his dander up, you'll find there's no one that's quicker on the draw."


Montclair, N.J.: Proust -- never read Proust although I make the argument to myself that I am saving it fro my retirement when I plan to read 20 pages every morning before I get up -- as one of my old college professors claimed he did.

Related question -- what great books have you made a good start on and then given up on? Mine is Anna Karenina -- she was just deadly dull although I understand she's not really the main event...

Michael Dirda: Well, she is and she isn't' the main event--you've got two couples basically who are in counterpoint. But we don't need to analyze AK. I'm surprised, though. There are such brilliant details, starting with poor Karenin's being forced to sleep in his study because his wife has discovered his intrigue with the upstairs maid.

Shelby Foote claimed to have read Proust seven or nine times. For those who respond to its magic, it is the book. The portrait of Swann in Love--especially when he is racked by jealousy that he is unable to assuage--is something that many people will be able to identify with. A harrowing section, ending with the famous lines when he finally realizes that he has wasted so much of his life on a woman unworthy of his love.


Lenexa, Kan.: Thanks for your comments on Forster. As to books regrettably missed in high school, I don't really have any. I have such fond memories of the ones we studied, e.g., "Great Expectations"--can still reel off all the characters by name.

The big regret I have is that our little high school had no foreign languages at all--not even Spanish. I'd give almost anything to have had early years of French like you did. (I did study German and Latin in college.) If you could choose, which language would you most like to suddenly-magically know? Thanks again.

Michael Dirda: Since we'll leave out French and English, which I know (more or less), it would either be ancient Greek or Italian.


Takoma Park, Md.: Evelyn Waugh over Flannery O'Connor?

Hard choice that. And don't forget such minor but wondrous writers as JF Powers.

Michael Dirda: I was going to mention Powers--a terrific writer, plus his daughter Katherine is a friend of mine. She writes for the Boston Globe (and was named after Katherine Anne Porter). But there are plenty of other candidates too--Bernanos, Greene, Endo.


Rosemont, Ill.: Well, I read Crime and Punishment for a high school class, along with The Trial and Madame Bovary and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and loved all of them. (I also read through the entire Bible at age 11, for what that's worth - not much.) I am a little ashamed to admit I have not read ANY Dickens, nor Moby Dick. I was supposed to read Billy Budd for a college class but didn't.

And Wuthering Heights? I loathe it.

Michael Dirda: Loathe it. I like a man (or woman) who knows his (or her) mind.

Well, the books you read in high school are all great classics. How far we've come--when I wanted to check Portrait out of the public library, I had to get my parents' special permission--Joyce was still a bit suspect (dirty, you know).

Dickens--get with the program. Why don't you look for G.K. Chesterton's little book on Dickens>? He'll have you right out there at the D section of the library in no time.


High School Books: I'd say I am happiest that I was required to read Moby Dick in high school, as it is now a favorite of mine, but I doubt I would have had the willpower to stick to it if it wasn't assigned to me. But the worst thing a teacher ever did to me was the following. An eighth-grade literature teacher thought we'd all be well served if each student read a different Shakespeare play, then summarized the play for all students, so that we'd leave junior high with a synopsis of every play. I was assigned "Troilus and Cressida." What a terrible way to introduce a young person to Shakespeare! It took me until my early 20s to recover and learn to enjoy the Bard.

Michael Dirda: Sigh. Yes, T and C has wonderful elements and characters--Thersites, for instance--but a high school class should be reading Macbeth and Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nothing like weird sisters and moody young princes and Bottom and Titania to liven up a 16 year old audience.


Washington, D.C.: Hello!

Books I read in high school and glad I did: In 9th Grade Homer's "The Odyssey" and in 12th: Maugham's "Of Human Bondage". (I graduated a long time ago -- 1988 -- from Fairfax High).

Books I hated: Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying."


Michael Dirda: Do people still read Of Human Bondage? I did, because I was told it was a major novel. But talk about falling from favor. Nowadays, we only read the Maugham of the short stories and perhaps Cakes and Ale and Christmas Holiday. But I read everything by him I could: The Summing Up, the travel books, all the Ashenden spy stories (no one forgets the Hairless Mexican, who assassinates the wrong man), etc etc.

Poor Faulkner. That's a hard one for anybody.


Calgary, Canada: Recommended for Lit biography readers - "Lovecraft" by Sprague De Camp. I'm most of the way through and still fascinated. HPL was very odd, and De Camp shows him warts and all, but with sympathy for his upbringing and missed potentials.

Michael Dirda: Lovecraft is a fascinating man, but--and I hate to say this--you should be reading the biography by S.T. Joshi, our greatest authority on the master of cosmic horror. Joshi writes with great authority and the book, though substantial, just speed right along. The Sprague de Camp for me will always be the Incompleat Enchanter series (written with Fletcher Pratt), about modern people transported into different realms of myth or fairy tale. A kind of variant on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.


Anna Karenina: I gave up on this one too. At the time, I felt like I was reading a bad soap opera and got bored. Another book I gave up on was "The Shipping News." I was supposed to read it for my book group and couldn't make it through the first 10 pages. The group was new, and this was only the second book we'd chosen. I remember thinking I was going to have to quit the group, since I'd had a hard time with the first book as well ("Snow Falling on Cedars"). A year later, I picked up "Shipping News" again and loved it. Being in the book club changed my reading preferences a bit, I think. Or at least added to them.

Maybe I should give Anna Karenina another try.

Michael Dirda: Wouldn't hurt.


Re: Forster: I watched the Masterpiece Theater version of "A Room With a View" and it was so dreadful it actually makes me want to read the book so I can find out if the book is equally dreadful. It can't possibly be....

Michael Dirda: Hmm. Sorry to hear this about the video, since I think there may be a copy on the shelves around here. But I've never watched it.


Greg (Charlotte): I'm on the lookout for novels to read - are you familiar with "Loving" by Henry Green?

Michael Dirda: Oh, I love your introductory phrase "I'm on the lookout for novels to read." Just wonderful.

I'm a big Henry Green fan and have written about him several times; one piece is in Bound to Please. Loving is certainly his best known book, though I am partial to Party-Going and Concluding. Green's syntax can be a bit offputting--one of his books, Living, tends avoid definite articles "the"--but he has a phenomenal ear for the rhythm of speech. Do try him. John Updike has written about him brilliantly; Updike looked to him and Iris Murdoch as models for contemporary fiction.

Green is also famous for a portrait taken by Cecil Beaton--from the back. All you see is the back of his head. A very interesting man. Look for Jeremy Treglown's biography.


Books given up on...: Montclair, N.J. raises an even more uncomfortable question than books never begun -- those begun but abandoned! There is something worse about giving up somehow... my shameful submission in this category is Bleak House...

Michael Dirda: Oh, Esther Summerson--I think that's her name--really is wimpy and soppy. And she tells half the story. But the other half is just wonderful. That's the thing about Dickens--it just seems to pour out of him, and much of it is sublimely funny or amazing and some of it is just dreadfully sentimental.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Several weeks ago I asked about Hugh Walpole and his Herries Chronicles. You were not familiar with them and asked for a report back. I finished reading them and found they were strong on their characters, had some heavy action at time, but also dragged at times. There was good descriptions of the lake districts in England, which may be why it is a popular book there. I found him to be an OK author, but it did not live up to the hype on the cover. It is interesting how some writers are for their time and others live on, as you have pointed out.

Michael Dirda: Hugh Walpole, as I may have mentioned, was an acolyte of Henry James, and wrote some pretty good ghost stories, but for many readers his great claim to fame is as the subject of a superb literary biography by Rupert Hart-Davis. It's a portrait of a young man on the make in literary London. I should have mentioned it with the biography posting.


Adams Morgan: Golly, I hope I'm not the only person who re-reads Maugham's The Razor's Edge, also The Moon and Sixpence, every few years. The Razor's Edge has the all-time best shallow character in literature, Elliott Templeton, and I think I re-read the book just to enjoy him.

Michael Dirda: I love this description. I still like Maugham, but mainly the stories and the two novels I mentioned. Christmas Holiday is just so wonderfully cynical, about a young Brit having his heart broken in Paris.


Sarasota Florida: Hi Mr. Dirda,

Are you familiar with Tracy Chevalier and if so what do you think of her novels - "Burning Bright", Girl with a Pearl Earring" ?

I recently went to see her discuss "Burning Bright" at the Ringling Museum here in Sarasota.

Michael Dirda: All I know is that she attended my alma mater, Oberlin College. I"ve never read her books. As I've said many times, I have this trouble with best sellers and tend to dismiss them, often rightly but sometimes wrongly.


A Room With a View: Please watch the DVD from the 1987 movie. Much better!

Michael Dirda: Maybe that's what we have.


The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire...:.....by Edward Gibbon was/were the book(s) I gave up on. A better cure for insomnia I do not know!

Michael Dirda: Gee, I feel like Mr Naysayer. Gibbon's carefully balanced, exquisitely ironical, and anecdotally juicy sentences just blow me away, as they didn't say in the 18th century.


Not Karenin!: It was Anna Karenina's cheerful rogue of a brother, Stiva Oblonsky, who had to sleep in his study, not her husband. Anna first shows up as a peacemaker between her brother & her wronged sister-in-law (and I think it was the governess, not the upstairs maid).

Michael Dirda: Oh yes, you're right. I knew that. Fast typing. (See, Dirda, backpedal, desperately trying to cover his mistake . . . ) Actually, I did know that about Oblonsky. But not about the governess. It's so hard to distinguish all the various members of staff, don't you know.


Richmond: We were all raised to think there was shame in giving up on a book and I used to stubbornly plod through. Then one day I decided I was allowed to give up if I wasn't engaged after 100 pages. Sometimes it takes a while to get into the story, but by 100 pages, I should know if I want to continue. It's my (LIMITED) free time and I deserve to enjoy it.

Michael Dirda: Right you are. I'd give up at 40 or 50 pages. But I rarely have that option.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Your discussion last week about Homer's Iliad and Odyssey -- I think what explains your working on a project of the same subject as, I think, Lenexa is Carl Jung's "synchronicity." Synchronicity is what happens when similar things come together in time and space, but are not necessarily related.

Michael Dirda: I'm also reading a lot of Jung, or rather read a lot of Jung, for another project. Dub the synchronicity music from Twilight Zone.


Shakespeare in High School: I thought I was going to hate reading plays, but my teacher had us start with The Taming of the Shrew. The class loved it. We were laughing so much we forgot we were reading a "boring play."

As for books I hated from high school, I have to say I really detested The Mayor of Casterbridge. We could have picked from so many other books. Why that one?

Michael Dirda: How can you not love a book where I guy gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife (and child) to the highest bidder? I mean, really. You don't get an opening like that every day.


Annapolis, Md.: There was only one book I was assigned and never finished in high school--Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. It was just -so- boring... and I'm a bookworm. I was probably one of the few who got as far as I did!

Billy Budd was a struggle... though I'm not sure if it was the book or the subject matter. I always regret that our Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet/Othello/Tempest, and didn't include Midsummer Night's Dream or Hamlet. Just 'cause of the group discussion thing. And Native Son was a bit much for me -- but I think I was turned off by the opening scene with the rat and the... frying pan?

There was some fantastic stuff that I loved, however. East of Eden was great, though I hear it's now been banned (I'm only 15 years out of high school, FWIW). I'm glad we read 'The Sound and the Fury,' though at the time I hated it. So hard, at some points, keeping track of who was saying what.

Michael Dirda: Babbitt is worth reading if only for the last page, when Babbitt tells his son that in his whole life he never did what he really wanted to do.

Billy Budd is not only worth reading; it's worth listening to: Benjamin Britten's opera, with Simon Keenlyside as Billy, is just terrific.

I've never read East of Eden, nor much Steinbeck--aside from Travels with Charley and a few short things. Somehow I missed Grapes of Wrath. Did see the movie. Did it leave out much?


Speaking of Proust: I'm reading ISOLT for the second time, this time with the Penguin translation by various translators, last time in the Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright version. At Beetlejuice says of watching "The Exorcist" 150 times, it gets funnier every time. But man, this time I am really struck by (among many other things) just how much it inspired "Lolita," which could easily be subtitled "Variations on Some Themes of Proust." From the seaside reveries of "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom," through "The Captive -or Prisoner]" (in which Marcel's constant worries about the whereabouts and doings of Albertine are echoed in HH's similar worries about Lolita) through the untimely deaths of the two obsession-objects, the parallels are striking. I know Nabokov revered Proust, but I wish someone would write a lengthy critical treatment of the two novels together.

Michael Dirda: This all sounds right to me. Maybe you should start work on this project immediately . . . .


No city, please:"In honor of the Pope's visit to your fair city, please tell us who your favorite Catholic author/writer is."

My father rejected his Catholic upbringing, and one of his favorite repeated reads was the Cardinal Manning section of Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians."

Michael Dirda: Strachey actually admires much of Manning (note alliteration and assonance). What I most remember about Eminent Victorians are the description of Florence Nightingale's organizational abilities--I can't quite quote it here--and the celebrated last sentence. Queen Victoria lies dying and gradually her mind wanders into the past, further and further into the past, recalling detail after detail of her long life, and closing with her earliest memory of "the trees and the grass at Kensington." A tour de force.


Montclair, N.J.: As modern Catholic writers go, I don't think anybody beats the short perfect works of Muriel Spark, the early ones like Brodie and Girls of Slender Means. I love Waugh's style but I think Spark has a more complex Catholic moral vision.

Michael Dirda: Oh, I wasn't thinking of Catholic vision when I named Waugh. Spark is certainly his superior there. Still I like Memento Mori, where elderly people periodically get a telephone call from Death.


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

I just finished a biography that might appeal to your love of detective stories: The Father of Forensics: The Groundbreaking Cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury and Beginnings of Modern CSI. It was fascinating to see how he could solve murders without the kind of technology we have today.

Thank you

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Calgary, Alberta: Not a question, an appreciation. I read your discussions weekly and enjoy the immensely.

Often, they have led me to books I otherwise wouldn't have read. Both my wife and I have enjoyed reading Book by Book and Classics for Pleasure.

Michael Dirda: Thank you buying my books. Hmm. Or at least reading them.

I too enjoy "the" immensely, also "a" and "an." Just teasing. I leave out letters all the time, since I type so fast that I can confuse Karenin with Oblonsky.


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

As per this week's assignment:

Tenth-grade "rebellion": A Tale of Two Cities

Something I want to read & haven't: (So difficult to choose...) The Private Memoirs & Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, picked up at a recent UNC book sale.

Something anticipated: I just read that one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Robert Kanigel, was awarded a Guggenheim...

On an audio note: I'm listening to Gilead. I think its rambling, epistolary nature is more suited to reading than listening; I can't quite get a grip on it. But it's probably me...

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I'm not sure if Gilead would work as an audio book.

In my days at Book World I once had to assign a book by Kanigel and suggested we give it to Herb Leibowitz who runs the poetry magazine Parnassus. There's no obvious connection between these two writers. But I wanted to be able to pun "A Kanigel for Leibowitz." You had to be there.


Toronto, Ontario : A follow-up on last week's discussion. You mentioned a recent biography of Walt Disney. It is by Neal Gabler and is well-worth reading. Disney was a fascinating character who was hands-on and into everything until the day he died. Someone asked about biographies of Artists. The best I have read is "de Kooning an American Master" by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. (It won a Pulitzer for best biography).

That brings me to my question. Do you or any of your readers know of any other biographies of artists that won Pulitzers?

washingtonpost.com: how about 1991: "Jackson Pollock" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith? (Pulitzer.org lets you search by category)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Elizabeth.


Washington, D.C.: My friend loves Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and other Regency- and Victorian-era literature but hates the despair, cruelty and heartbreak of Dickens and the Brontes. Do have any suggestions for her for light-hearted reading from this era? (Happy endings are a must!) Thank you!

Michael Dirda: Yes, The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House, by Emily Eden. They are very Austenish.


Re Cardinal Manning: I think it was Cardinal Newman whom my father found appalling.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes. That makes sense. He was also crammed down the throats of many Catholic school kids--Apologia pro vita sua, mainly, but also The Idea of a University. That said, I own a lot of Newman--not a clubbable guy, but a real mind.


Fredericksburg, Tex.: Last week you said Wilde's "Importance of Being Earnest" was one of the two or three most sparkling comedies in the language. The other one or two?

Michael Dirda: Congreve's The Way of the World; Sheridan's The School for Scandal and The Rivals.


Freising, Germany: Regarding your review of Dictation by Cynthia Ozick, Henry James has such a complex writing style with huge sentences, numerous clauses and sub-clauses and oodles of punctuation. Somehow, I don't think that it lends itself to oral composition. Do you really think that James dictated some of his novels and stories?

Michael Dirda: It sure sounds as if he dictated them--they have the hesitation and prolixity of someone trying to carefully enunciate a subtle, complicated thought and not quite managing to get it right the first time and so keeps on going and going, like that rabbit with the battery.

I love Henry James.


Paris, France: Last week, I discovered that I cannot write something on the computer and copy that into the submit box to send to you, i.e. the test.

To put it shortly - As an anti-conformist, I was anticipating reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and frankly I thought it was a terrible story. ("Oh my Ford!") Too many things "wrong" with the story. In the end, I rather sided with the leader of the Brave New World, Mond.

I only finished it because it's supposed to be an important book. I wanted to burn it when I finished. (Uh, I assume that everyone knows THAT'S a literary reference!)

Michael Dirda: Your name is Montag, right? You're a fireman, and for you "It was a pleasure to burn."

Fahrenheit 451.

Sorry you didn't like BNW. The Huxley I love is the Huxley of that brilliant comic novel--his first novel--Crome Yellow. The Dalkey Archive reprint has an extremely fine introduction by a wonderful critic whose name temporarily escapes me.


Catholic fiction: Father Brown mysteries?

Michael Dirda: Well, Chesterton is a Catholic icon now. But I just liked the trickiness of the stories.


Michael Dirda: Well, folks--there are more questions, but my fingers have grown tired and my pen has gleaned my teeming brain (check that double reference out--a poet and a humorist). So until next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!


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