Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, June 4, 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, June 4.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck gettin' dirty and gritty . . . Yes, the hot days have arrived here in Washington. Our only hope is that a little rain might come this way--my agent in Ohio tells me that it's been thunderstorming there.

Much as I know you all enjoy my weekly rhapsodies, let's just plunge right into the questions.


New Lenox, Ill: Thanks to the conversation here the week before last, I decided to read "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett. Once I began the book, I eagerly anticipated each time that I returned to it, as I was completely caught up in the story. Oh, and how the tension built for me during those pivotal scenes where Spade is trying to convince the crooks that he's a criminal in with them (and save himself from his imminent demise). I kept wondering, "What's going to happen next?" I was on tenterhooks during that entire series of events. I read it in a Folio Society edition, which included a slipcase depicting a voluptuous redhead in a breathtakingly low-cut red dress holding a gun in her black-gloved hand. I then had the enjoyment of rereading your essay on Dashiell Hammett in "Classics for Pleasure."

Michael Dirda: Hoped you enjoyed the book--Classics for Pleasure, I mean. That you would enjoy The Maltese Falcon goes without saying. As for the Folio edition: I own it. In fact, I own the Falcon in several formats--a replica of the original printing (by Otto Penzler's Mysterious Books) and in a Knopf omnibus and a Library of America volume. If pressed, I could come up with reasons for having all of these.


Lenexa, Kan.: Perhaps due at least in part to the strutting ignorance and comparative illiteracy of the current occupant, the New York Times Book Review invited writers (Moore, Diaz, Turow, Kingsolver, Wideman, Pinker, Harrison, Wills, Irving, Foner, Prose, Packer, Schiff, Mallon, Heuvel, Pollan, Patterson, Sittenfeld, Pinsky, and Vidal) to recommend books for the 2008/2009 White House hopefuls. The responses addressed Clinton, McCain, Obama.

What books might you recommend? (I realize you don't have the reflection time the other writers were given, but then your dazzling quickness is part of your charm.) Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: Lenexa--you're such a flatterer. Looking at the list of contributors to this survey makes me feel sad. I remember when the people on it would have been Edmund Wilson, W.H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, et al. Why, I know half these people personally, and a couple are even friends of mine. Sigh. It's like the New Yorker--it's run by folks I used to work with at The Post. It's hard to view them as the equals of Thurber, Liebling, Flanner, et al. But enough of this.

What would I recommend for McCain? Probably The Tale of Genji, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire--that should take him at least four years of steady reading to get through. With luck, he might get caught up in the books and avoid getting us into more trouble.

As for Obama: I'd suggest reading a lot about the Middle East. He might start with the books of Robert Irwin.


Columbus, Ohio: Hi Michael. While reading the Harry Potter series, I frequently read in reviews and discussion references to the Hogwarts scenes of the books being a reflection of a British tradition of boarding-school novels and stories. Those parts of the Potter series were among my favorites, so I wondered if you had anything along those lines to recommend?

Michael Dirda: This is really an area for someone who grew up on those Enid Blyton books and such magazines as Magnet and The Boys Own Paper. Orwell has an essay on the latter that might give you a start. You could also try the early Wodehouse novel--many are set in boarding schools, eg. Mike at Wrykyn.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

Ok, I will press you. Why do you have the Maltese Falcon in so many editions? Are you a completist for any other book title?

Michael Dirda: No, I'm not a completist. I like having a replica of the true first, I bought the Folio on a whim, since I liked the look of the book in their catalogue (sent by a friend from this forum), I read the book once in a Knopf omnibus, I collect, when I see them, interesting vintage paperbacks (usually if they have provocative covers, but I do have lots of editions of John Dickson Carr titles), and the Library of America seemed worth keeping because it was supposedly authoritative. In truth, I don't need any of these books. The Maltese Falcon falls into that category of novel that is easy to find if you want to reread it. What one needs to keep are, say, the novels of W.M. Spackman, which can be hard to find, though they are pearls beyond price.


New Lenox, Ill: Re: Your book - Absolutely I enjoyed "Classics for Pleasure," which I have in a first edition.

Question: I'm trying to decide whether or not to buy a three-volume copy of "The Wealth of Nations" to read. What is your opinion of this book? Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Never read the whole thing, just parts of it in an economics class. Same is true of Smith's book on moral sentiments. But he strikes me as a very interesting mind, far more than just a standardbearer for conservative thought. I do think you would want an edition with lots annotation.


Chicago, Ill.: I'm curious if you've read "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis. I found it (not all of it, but select passages) tremendously funny and well written (fabulous satire) and I'm going to reread it one of these days - alternating chapters with another book about women and men and the relationships between them, Pride and Prejudice. It will be like eating alternate bites of chocolate and potato chips.

What types of books (or what specific books) do you like to read in this way?

Michael Dirda: I never alternate books. I read one book at a time, beginning to end. I think of novels as rather like poems, and I don't like to dilute their power or artistry by stopping and starting.


Sherlockian in Seattle.:"As for Obama: I'd suggest reading a lot about the Middle East. He might start with the books of Robert Irwin."

Wow -- The Arabian Nightmare is a great choice. I'd also suggest Conan Doyle's The Tragedy of The Korosko, as a bit of sorbet before hitting the hard non-fiction.

Michael Dirda: Thanks. Irwin is also the TLS's Middle East correspondent and the author of fine books on the Arabian Nights, Arabic literature, and Orientalism.


washingtonpost.com: Boys' Weeklies by George Orwell

Michael Dirda: Here, my friend and producer Elizabeth, has attached the Orwell essay for those interested in boarding school stories and the like.


Re David Dodge: Last week you asked how I was familiar with the travel writings of David Dodge. Answer is that my mother used to check them out of our (i.e., her, my and Dodge's) hometown public library in Berkeley, California, and she'd read some of the funniest parts aloud to me. Once I was old enough (teenager), I checked out and read Dodge's books in their entirety myself.

The David Dodge website (what author doesn't have one nowadays???) has a nice profile of him at:


Michael Dirda: Gee, is Dodge still alive? That seems unlikely, but you never know. If you've seen To Catch a Thief, which you have in all probability, you'll remember that the return of The Cat is covered in the Paris Herald Tribune. If you look at the author of the article, it's Art Buchwald, who only died last year.


Rockville, Md.: Michael, what do you imagine Gertrude Stein smelled like? How about Stendhal?

Michael Dirda: Is this a new parlor game? Somehow I imagine Gertrude smelling of stale cigarettes. But I'm not even sure she smoked. Stendhal smelled of cloves and honey.


Sherlockian in Seattle: I got a copy of Penguin Classics' "Dashing Diamond Dick and Other Classic Dime Novels" edited by J. Randolph Cox, who is the "go-to" guy on dime novels. It's fascinating to compare the Nick Carter story or the Edisonade about Frank Reade, Jr. from the 1890s to the type of fiction that Conan Doyle was doing in mystery and science fiction. Cheap disposable fiction.

Michael Dirda: I'll have to look for this. I have E.F. Bleiler's old oversized Dover Book titled Eight Dime Novels. An Edisonade, for those new to the term, is an adventure featuring some kind of tinker-toy invention. E.G. The Steam-Man of the Prairie. A Robinsonade is a novel about people marooned on a desert island, e.g. The Swiss Family Robinson, Verne's Mysterious Island.


Silver Spring, Md.: You don't need no stinkin' annotations for Adam Smith. He wrote clearly, and the concepts are accessible. Mark of a great thinker, dontcha know. Or at least some great thinkers (see Hegel for an exception).

I'd recommend calling St. John's in Annapolis and asking them which passages are on the reading list for seminar. If memory serves, they pruned the book down to what could be read in a single week but still supported lively discussion.

Michael Dirda: You talkin' to me, I don't see anyone else around. . . Just teasing.

Good advice. But I still like guidance when I'm entering tricky territory, and economics and philosophy counts as that for me.


Orlando, Florida: I saw in an earlier chat that you mentioned Don Quixote not being one of your favorites. I was wondering if you might expand upon this a little?

Michael Dirda: I've written a longish essay on the book for Book World and revised it for an edition of the New Orleans magazine The Double Dealer. I have no doubt that it's a great book, and I expect to read it again (I read it twice in the last six years). But I don't find it funny most of the time, indeed often cruel. There are lots of longueurs, too. I suspect that many people just know the idea of DQ--romances, windmills, Borgesian effects--and haven't actually engaged with the book. Still, I think I might like it more the next time I read it.


Spoilers: I was into "Our Mutual Friend," which the county library had in the Modern Library edition, when I flipped to the front to check out the identity of a name I'd gotten fuzzy on. Unfortunately the list of dramatis personae revealed who was masquerading as whom! Which effectually ruined the whole book for me, as it immediately became clear what the end would be. Isn't it a shame the editors couldn't have refrained?

Michael Dirda: Oh, I hate that sort of thing. I almost never read the dust jacket copy on books I'm reviewing because I find that it often tells far too much of the story, ruining plot twists and the like.


Follow-up re David Dodge: Sad to report, David Dodge died in 1974, less than a year after his beloved Elva. I assume his website is at least in part a labor of love by their daughter Kendal, who supplied the photos on the website. Oh, and you're right re Art Buchwald.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


washingtonpost.com: Such, Such Were The Joys by George Orwell

Michael Dirda: This essay, supplied by the wondrous Elizabeth, is Orwell's memoir of his school days. He was a classmate of the literary critic Cyril Connolly, whose memoir of Eton, "A Georgian Boyhood," can be found in Enemies of Promise.


Columbia Md.: I am re-reading a great deal of Shakespeare in connection with a Teaching Company course and I am wondering what books on Shakespeare you would recommend. I've already read the Schoenbaum (sp?) biography and a book about Shakespeare and English history in the year 1599 (can't think of the title or author but it was very good). Is there something else that would be helpful to the common reader? I'm also reading essays by Northrop Frye, Bloom and Hazlitt if that helps. thanks and I always enjoy these chats. Its amazing how much of my reading list/pile traces its origin to you, Mr. Dirda!

Michael Dirda: Let's see where to begin. First, I'd recommend reading the plays in good single-volume modern editions: the New Arden, the Oxford or the Cambridge. The introductory essays--e.g. by Frank Kermode for the Arden Tempest--are often exemplary works of summary and interpretation. Plus you get all that annotation I was talking about earlier.

Some books I've liked on Shakespeare include a truly down-to-earth underestimated two volumes by Harold Goddard; for a while it was available in Dover paperback. Maynard Mack's Speaking of Shakespeare and Mark van Doren's Shakespeare are graceful and wise essay by two graceful and wise scholars of an earlier time. If you want some fun, try Leslie Fiedler's The Stranger in Shakespeare.


Bronx, New York: Dear Michael,

I'm about halfway through The Brothers K. and I have to say I am pretty disappointed with it. I was expecting to be blown away as I was with Crime and Punishment. Maybe my expectations were too high? What I find troubling is: (1) there is so little description of the setting and characters which means it prevents me from getting lost in the world of the novel; (2) while I like novels of ideas, I find many of the ideas in this novel to be somewhat dated. His attack on the enlightenment is not that novel, though it's interesting to think about how he is challenging the current intellectual trends of his day; (3) I also find the constant internal deliberations of the characters too much to take. They almost seem kind of silly and adolescent, and hard to take seriously. I guess maybe they seem too dramatic; (5) lastly, I have to say I'm a bit put off by his views that suffering leads to eventual salvation in Jesus. Perhaps this is a result from my feeling that religious zeal seems to rearing itself in a rather ugly manner from the Bible-Belt, to the settlements in the territories, to Pakistan. It's not that I'm anti-religious. In fact, I picked up the book because it deals with the conflict between atheism and faith, and I thought it would be informative on this issue. But so far I find his views about faith in Christ to be incredibly unsophisticated. Do my complaints make sense? Perhaps I should be approaching the novel differently? If I'm frustrated with it, should I complete it? I hate stopping in the middle of a novel.

Thanks for your help.

Frustrated Reader

Michael Dirda: All your points are quite legitimate. But is the murder mystery aspect of the book keeping your attention? Perhaps that would help your reading. Also, you should at least skip ahead and read the most famous chapter, "The Grand Inquisitor," which is sometimes reprinted as a story on its own.

As Lenexa recently mentioned his fondness for the novel, perhaps he would like to answer some of your questions, either now or next week. How about it, L?


Sherlockian in Seattle:"I have E.F. Bleiler's old oversized Dover Book titled Eight Dime Novels."

That was an interesting collection. I got it from Seattle Public Library.

It's interesting to see how these strains of genre story-telling evolve and linger in other form down the line of descent: 19th century melodrama; pulp fiction; film adventure; comic books; original paperback mystery and science fiction; TV and modern blockbuster movies.

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed.


Hegel : Hegel is good for reminding your husband of the Master-Slave dialectic when he asks you to fix him a sandwich.

Michael Dirda: Hmm, I sense that the Zeitgeist in your household can get a bit tense.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

Once again I turn to you for guidance: is Sir Walter Scott worth reading? More specifically, should I read "Ivanhoe"?

Decades ago, I used to see "Ivanhoe" at the library all the time, but never got around to reading it, and I don't think I've read anything else by Scott either. In the interim, however, I've studied medieval German literature and even read and enjoyed "Iwein" in the original Middle High German, so I think I can say that I'm not afraid of a tough slog and I rather like all that "damsels in distress" stuff, but would reading "Ivanhoe" repay the effort? What do you think of Scott in general? Apparently Jane Austen liked "Waverley", so that's a point in his favour.

Thank you.

P.S.: I loved the Swinburne quotations in last week's chat; now THAT's poetry!

Michael Dirda: Swinburne is full of that decadent stuff. A good book is Karl Beckson's anthology of 1890s literature. The other great figure here is Ernest Dowson: "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion."

Don't read Ivanhoe; read Waverley or The Heart of Midlothian.

And I've read the Middle High German Iwein too. And the medieval French Yvain, as well, he said with obnoxious superciliousness.


Cleveland Park, D.C.: Hi Mr. Dirda,

I am looking to read a good RFK biography. Any recommendations?

Thank you. Your chats are a weekly highlight.

Michael Dirda: The only title that comes to mind is Schlesinger's Robert Kennedy and His Times.


Bethesda: Hi,

I missed last week's chat, but I noticed reading the transcript that you said you hadn't read any Lois McMaster Bujold because you thought she tended toward hard SF. I'm not a fan of hard SF, and she's one of my favorite authors. A good taste of her SF work, and of Miles, is the novella "The Mountains of Mourning," which won both the Hugo and the Nebula. It can be read online for free at the Baen Free Library. I still remember the "Wow!" reaction I had to that when it was first published in Analog, in particular to the seamless way the character, plot, and background braided into a unified story.

washingtonpost.com: The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen Books)

Michael Dirda: Thank you, Elizabeth. Jim Baen has a free library? I have to start using this Internet thingy I keep hearing about.

But, see, she published in Analog--that's what I mean. Analog is for hard sf; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is for the softer kind. Asimov's does both.


British Boarding schools: Boy: Tales of Childhood tells the hilarious and heartwrenching stories of Roald Dahl's time in a boarding school. It's not hard to figure out where he got his stories.

...and Going Solo is an excellent follow up autobiography.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I actually reviewed both those, when I was covering children's books once a month, and should have remembered them. Boy is especially good. Dahl can be controversial but he is always immensely readable. In my review of the first Potter book I speculated that Rowling had learned a lot from him.


Freising, Germany: The Kamasutra aside for a second here, I was wondering what it's like to write regularly and frequently to deadlines like yourself.

Yesterday, irritated by the activities of a long lost relative, I found it hard to concentrate, and today, informed of the death of an old family friend, someone I'd known my entire life, my thoughts drift all over the place, from childhood vacations to university jobs, where I'd been reminded of him. As far as writing concise, meaningful articles is concerned I'm not sure what'd be worse.

Do you ever notice and acknowledge how outside influences and moods affect your writing style and content?

Michael Dirda: I will tell you a secret, just between us: Everything I write about is part of a secret autobiography, but you need to be able to read between the lines, or have the key.

As for deadline writing: You can't be a journalist if you can't write whenever you need to. I've sat down when I was so depressed I couldn't get out of bed in the morning, or when I was so happy that I could hardly sit in my chair, but I know I can do the work. Indeed, it is often a solace and a refuge, one place where I can be in control completely. Also, I try to write at least one piece a week beyond my regular column for Book World--I need the money.


Lexington: Michael, Did you know that Robert Bloch of "Psycho" fame wrote a book about H. H. Holmes (serial murderer) and the Chicago World's Fair called "Dr. Holmes' Murder Castle"? It can be found in "The Lost Bloch" published a few years ago by Sub Press. The other two volumes reprint mostly comic tales in the vein of Thorne Smith. So, these three volumes are a treat.

Michael Dirda: Lexington, many thanks. I didn't know this at all. In truth, I've never read a lot of Bloch: That Hell-Bound Train and Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper are the ones that come to mind. But, of course, he is immortal not only for Psycho but for this remark or something close to it: "Of course, I have the heart of a little boy. I keep it in a bottle on my desk."


Lansdale, Pa.: Chicago brought up reading 2 books at once, alternating from one to the other and finishing about the same time. I have done this twice in my memory: biographies of near-contemporaries Elgar and A. C. Doyle and The Nibelungenlied and Gangs of New York (the book I really wanted to read was a re-telling of the German epic as a turn of the century gangster story, but such a book does not exist as far as I know).

Michael Dirda: Cool idea for the Nibelungenlied. Shameless self-advertisement follows: I wrote a long introduction to the recent Yale translation, by Burton Raffel, of Das N. I may even have made a point similar to your idea.


Monterey to New Lenox, Ill. via DOB: Hi, Michael --

I consider that Adam Smith was as much part of Enlightenment as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. WEALTH OF NATIONS is another attempt to figure out how mankind can deal harmoniously with a random universe. It has a bad rap as being a conservative document -- it is a political.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. You've made me want to go back and read more of it.


Washington, D.C.: Here's a rather broad question for you. As a former U.S. history major, I'm looking to broaden my knowledge and look at the history of other parts of the world, especially China, the Middle East, and Africa. I'd love to find some engaging prose about those areas.

On a whim, I picked up The Great Wall by Julia Lovell the other day and while I haven't delved into it yet, it looks promising.

Michael Dirda: Why not start with J.W. Robertson's big History of the World? Well written, compendious, and admired by professional historians of all stripes.

If you're interested in China, look for the work of Jonathan Spence. For Africa, Basil Davidson. For the Middle East, a number of people, including Robert Irwin. But Albert Hourani's A History of the Arabs is probably your starting point.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Spoilers: Introductions, casts of characters, prefaces can all be annoying, inasmuch as they often give away important plot points or twists. I've learned over the years to put blinkers on as far as these are concerned, and avoid them until I've read the book. Recently I read the NYRB edition of 'Rogue Male', and was glad I avoided the introduction, which gave away almost the entire plot point by point. That said, I hope the reader continued with 'Our Mutual Friend', which is my own favourite of Dickens's longer, later novels. Such a pity, though, that he didn't go with his own first instincts about one of the main characters, which would have made for a much bleaker and nastier (but more true to life) ending.

Speaking of Dickens, I understand the appeal of multiple editions of the same book: my own indulgence is "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", not because I think that I'll finally find an edition with Dickens's ending (although I live in hope), but because each edition contains different material: new illustrations, introductions, afterwords, speculations, and more.

I was a huge Enid Blyton fan when I was younger, and eagerly devoured her two series about boarding schools, the Mallory Towers and St. Clare's books. The world they depicted - of midnight feasts, lacrosse matches, charmingly incompetent French teachers, stern headmistresses, and intense friendships - made me long to flee the Canadian public school system and enroll in one of these wondrous schools (which are not, I suspect, anything like Blyton depicted).

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft. Writing introductions to novels is a tough business: To make critical points, you have to give detail or support, but such material can often reveal too much of the plot. I often find it a struggle, since I really try hard not to ruin things for the reader. It's certainly easier to write an afterword.


Windsor, Colorado: Re: Jack London

Is he relevant today? Rarely do I see him mentioned anymore and I do not recall anyone discussing him here. I read him as a teen in the early sixties and thoroughly enjoyed his books. Thank you, these discussions are terrific and I look forward to them every week.

Michael Dirda: A friend of mine just listened to The Call of the Wild on tape and was shocked at its cruelty, implicit racism, and general crudity. In general, I think some kids and schools still teach Call or White Fang, and every textbook of the American short story has "To Build a Fire." But for the most part London isn't much read. Yet he did write interesting novels--the totalitarian vision The Iron Heel and that book about astral projection, the title of which came up a few months back and which I've again forgotten.


Tulsa, Okla.: Mr. Dirda, First of all let me tell you how much I enjoy and appreciate your writings. They have opened up a lot of books and authors to me that I had never heard of or thought to read. Thank you.

Now I would like to ask if you would be kind enough to list at least the top 10 classics (fiction) that you believe everyone should have read before they die.

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: You know, if you read Book by Book, you'll find a list of 14 or so books that I think are "foundational," and some of these are clearly fiction.

Much as I enjoy lists--making and reading them--I also feel that people should explore as much as possible on their own. I may say that Tolstoy's War and Peace is an essential novel, but Turgenev's heartbreaking Torrents of Spring might speak to you more powerfully. Still, Don Quixote would be on anyone's list, so there's a start, in more ways than one.


Lenexa, Kan.: Your moving description of writing through it all reminded me of Updike saying on his "In-Depth" session on Book TV: "I find that even on the dreariest of day, one well written sentence will lead to the next."

washingtonpost.com: Updike on C-SPAN Book TV

Michael Dirda: Yessiree, me and Updike--I like that juxtaposition.

and thank you, Elizabeth.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Our Mutual Friend and ruining plot twists. Oh, that's a particular pet peeve of mine, which is why I never read introductions until after I've read the book. I learned that the hard way when I once read the intro to Anthony Trollope's "The Way We Live Now" and they gave away what happened to one of the main characters. In "Literary Taste: How to Form It" by Arnold Bennett he wrote that the customary "critical introduction" should be put at the end, not the beginning, of the book, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. Ah, Bennett's Literary Taste--I read that a couple of times in my younger days. I still plan to write a piece on Bennett un de ces quatre jours, as they say in France.


Annapolis, Md.: The St. John's reading list can be found here.

On RFK biographies, consider the recent one by Evan Thomas; I found it lively and helpful without being hagiographic or hagiophobic. Jeff Shesol wrote a book about RFK and LBJ that is said to be quite good, but I haven't read it.

Michael Dirda: Good advice, thank you.


Aiea, Hawaii: Aloha --

If you are going to be on Oahu from June 27th to July 6th, I'd like to invite you to the 61st Annual Friends of the Library Booksale at McKinley HS, Honolulu. For more information see friendsofthelibraryofhawaii.org. -- Mahalo

Michael Dirda: Sounds like an offer that's hard to refuse.


Baltimore, Md.: Michael: I missed last week's chat but saw the post regarding William Burroughs and the "cut up" method of composition. There was a period in the 1960s, after publication of Naked Lunch, when Burroughs would write, then cut up the work and put sentences together at random, often with very interesting results. He used this technique in creating The Soft Machine and the aptly named The Ticket That Exploded. This was partly influenced, as the poster noted, by Burroughs' friend the artist Brion Gysin, but it also derived from earlier experiments Burroughs did fooling around with a tape recorder and splicing results.

In any event, Burroughs moved on from cut ups and by the time he created his final trilogy of The Place of Dead Roads, Cities of the Red Night (cited by last week's poster) and The Western Lands, he had returned to conventional narrative, albeit telling very unconventional stories.

There's no doubt in my mind that if people want to read Burroughs, they are best starting off with Junky, his first, unsparingly realistic book, and then reading Naked Lunch which, if you have the mind for it, is one of the funniest books ever written.

But I think to really appreciate Burroughs you have to hear him read--many recordings are available. I count myself privileged to have seen him at Georgetown in the mid 70s. Thin,long-faced, dapper in a three piece suit and fedora, Burroughs read his most outrageous "routines" in the dry, nasal voice of a Midwestern fundamentalist preacher and caused Gaston Hall to rock with laughter and cheers.

In the long run, Burroughs, like his good friend Jack Kerouac, may be more important as a cultural avatar than as a novelist. Not for nothing was he regarded, by its performers, as the grandfather of punk rock.

Michael Dirda: What a beautiful summation of Burroughs' career. Thank you.


All roads: Good afternoon. Enjoy the chats for the varied material that subsequently ends up on my reading list. I'm having nihilism issues with respect to the future lately, and this has sent me off on a Roman kick, as, well, I don't know that I really need to finish the thought. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is on my desk, as are some miscellaneous works of fiction, but I had a question regarding two cornerstones to my current obsession. What's the "best" translation (with respect to readability) of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations? If you're feeling particularly beneficent, I'd like to pose the same question, though with an eye towards Livy...

Michael Dirda: For Aurelius: I like The Emperor's Handbook by Scot and David Hicks--clear, fresh modern English, in a beautifully made volume.

Livy is so long that I've never read but piece of his work, and that in the Penguin translations, which are in multiple volumes.


Palookaville: Hello, Michael. I am now reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives and I am enjoying it after about 100 pages. Weirdly enough, though, the author whose style and narrative approach it reminds me of the most is neither avant-gardist nor Latin American. Instead, the whole set-up and the character of the narrator remind me totally of Daniel Pinkwater, in particular the Snarkout Boys books and Alan Mendelson, the Boy from Mars.

Michael Dirda: Gee, I'm a big Pinkwater fan--even reviewed the books you mention--and I can see what you're driving at. You are clearly a reader of extensive and refined taste.


Rockville, Md.: I just finished Iain M. Bank's Matter, I found it quite enjoyable even though the plot did meander. Have you read the book or any of Bank's other science fiction novels? What is your opinion of them if you have?

Michael Dirda: I own his first book, The Wasp Factory, written as Iain Banks, but haven't read it, I'm ashamed to say. Banks was writing so much for a while that it was hard to follow his work, both as Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. Frankly, I came to feel that he'd grown too prolific and never quite measured up to the promise of that first book. Which, of course, I've never read and only know about from friends.


Richmond: Spoilers is why I don't read my local book reviews any more. These young writers today (sorta kidding) think a plot synopsis satisfies as a review. No -- a good review can give the tone without giving away plot points. Our local reviews read like middle school book reports: a nice synopsis of what happens. Thank you for your good reviews!

Michael Dirda: Ah, reviewing--I'm sorry to hear this about the pieces in the Richmond paper. It makes me sad. Reviewing has never paid well--often the book was the only remuneration--but things are growing grimmer. For someone like me, who only writes about books and cultural subjects, it can be downright worrisome.

But enough of that and enough of this week's questions and answers. It's about to thunderstorm here, as I predicted it might. So till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!


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