Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, April 30, 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 30.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! The weather is coolish here in Washington, but I've just returned from the gym, where I ran for 20 minutes and did resistance training for 30 or 40 minutes. I'll show those kids on the beach this year--no more kicking sand in the face of this bookworm!

And I'm also doing yoga once a week. And thinking of taking up meditation. We seem to be having the return of the repressed '60s Dirda here.

It's been a busy time this past week, with a strange quality of limbo to it. I suppose it's because I'm trying to finish up lots of projects before the summer holidays.

But enough of this idle chit chat. Let's get to the serious questions, those dealing with the Big Issues from metaphysics to pataphysics.


Lenexa, Kan.: I read in the TLS that Robert Fagles died recently at age 74. As they frequently do, the TLS in their tribute included excerpts of a review (this one done in 1997 for Fagles' "Odyssey"). I didn't use Fagles' translation of the "Odyssey" in a recent unabridged listening, but did use his for the "Iliad" and the "Aeneid." The review seemed mixed. I think you initially recommended him more than you seem to be doing recently. Do you have an opinion if his translations are among the best? Thanks as always.

washingtonpost.com: Fagles obituary (The Times of London, April 12)

Michael Dirda: Homer translations have actually been on my mind recently, having written a long introduction to a forthcoming reissue of Samuel Butler's classic prose versions from the late 19th century. Butler, you may recall, was the guy who argued that the Odyssey was written by a young woman. Robert Graves picked up on this idea for his novel Homer's Daughter.

As for modern translations of Homer: Richmond Lattimore's Iliad still seems to be the scholar's choice, at least among those versions in verse. Some people also like his Odyssey but this is a less definite choice. It's generally felt that Robert Fitzgerald's Odyssey is the one to read, though some complain he's a bit too lyrical and smooth. Fagles seems to fall between the two, though his versions have been heavily promoted by Viking and Penguin, and they come with superlative introductions by Bernard Knox (a friend of mine). I met Fagles once, down in New Orleans, where I"d invited a number of scholars to come talk about the classics and contemporary literature. Camille Paglia was there and Michael Wood and Edmund Keeley and Stanley Lombardo, who is also a very respected Homer translator--and a great performer of his works. I liked Fagles a lot and he kindly inscribed my copy of the Odyssey.

Of course, in England they seem to have a penchant for prose versions of Homer--Butler, T.E. Lawrence, Martin Hammond, others.

My general view is that you can't really go wrong with Lattimore, Fitzgerald or Fagles--try a few pages of each and see which you like best.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

I enjoyed your piece about Peter Matthiessen in the May 15th NY Review of Books. Where else should I be looking for Dirda writings?

washingtonpost.com: An Epic of the Everglades (NYRB, May 15)

Michael Dirda: Well, gee. If you read yesterday's Barnes and Noble Review (online) you could have caught a piece about Stendhal's Life of Henry Brulard and On Love. I also occasionally write for The Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review (most recently about the Associated Writing Programs conference in New York) and The American Scholar (on John Crowley's Aegypt sequence). In truth, I write for almost anyone who asks me if there's enough incentive--either a really interesting project or some interesting money, or both. I need to keep the wolf from the door. But I've also been writing lots of introductions and things of that sort, for various places. I mentioned Homer, but I've also done an introduction to The Real Life of Sebastian Knight for New Directions, and have similar pieces upcoming on Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets and Stendhal's Memoirs of an Egotist. You have to remember I live by my pen, and if I don't have a current book underway or a teaching job someplace, I have to hustle quite a bit to keep ahead of the curve. And the tax man.

I was recently talking to my friend John Clute, one of the best read and smartest literary people I know, and he commented on the decline of bookish culture and the possible ways of making a living for people like us. It's just getting harder and harder because there are fewer markets. I'd just like to stay in the game for another decade or so.


Fredericksburg, Tex.: Any tips on getting the maximum enjoyment and understanding from Wallace Stevens's poetry?

Michael Dirda: Just read it. Don't worry about the meaning. Listen to the music of those heavenly labials in a world of gutturals. Laugh at the titles: The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade. There are lots of books about Stevens, but I've never read any except his own: the Letters and The Necessary Angel. I treasure my collected poems.


washingtonpost.com: Dirda on Stendhal (Barnes and Noble Review)


Rochester, N.Y.: It's that time of year again, where I bid goodbye to graduating students and I find myself at a loss for books to offer as graduation gifts. I lean towards memoirs, I just gave a copy of John Glassco's "Memoir of Montparnasse" to a student. Do you have any suggestions for good memoirs to give to graduating undergraduates? Many thanks.

Michael Dirda: Good memoirs. Hmmmmm. I should be modest after that previous post, but there's always An Open Book.

Setting that aside, I'm assuming your students are English majors. I like two memoirs by eminent critics: Frank Kermode's Not Entitled and Denis Donoghue's Warrenpoint. If you want classics, I'd go for Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Stendhal's Life of Henry Brulard, Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City and Starting Out in the Thirties, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Knox Brothers (about her father and uncles), and gosh any number of others.


Alexandria, Va.: In another Post chat, it was mentioned that the best afterparty of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner was at Christopher Hitchens' house. Being the bon vivant you are, which of today's writers would you most like to share a cognac and a cigar with?

Michael Dirda: I'm not exactly a bon viveur, and though I've known Christopher Hitchens for years have never been to his house. In my view the best afterdinner company consists of used book dealers. This is a raffish set to begin with, and the stories about books and deals and betrayals are quite wonderful.

But if you pressed me for writers, I could only name people I admire and know a little: James Salter, Steven Millhauser, Donald Westlake, John Crowley, et al.


Homer translations: Just stay away from the Rouse prose translation of the Iliad. I read that one for college (the summer before my freshman year, actually) and it was awful. I couldn't understand why everyone was raving about this book. Then I got a copy of the Fitzgerald translation and saw the light.

(And I can still recite the first seven lines of The Iliad in Ancient Greek -- the remnants of my classical education.)

Michael Dirda: Yes, but. Interestingly, Ezra Pound advised Rouse on that translation, though Rouse didn't take all his counsel. I have seen the version defended. There's also the Rieu translation which is very modernized.


Washington, D.C.: Re Wallace Stevens:

"Let be be finale of seem,

The only emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream."

I have never really understood that. And I don't care, because it's marvelous.

Michael Dirda: Yes, And many's the time I've murmured on a Sunday morning: Complacencies of the peignoir and late coffee and oranges . . .


State College, Pa.: I love fiction that tackles math and science, like The Name of the Rose and other such books. One series that has been recommended is Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and System of the World). According to Amazon.com, this series is an "explosive scientific battle of preeminence between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz over the development of calculus."

Have you read these books? They sound like just the thing to get me through the summer.

Many thanks for the chats. I always learn something, especially from Lenexa, Kan. who sounds most erudite.

Michael Dirda: Lenexa, erudite! Now we'll never hear the end of it.

Yes, I'd give the Stephenson a try. I haven't read the sequence, but I'm confident that it's good.


Strafford, Pa: Michael, I'm about to depart for a three week trip overseas, and I'm torn on the books to take. I'm thinking of really getting started on the Everyman edition of Casanova's History of my Life. What do you think? Too heavy (literally) and long, or should I wait for a longer stretch of time and just take the usual mysteries and short stories?


Michael Dirda: Well, as we were speaking of the NYRB I did write a piece about Casanova for them--and I think the memoirs are just wonderful beyond words. I'd almost suggest the whole thing, but this abridgement gives you about a third and so you're in for a treat. You might have some explaining to do if you sit next to a clergyman or old lady on the plane. . .


Evansville, Ind.: Bit of a business question here: I just bought for my 8-year-old "The Mysterious Benedict Society," by Trenton Lee Stewart, since it seemed to have the Roald Dahl qualities he likes. The paperback is more than 450 pages and cost $6.99, which is less than half of what an adult trade paperback costs. Why is that?

Michael Dirda: I really don't know the answer to that, though I've noticed that kids books are cheaper than grown-up equivalents in size. Perhaps because they don't have advertising budgets or have guaranteed sales to schools, so they can keep the price down? I should ask my friend Anne Hoppe, a children's editor at HarperCollins.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

Last week I enquired about deconstructionism. Please bear with me while I follow up on some of the responses (and then I promise I'll leave it alone!).

Someone who posted as "Deconstruction" and who is a bit (or more) of a historian pointed out that "the social context to literature provides an interesting glimpse into perspectives of a particular past". I agree with that, and indeed it's one of the reasons I read, but it doesn't sound very different from deconstructionism as you described it. Does this mean that deconstructionism isn't some radical new thing, but just a new name for a fairly traditional approach? I've encountered professors who refuse to discuss the context, saying that "we're only concerned with the text". If you ask them whether A knew about B when he wrote X, they treat you as some kind of bourgeois nincompoop. (It's not a problem; my ego can withstand heavier artillery than that.)

Maitland, Fla. wrote about a prof who "says that the order of the words in the text is irrelevant" (surely that's just fatuous nonsense) and who calls that deconstructionism, so you can see why I've been confused. Do I have your permission to reorder the words of your collected chats and publish the result as "A Comprehensive Analysis and Review of World Literature"?

By the way, when you mentioned lesbianism in Mansfield Park, I thought perhaps it was an example of your sly humour, but a google search revealed not only that there are people who see that in the book, but that some people see incest in it! I read Mansfield Park a long time ago (and am not really that keen on rereading it), but I can't help thinking that Jane would be appalled.

Michael Dirda: I think you need to research this with people who know more than I do. Either that or you can find a "deconstruction for dummies" book out there.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Request from Annapolis, Md.: I haven't read The Bible, but I want to; I shall have to steal Monsieur Dirda's answer because it is applicable to me, and respond, I haven't read most books on the best seller lists, and I don't want to.

I read "Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind" by Robert D. Richardson Jr., which is a critical biography that I thought was worthwhile. Richardson wrote, "There is already in the midst of an increasingly busy life an unembarrassed interest in preserving some solitude for himself... Thoreau speaks continually - and longingly - of the desirability of a quiet life." It was nice to know that I am not the only one who relishes some solitude, and quiet.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


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

Many thanks for your review of the new Conrad biography; I've been waiting for (a good) one for years!

I'm ashamed to have to report that I gave up listening to Gilead. The reader, Tim Jerome, was marvelous but I felt rudderless listening to it. Sigh. I'm now nearly finished with A Room with a View, my first encounter with Forster.

A quiet marvel, on several levels.

On the print front, I'm zipping through My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead. It's fun to read a book like this once in a while, in that it's gratifying that others revere the same writers (even stories!) you do and also to be introduced to new ones.

washingtonpost.com: Review of "The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad" (Washington Post Book World, April 27)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Sorry that Gilead didn't work on tape. I've recently received copies of my memoir An Open Book, read by Jonathan Hogan for Recorded Books. I'm sure it will be terrific, but it'll take me a while to build up the nerve to actually listen.


Book Group Member: Michael,

Are you familiar with an author named Alfred Chester? Our book group is considering his novel THE EXQUISITE CORPSE for a future selection. Don't know anything about him. Do you?


Michael Dirda: Yes, he was a rather strange man--homosexual, bald as an egg, suffered from some strange disease, well known in New York in the late '50s and 60s. I've always meant to read The Exquisite Corpse-a title taken from one of the surrealists if I"m not mistaken--but haven't. That said, in one of Cynthia Ozick's collections of essays--the ones with the alliterative titles like Metaphor and Memory--she has an affectionate essay/reminiscence of Chester. That's a good place to learn more.


Anonymous: Greencastle, Pa.: Stephen King's book "On Writing," and Norman Mailer (according to his mistress Carole Mallory in Thursday 4/24's AP release printed in the WP) advise against using adverbs in fiction. Why is that?

washingtonpost.com:"Mallory still recalls the principles Mailer emphasized, such as: keep the dialogue punchy; stay away from adverbs; don't lecture the reader." -- Mailer's Longtime Mistress Sells Papers to Harvard (Associated Press)

Michael Dirda: I didn't know that a woman could still be called a "long-time mistress" in this day and age.

If you pick strong verbs, you don't need adverbs.


Yarmouth, Maine: I know this is outside your usual purview but was wondering if you had any opinions about publishers of technical manuals. There are some, such as the "For Dummies" series that I've learned to avoid. Do you know of a publisher of manuals that can generally be relied upon to produce something worth purchasing?

Michael Dirda: I always thought those dummies and idiot's guides were reasonably ok. Guess not.

What I do is browse around the appropriate section of the bookstore and just look at the books. You can usually tell when something works or not. Also you can read the bibliographies, which can sometimes lead you to the classics of the field. Best, I suppose, is to talk to somebody who knows the subject and can recommend a title or series.


Baltimore Md.: Re Shel Silverstein: I read the transcript of last week's discussion in which Shel Silverstein was mentioned as a children's poet. He was an amazingly prolific guy in so many ways -- a cartoonist for Playboy, a playwright, novelist and, well before he became known for kids books, a highly successful songwriter. Silverstein was close friends with the Chicago-based folksinger Bob Gibson, who in the early 60s thought his friend might have a talent with words and music. He was right.

Among Silverstein's songs were "A Boy Named Sue" (for Johnny Cash), "One's On The Way," (for Loretta Lynn), "Queen of the Silver Dollar" (recorded by many artists, including Emmylou Harris) and dozens more, including virtually everything recorded by that oddball 70s band, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Silverstein is even in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

It's almost a crime for one man to have been so talented (And so successful, too.)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the Silverstein update. Next you'll tell me he was incredibly attractive to women and his children always listened to his advice.


Freising, Germany: My father, a semi-professional accordion player in his youth, believed that all modern music, especially from the Beatles, was essentially taken from the classics. I'm not sure how he arrived at this conclusion, since he never listened to classical music at home.

Nevertheless, I was reminded of dear old Dad while reading an article in the New York Times about an author, Louise Erdrich, using several characters to narrate alternating chapters, and that this technique was pioneered by Faulkner. I began to wonder what the milestones of literary techniques have been?

I remember a professor talking once about Jorge Luis Borges and his experiments with stories without plots.

On the spur of the moment, what milestones of literary technique come to mind?: Shakespeare for one, don't you think?

Michael Dirda: Oh, the heck with literary techniques, let's talk about the accordion. You do know that I played the accordion for years in my early youth, and won blue ribbons and trophies and was part of a 36 member accordion band? Well, now you do.

Literary technique--I think you should look for a copy of Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction--he'll give you a good overview of technique. But the truth of the matter is this: If you read three books you'll learn everything you need to know about the techniques of fiction: Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy and Madame Bovary.


Lexington: Michael, Just had to pass this on from a recent interview with Terry Pratchett on the genre wars:

"I think SF will end up getting subsumed into mainstream fiction. Mainstream steals more and more from it, without a shadow of a doubt, while at the same time screaming from the top of its voice that it's not science fiction. It's astonishing what convoluted logic they will apply. Here is something that would definitely be SF if an SF writer wrote it, but because a literary writer wrote it, it can't be SF.

"Now fantasy - that's the horse turd in the bucket of wine! If you have one bucket of horse turds and one bucket of wine, put one horse turd in the bucket of wine and now you have two buckets of horse turds. But if you pour some of the wine into the bucket of horse turds, it's still a bucket of horse turds. Any recognizable fantasy element introduced into an otherwise innocent novel turns that novel into a fantasy. Isn't it interesting, how it's so one-way?"

Pratchett is a horse of another color, isn't he? He's inimitable!

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. What a mind! Pure wine.


Paris, France: Greetings from cool, rainy, windy Paris but soon to be returning back to the States. -sniff, sniff- I'll miss the artistic atmosphere and being able to read my writings in front of an appreciative crowd. But as Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, "I'll be bahck."

I finished reading a wonderful book called The Measure of All Things by Ken Adler. It's about the seven year French project that determined the length of the meter that was started around the time of the French Revolution. It's a great story with a very nice twist in the end.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Sounds like a fun book. You'll always have Paris.


Dying Earth ...: In the past you have recommended Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith and Gene Wolfe. It seems to me that they share a dark aesthetic. Can you recommend other writers who write in a similar mode?

Michael Dirda: Dark esthetic--yes, I guess. But basically they are superb prose stylists, in their differing ways. If you like fantasy with a dark esthetic, you should try Elizabeth Hand. You might also consider the sf writers James Tiptree Jr and Cordwainer Smith. Stylists, but dark too.


A graduation gift don't: I once gave a goth high school grad Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil". She turned out to be a bad egg, and I always fear it was because of his poetry.

Michael Dirda: Flowers of Evil to a goth girl--seems about right to me. Perhaps Kathy Acker would have been more to her taste, or maybe Jeanette Winterson.

Baudelaire is, all things considered, my favorite modern poet.


washingtonpost.com:"Exquisite corpse" was what the Surrealists called that game where someone writes a sentence or phrase, then folds the paper to hide what's written, and passes it around, and as each person adds a line in the same way you get something nonsensical and poetic. The technique got its name from results obtained in initial playing, "Le cadavre/exquis/boira/le vin/nouveau" (The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine). Other examples are: "The dormitory of friable little girls puts the odious box right" and "The Senegal oyster will eat the tricolor bread."-- See exquisitecorpse.com- Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Elizabeth. See, folks, I've got backup.


Tolstoy Was Wrong: I just read a novel about a family that is both happy and interesting: My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman. One of the many things I liked about this novel was that the family was interesting without being overly eccentric, which is the way many novelists try to pump up the interest in their novels.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Richmond, Va.: Just finished my first contemporary mystery by Richard Hawke. Found him to be a very strong and engaging writer, comparable to Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane.

Michael Dirda: Thanks to the pointer. I don't know his work.


New Orleans, La.: Just finished Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and enjoyed it immensely. I also liked the movie, though it didn't capture as well the main character's inner turmoil as did the author's narrative. I'm now reading Richardson's "intellectual biography" of Thoreau, which is well-written. Thoreau would probably considered a slacker today, but he seemed not to be egotistic nor to care what others thought about his idiosyncrasies.

Michael Dirda: Robert Richardson is a terrific biographer, and I highly recommend that you go on to his Emerson and William James. The Emerson, in particular, is a marvel. I think Harold Bloom is right to see him as the central figure in the American imagination. Plus he's funny: "The more he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."


More on deconstruction (resources): For "curious about deconstruction" -- I (think) I'm the historian from last week.

On one hand, I think that historians looking at literature and art within their social context isn't necessarily a new thing, I do think the method in which they are being used is changing the way the past is perceived and understood. To some extent I think it's the level of analysis and what sort of 'meaning' and 'truth' you are trying to get at that has changed. (Insert here a vague conversation about the nature and definition of post modernism that still drives me batty).

That being said, I do think that sometimes it is nice to just read and analyze a book without the added information, it does not follow that you can't do both....

As for the answer -- the best place to go to ask about this sort of thing is to head over to your local university and find someone in an English or History department or even, an American Civilization department who might be amenable to giving you an answer.

Hopefully this helps. I would offer to talk about this more (off the chat?) but I have no idea how to give you my email without getting it posted...

Michael Dirda: Nor do I. Many thanks.


sad state of affairs: I'm terribly sorry to hear that it's harder and harder for people like you to make a living ... I was hoping it wasn't so. I always tell young people who want to learn about writing, about analysis, about critical thinking, to read book reviews or any piece by a reviewer. There's no better way of seeing the "what is this trying to say? and does it succeed?" than a good piece of criticism. And it's not as exhausting as political analysis...

Michael Dirda: Oh, it's not as exhausting as political analysis--hmmmm. Personally, I long to be a political columnist because you can just say anything at all and get away with it.

Just teasing. I've been a bricklayer's helper--now that's a hard job.


Fredericksburg, Tex.: Which additional authors might be a good fit for someone who likes: Auden, Celan, Frost, Stevens and Bellow, Camus, Chekhov, Hemingway?

Michael Dirda: Let's see: C.P. Cavafy, Lampedusa, Graham Greene, Penelope Fitzgerald, Marilynne Robinson. Isaac Singer, V.S. Pritchett William Trevor (stories).


Chapel Hill, N.C.: Speaking of accordions: how about Annie Proulx's Accordion Dreams. A hilariously gruesome book, but a really fun read.

Michael Dirda: I loved it, too. Reviewed it and later spent a day with Annie going to used bookstores. So my copy is lavishly inscribed. You do put your finger on the book's only real flaw--all the episodes end sadly. One tires of the relentless bleakness. But the writing is phenomenal


Alexandria, Va.: Michael, I've noticed that a lot of mass-market paperbacks are now "taller." The type is still the same size, but there is more space between the lines, making for somewhat uncomfortable reading. Holding a paperback of the new dimensions is very uncomfortable. One bookstore manager I know complained that she can't fit them as easily on the shelves. Plus they waste more trees. I read one and will personally not buy any more. The traditional paperback was perfect - easy to hold and easy to read. What are the publishers thinking?

Michael Dirda: Actually, paperbacks have long been of varying sizes, even the rack-sized, mass markets. In my youth Signet and Mentor books were a bit taller than Dell books. Pocket Books were squarer than Crest books. etc etc. Trade paperbacks vary too. Personally, I like books to come in a variety of shapes and sizes. But then I'm happy to see that New Directions has just reissued B.S. Johnson's novel The Unfortunates--I think that's the right title--in which all the pages are loose in a box and the reader can shuffle them into any order he or she pleases.


RE: part of a 36 member accordion band?: Is this for real, Michael? That is a lot of accordion players. I didn't know there were that many in the entire country!

Michael Dirda: Yes, it's true. And we even competed--and won--in competition against other accordion bands. I remember one gargantuan contest held at Cedar Point amusement park, near Toledo.

The accordion plays, so to speak, an important role in my life (see An Open Book). The memory of the night I played in a church hall and flubbed my razzle dazzle solo, with my mother in the audience, has saved me from nervous anxiety at any public performance since. Nothing can ever be as bad as that night.


Paris: I found intriguing the poster about deconstructivism who concluded that he or she was only interested in History. Also your approach to decontructivism, unless I am mistaken, claiming as you do that it says that a work is about what it doesn't say. Philip Roth often has it said by Zuckerman that his fictional characters have insulted Jewish readers. Isn't his work saying that a Roth novel is NOT only for Jewish readers? The works of John Updike are about WASP lifestyle dilemmas. Does that say that this literature is historical or not historical ? Your lack of interest in inclusive literary theories goes well together with your taste for British literature. On the other, I wonder what you as a French speaker will make of the recent French language novel by the American Jonathan Littell called Les Bienveillants?

Michael Dirda: I've heard of the Littell novel, but not seen it. Is he, I wonder, any relation to the wonderful thriller writer Robert Littell? I think RL lived in France for a while, may still do so.

When I lived in France I read Lucien Goldmann, Derrida, Foucault, Lukacs and many other then fashionable critics. I don't remember much, I'm afraid. It was one reason I left academia. I didn't want to read about books, I wanted to read books. That said, I do know you must have some kind of theory or ideology in order to get anything from a text. But I like Eliot's advice "Be very intelligent" coupled with Henry James's "Be one on whom nothing is lost."


Washington, D.C.: Hi Michael. I know this book is old news, but I read it only recently: Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." While reading it, I thought it was the most depressing book I'd ever picked up. My wife would ask for updates on the book, and every night I'd tell her: "Uh, the father and son are still on the verge of death, scrounging for abandoned canned goods and trying to evade cannibals." She wondered why I kept reading it. So did I. But something (including, of course, the quality of the writing) kept me going. Since finishing it a few weeks ago, I simply have not been able to get it out of my mind. I never would have imagined that a book that has no plot and only two real characters could stick with me like this. The memory of the book refuses to leave me; I'm about ready to start calling it a classic. The last paragraph, in particular, stuck out as odd at first but now seems absolutely essential to understanding the book and a key reason for its lasting impact on me.

What did you think of it?

Michael Dirda: I've not read it yet. I even bought a copy, because I admire so much of McCarthy's work. But I just haven't had a chance-and downer books do need to be prepped for psychologically. But, like you, I do love his prose and ear for sentence rhythms.

I have said more than once that I thought Blood Meridian likely to last as a classic.


Michael Dirda: Well, folks, that brings us to the end of another session of Dirda on Books! Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading! Y'all come back now, ya hear!


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