Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, June 11, 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 11.

A transcript follows.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

My sister and I try to do a few "joint reads" every year. The latest one was "Things Fall Apart," which we decided on well before your 60th anniversary review of it. We carefully avoided reading your review until later (although, as it turned out and as I would have expected, you weren't guilty of any "spoilers"), but the back covers of our almost identical Heinemann "African Writers Series" editions gave a lot away. Sometimes you can hardly look at a book without having it ruined for you.

For our next joint read, we are considering "The Great Gatsby." She has never read it, while I read it decades ago but, if I remember correctly, didn't understand it. (Perhaps I was too young, but it seems to me that every undergrad English major reads it and loves it.) Is it one of those books whose appeal lies only in the language, as opposed to plot and characterization? Or, as my sister puts it, if you didn't like "Madame Bovary," are you likely to enjoy "The Great Gatsby"?

Thank you.

P.S.: I enjoyed your "Things Fall Apart" review. Usually you review new books, which I am far less likely to read, so this was the first time I read one of your reviews in conjunction with the book. The information you provided in the review answered a number of my questions about the book and the author. Speaking of reviewing old books, if Jonathan Yardley ever hangs up his skates (this may be a Canadianism), would you consider taking over his "Second Readings" series, which I love?

washingtonpost.com: Dirda on Achebe (Washington Post Book World, March 16)

Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's been infernally hot the past several days, though a little less so today. I've also been working really hard and have just finished the last of a number of writing projects that were due about now. So I get a week or so of respite before moving on to the next one.
I should alert everyone here that I will not be reviewing this summer, but will be back in Book World at the end of August. But I will continue to do the weekly chat. How can I not, given all the compliments from you wunnerful, wunnerful people (to borrow Lawrence Welk's favorite description of the Lennon Sisters singing). Really, I do enjoy the chats, and I hope it shows. So keep those questions coming all summer.
Re: Achebe. Yes, I do try to avoid spoilers in my reviews. As for The Great Gatsby--it's a great book and you and your sister will enjoy it. Bovary is a little harder to enjoy, though I found it mesmerizing. In the case of Fitzgerald, everything comes together: language, characterization, theme.
As for Jon's Second Readings: I suppose he will eventually stop doing them, but I'm not sure I'm the one to take them over. Over the years I've written lots of essays about older books and old favorites, and many of them can be found in my various collections of essays. Not that there aren't others I'd like to write about. Well, we'll see, but for now I think you should just look forward to enjoying Jon's pieces for a good while yet.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

I'm reading D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. I understand that his reputation varies from pornographer to greatest English novelist. Does anyone read D.H. Lawrence anymore? What's your opinion of the man?

Michael Dirda: In fact, I don't think anyone reads Lawrence any more. Not the novels, anyway. The pornography label really only applies to Lady Chatterley, one of is weaker books. I do think he survives as a short-story writer--everyone reads "The Rocking Horse Winner," sooner or later. But I very much admire Lawrence's nonfiction--his travel essays, in particular. There's also one relatively obscure text of his that I love: Memoirs of Maurice Magnus. It's a 90 page profile of Norman Douglas, MM, and Lawrence, all set in Mediterranean sunlight, and it's just wonderful. So too are the essays in Studies in American Literature. Of course, Lawrence was a great liberator, in talking about female sexuality, lesbianism (The Fox), and much else. And he did have a way with words: "Comes over one a sudden desire to move." Or however that opening to, is it Sea and Sardinia, begins.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Mr. Dirda,

So, let's chat about strategic product placement marketing in books, shall we?

(See New York Times article: Product Placement Deals Make Leap From Film to Books). Do you suspect 'tis but a matter of time when writers -- already financially bleeding from the slings and arrows of reduced readership -- wade glassy-eyed into the Faustian miasma? The message is, alas, the medium.

To wit:

"He was an old man who had fished alone in the Gulf Stream in a Carolina J-16 pre-rigged skiff with a 25 horse-powered 2-stroke Yamaha motor, and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

or, peut-etre,

"For a long time I used to get into my Sleep Number 300 bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, an unexpected gift from Madame Rigaud's boutique on the Champs Elysees that emanated a sweet melange of sunflower, black currant, and passion fruit, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say 'I'm going to sleep.'"

or... unbranded truth:

"Winston finally realized: Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

washingtonpost.com: Product Placement Deals Make Leap From Film to Books (NY Times, June 12, 2006)

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. You're getting there. But that fish--Shouldn't it be a Sun-Kist Giant Tuna, Ready for chunking? And that end of Orwell: "He loved Big Brother--especially in the midnight blue Ralph Lauren Black Label cashmere suit he had taken to wearing during the Three-Minute Hate. He looked just scrumptious. No wonder all the girls were just mad about him, including Julia. Who could blame her?" That's obviously a superior ending.


Lexington: Michael, It seems many of us that read and contribute to your book chat are readers of YA or 'children's lit'. I think we have J.K. Rowling, at least, in part, to thank for making children's lit respectable for adults-though, curiously, in the UK the publisher made Harry Potter available in both children's and adult covers! In the UK publishers are considering 'branding' books as for certain age groups ( covers would say 7+, 9+, 12+ and so forth ), with writers such as Philip Pullman objecting. Also, in case you missed it, J. K. Rowling was the commencement speaker at Harvard recently and encountered some resistance from some graduates, thusly:

"Speakers at commencement are definitely the 'A' list, and I wouldn't ever associate J. K. Rowling with the people on that list," one senior said. "From the moment we walk through the gates of Harvard Yard, they constantly emphasize that we are the leaders of tomorrow. They should have picked a leader to speak at commencement. Not a children's writer. What does that say to the class of 2008? Are we the joke class?" I don't know about you, but I would prefer my leaders with an open mind, not one shut by such presumption and arrogance. I think we've had enough of that leadership!

P.S.: Rowling gave a really excellent address at Harvard, available at npr.org!

Michael Dirda: I've long maintained that children's literature is as rewarding and sometimes as demanding as grown-up literature. But I do feel a little uneasy about marketing kids books to adults. Somehow it feels wrong to have Dad reading the same adventure fantasies as Junior. I also wonder if it's not an implicit statement that adult readers can no longer handle more sophisticated themes and subtleties. This isn't to disparage the sophistication of kids's lit, but it's of a different kind from Henry James or Tolstoy. In truth, I just would like everyone to read more of everything. IN other words, Pickering, why can't the world be just like me?


Washington, D.C.: Sons and Lovers is an excellent book. I remember being disturbed by it and wowed by it. Read the whole thing in two days, lakeside in Switzerland. I'm not quite sure why no one reads Lawrence beyond his short stories. It's a shame.

Michael Dirda: I may be wrong about Lawrence's readership. But I do make it a practice to check out the required English texts at campus bookstores when I give talks at various colleges. And I haven't seen Lawrence there in a long time. Also, Death in Venice--once ubiquitous--shows up a lot less often. I think we need to give Toni Morrison a good long rest.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Silver Spring Product Placement Person,

Will you marry me?

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. A few questions first. 1) Are you female? 2) Are you between the ages of 30 and 55? 3) Are you incredibly wealthy? 4)Are you beautiful beyond the dreams of adolescent fantasy? 5) How do you feel about bigamy?
Once we've got these tiny matters squared away, we'll be ready to talk.


Fair Oaks, Va.: Hi. Last week there was some discussion about "The Maltese Falcon". I lived in Malta in the late 1990s and discovered that there was virtually no local interest in the book or film. I found only one gift shop in the old capital city (Mdina) which carried plaster falcon statuettes for the likes of me. Earlier in that decade I lived in Prague, where there was a similar lack of interest in Franz Kafka (because, they said, he wrote in German rather than in Czech), although that might have changed since then.

I don't know if this trivia interests you at all, but thought I'd throw it in.

Michael Dirda: I'm shocked, positively shocked to hear this about the Black Bird. My associate Wilmer will be looking into this matter presently.
I own a replica of the Falcon bought--through the good offices of my friend Michele Slung--from Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop. It sits on top of one end of a wall of free-standing book cases; at the other end is a very realistic fake raven. These seem the two greatest birds in literature, after all.


D.C.: Um, I hated The Moviegoer. I HATED it. I like existentialism, I like Southern lit. I thought, "now here is the book for me!"

Alas, I found it terrible. Percy's writing is flat, Binx Bollings is flat, everything about it was awful. Thoughts?

Michael Dirda: I've already said a couple of times that I enjoyed the book, but nowhere near as much as most people seem to. I also found it mysterious and mystifying in places.
Maybe you should try A Confederacy of Dunces for another look at New Orleans.


Baltimore, Md.: Re D.H. Lawrence: I visited the D.H. Lawrence Ranch outside Taos New Mexico last fall. The wealthy Mabel Dodge gave the property to Lawrence and his wife Frieda,who later had the writer's ashes transported from Europe for reburial on the ranch. A pamphlet I got said that Frieda, Dodge and a third woman were all contesting for control of Lawrence's remains, so Frieda actually had them mixed with the cement used to create the altar inside the memorial, saying, "Let's see them get their hands on him now." He must have been quite a guy. Studies in Classic American Literature is my favorite of his.

Michael Dirda: Yes, he was quite a guy. I mean as a very young man he goes to visit the eminent linguistics professor Ernest Weekly--author of a book I once read on the history of the English language (it was in the Home University Library series, which also brought out Strachey's Landmarks in French Literature)--and spend a few days with him and his family, at the end of which the man's wife abandons husband and two daughters to run off with Lawrence. This was Frieda, who was originally a Von Richthofen--as in the Bloody Red Baron. Martin Green wrote a book called The Von Richthofen Sisters--don't remember what the other did.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Good afternoon - thanks for doing the chat; I always look forward to reading the transcript... I know that you read fantasy and was curious if you've ever read John Barnes' "One For the Morning Glory" published in 1997? It's a strange mix of fairy-tale and adult fantasy and runs the gamut from wryly funny/witty to horror/tragedy.

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. I think I reviewed this one, in a round-up of fantasy and sf. Can't remember anything much about it, though. If it's the same Barnes novel you mention, I gave it a mixed notice, though I basically liked it. Can't imagine why it hasn't stayed in my mind.


Silver Spring, Maryland: You wrote:

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. You're getting there. But that fish--Shouldn't it be a Sun-Kist Giant Tuna, Ready for chunking? And that end of Orwell: "He loved Big Brother--especially in the midnight blue Ralph Lauren Black Label cashmere suit he had taken to wearing during the Three-Minute Hate. He looked just scrumptious. No wonder all the girls were just mad about him, including Julia. Who could blame her?" That's obviously a superior ending.

I say: Yes, I'll rise to the bait for the Giant Tuna, though do prefer Chicken of the Sea. As for the Orwell quote, I think you didn't get my point. I quoted the unadorned ending to 1984 intentionally, as a cultural warning, perhaps... Am I correct in suspecting you have a Ralph Lauren Black Label cashmere suit? What tie do you wear with it?

Michael Dirda: Alas, I do not have such a garment. I've got one navy blue RL suit, but it's not from the Black Label line. That said, I'm about to make a horrible confession here: I do own suits made by Brioni, Armani, Ungaro, Burberry, Canali and several other famous labels. I bought them all in thrift shops. I also possess six fabulous Charvet dress shirts, as well as chemises by Pink, Turnbull and Asser, etc etc. I have Missoni ties and Gucci loafers. Dress shoes from Bally, Salvatore Ferragamo, etc etc. Bought em all in thrift stores. Sadly, I need to get rid of most of this stuff, since I seldom have any occasion to get dressed up anymore. Perhaps I could sell them to the posters on this chat? Sort of like a rock star's auction or Hollywood memorabilia. I could sign guarantees that I'd actually worn the garments in question.


Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Perhaps the avidity and enthusiasm with which adult readers have seized upon the Harry Potter books is indicative of the fact that they're looking for, and finding, in the Potter books something they're not finding in a lot of books aimed at adults, something which I can best describe as the mark of the storyteller. There's a reason why so many great books for children of the past are still read by adults today: because the authors realised that they were, first and foremost, telling a story, with all that entails about characterisation, plot, themes, and more. There's only so much suburban angst and frothy 'chick lit' one can take before longing to read an exciting book, well told, featuring memorable characters and situations.

I don't know about Scholastic in the States, but in Canada Raincoast Books published all the Potters in two editions: one for younger readers with colourful illustrated covers, and one for adults with more modest, sepia-toned photographs.

Marking books with some sort of 'rating' scale sounds, on the face of it, exceedingly silly, given the disparate reading levels one will find among any group of similarly-aged children. On the other hand, who knows? Maybe it would encourage some younger children to try out books that are for older age groups, on the grounds that there must be something really, really good in it.

As for those Harvard students: grow up. J. K. Rowling not on the "A" list? A writer who single-handedly created a phenomenon, and who went from being struggling single mother to one of the wealthiest women in the world? "From the moment we walk through the gates of Harvard Yard, they constantly emphasize that we are the leaders of tomorrow. They should have picked a leader to speak at commencement. Not a children's writer. What does that say to the class of 2008? Are we the joke class?" If this is representative of what the "leaders of tomorrow" think and act like, then the world is in even more trouble than I thought it was.

Michael Dirda: Well said, Ashcroft. As usual. You do have a way with words. Ever consider writing stories yourself? Bet you could do a pretty good job, maybe even be nominated for an award or two. You never know. Could happen.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Have you read Nick Hornby's recent books? Anything you liked?

Michael Dirda: Nope. Is it anything I'd like?


Bethesda, Md.: Michael, Thanks for continuing your chats. They decrease the drudgery factor of my job.

However, you're quite wrong about no one reading Lawrence these days. Both my mother and I have read Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley's Lover, enjoying them thoroughly.

I reread The Great Gatsby at your urging but we'll have to agree to disagree. It doesn't come close to Moby Dick or even Uncle Tom's Cabin for me and I derived far greater pleasure from Madame Bovary. That said, you were right about the Tale of Genji -- a life-changing work.

Michael Dirda: Well, Gatsby is a novella, while those other books are really novels, long novels too in the case of MD and T of G.


Washington, D.C.: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Thankfully, Charles had his trusty Diamond Accent Bulova.

Made with gold-tone stainless steel, it was water-resistant to 100 feet - just in case old Chuckles took a dip in the Thames. Now this, my friends, was the age of incredulity."

Michael Dirda: You know, I think we're all on to something here. It's time those mouldy old classics were updated. How else can we expect to interest the rising generation in those so-called classics?


Washington, D.C.: Michael, I wasn't proposing to you. I'm 30, not fabulously wealthy but fabulous... and I would love to read Hemingway with product placement.

Michael Dirda: Sigh. You weren't proposing. I guess I didn't really think you were. Still, you seem to fit at least some of the requirements. Perhaps we can work around the "not fabulously wealth." I'm flexible. Might you be just plain wealthy?
As for Hemingway product placement: "It was like saying goodbye, or as the Berlitz guide says, "Adieu," to a statue, probably one by Canova. After a while, he walked back to his five-star Marriott Hotel and his penthouse suite in the rain."


washingtonpost.com: I really like Hornby. I recommend "How to Be Good." - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Elizabeth. E is our fabulous producer.


Washington, D.C.: I'm the Sons and Lovers fan. What other novels by Lawrence would you recommend (if you would recommend any others?) Thanks...

Michael Dirda: Women in Love. The Rainbow.


Chicago, Ill.: If memory serves, there was quite a bit of product placement in 'American Psycho' by B.E. Ellis. Satirical, and very funny, meant to deride the consumerism of the Reagan era.

Michael Dirda: Gee, and I used the book as a buying guide. And now you tell me it was satire.


Tulare, Calif.: Michael, what do you think D.H. Lawrence smelled like, and could that be why people are no longer reading him? How about Somerset Maugham?

Michael Dirda: What is this? We had this smell question last week about I think Stendhal and one other author. D.H. Lawrence smelled like artichokes. Somerset Maugham smelled like a public bathroom.


Arlington, Va.: What do you think about Politics and Prose canceling the talk by Saree Makdisi about his new book "Palestine Inside Out"? There was an article about it in the Washington Post Outlook section last Sunday.

washingtonpost.com: Banned in the U.S.A. (Almost) (Washington Post Outlook Section, June 8)

Politics, Prose and a Promise (Washington Post Outlook Section, June 8)

Michael Dirda: Carla Cohen, one of the co-owners, wrote a piece about it in Outlook and stated her reasons, adding that she had changed her mind and would be inviting the author back.
My view is classic Emily Post: If you invite someone, and he or she agrees to come, you can only cancel if there's a major health crisis or other personal catastrophe.


Rosemont, Ill.: I'm a 42 year old woman, and a lot of my female friends (in their 30s and 40s) read YA fiction. Truthfully, I find it just a tad incomprehensible. Don't they want more depth and complexity? (Not to mention bigger words?) Some of them have Ph.Ds even.... They don't read only YA fiction, but it seems like it constitutes about half of their reading. And on my commute, I used to see dozens of adults reading Harry Potter. Not so much anymore.

Michael Dirda: I'll be interested to see if the Harry Potter books carry over into the next generation or two of kids. Do they have lasting power? Probably. But I'm not absolutely sure.


Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Dirda, going through my recently-passed grandfather's attic, the most interesting books I found were a collection of Poe with great illustrations, a book of New Yorker short stories, and HG Wells' History of the World (or something like that; I don't have it in front of me). The first two I look forward to reading (or rereading in the case of the Poe), but I know nothing about the Wells. What can you tell me about it; is it worth reading, or am I better off with other general world history books? Thanks much!

Michael Dirda: Well's is a superb writer, but his Outline of History is rather dated now. I've only dipped into it, even though I am a Wells fan. If you want to read a one-volume history of the world I suggest that by J.W. Robertson published by Penguin and Viking.


Washington D.C.: Non-book question: Michael, what thrift shops were you patronizing to build such an upmarket wardrobe? Where is the place that the movers and shakers of DC are giving away their thousand buck suits?

Michael Dirda:
You'd be surprised. I used to find the best things in a Spanish run thrift shop on University Avenue called Three for Ten (Tres per Dieces, or something like that). It was a beautiful store--elegant clothes, good prices, roomy, and actual dressing rooms where you could try on the garments. One day it was suddenly closed.
I will say that I spent three or four years accumulating these clothes. One simply went for the hunt, for the serendipity. And everything has changed now: The great clothes are scarcer. Most recently I've been picking up Brooks Brothers Non-Iron Cotton Dress shirts--two of my sons have internships and they needs some dressier clothes. But I can't expect them to actually go to a dry cleaner or learn to iron. I know these shirts go for something like 80 dollars new, but I generally find them for around $5.


Washington, D.C.: Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. "Damn! Is that kid wearing the new Nike Shox?" thought Rabbit Angstrom, even though he was twenty-six years old. "Wow, they're enclosed in a transparent cupsole for maximum protection and traction with clear TPU toe wrap for durability!"

Michael Dirda: No question. We're on to something.


Who is Ashcroft?: OK, Michael, your ironic praise of Ashcroft, B.C. has me wondering again -- who is behind the nom-de-chat?? I think it has come up before and Ashcroft declined to reveal him/herself, but I have to ask again, I am quite keen to know.

Michael Dirda: Not for me to say. I mean, if I told you that one of the people on this chat was Thomas Pynchon you'd immediately want to know which one and then the poor guy would be deluged with unwelcome emails or something. Now, I'm not saying that one of the posters is Thomas Pynchon, but I'm also not saying that one of them isn't.


Silver Spring/Product Placement Person: Mr. Dirda,

So, now you're attempting to steal my marriage proposal away from me? Just because you have a closet stuffed with high-end thrift shop finds that smell of roaches and stale cigar smoke? What's up. The confusing thing is, what is DC's gender? And what does does he/she think is mine?

Michael Dirda: Hey, my clothes are in perfect condition. I'll brook no sartorial insults here. I usually pay more to have them adjusted by a tailor than they cost me to acquire them.
And gender? We're all urbane sophisticates here, what do we care about gender. It's all a question of compatibility.


Silver Spring, Md.: Not quite the same as "Reader I married him wearing Chanel's Fountain of Youth white viscose dress - a dress you can wear yourself, dear reader, for only..." But there used to be ads in some paperback books as detailed in this NYT article.


Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Fairfax, Va.: You are mistaken. Somerset Maugham smelled like garlic. I though everyone knew that.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. The garlic was to disguise the public bathroom smell.


Bethesda, Md.: If you have any Charvet ties, I'm ready to start bidding right now.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. In fact, I do have one or two. Also some Hermes.
Somehow I feel that the tone of this week's chat isn't quite at the elevated level of our usual literary discourse.


Product placement : Cyra McFadden's 1976-ish "The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County" (which still rankles in some bookstores there) was a masterpiece of the name-brand satire. "It was time to grind the French Roast for the Chemex" after a dinner party. The obsession of a supposedly spiritual society with keeping up with the Joneses is hilarious (the movie was really bad; it turned all the men into sensible types and all the women into monsters of materialism and silliness -- read the book).

Michael Dirda: Okay. That's one of those books I missed and rather regretted. Sounds fun. I used to own a Chemex.


Washington, D.C.: This is the last one, I promise:

"Call me, Ishmael, on my new Motorola RAZR V3. Gawd, I love this phone!"

Michael Dirda: See, folks: We saved the best for last. But shouldn't that be the new IPhone?


"Some of them have Ph.Ds even...": What a snob.

I read some YA for the depth and complexity I find there. I read other YA for the excellent prose (Anne of Green Gables, for instance). And sometimes girls just wanna have fun. Do you have to live on oat bran, or is the occasional potato chip OK?

Michael Dirda: Please, no personal insults, even if you don't know who the person is. In fact, you've just mortally offended Thomas Pynchon and he probably won't be back for a long while.
Yes, one can eat potato chips--but not only potato chips and not all the time.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Actually, I am working on something at the moment; here's the opening line. Let me know what you think:

"Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again, in my 2008 Chevy Sebring convertible with V6 engine, air conditioning, and - most wondrously of all - heated/cooled cup holders."

Michael Dirda: Good, but I still think our Melville wannabe has you beat.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a male. I'm 30. I can't stop writing these product placement lines. Oh, and I thought Silver Spring might be a female. Urbane sophisticates or not...

Michael Dirda: Who knows whether SS is a male or female? I've lost track of who's who already.


Philadelphia: Much of the fiction I read falls under "YA", although a lot of it is shelved in the fantasy/science fiction portion of a bookstore. There are a few current "adult" writers whose work I enjoy and always pick up, but many of them write historical fiction. I'm just not keen on contemporary fiction. I should say that I'm editor at a news organization, and very informally I've noticed that the worst book editing seems to be in contemporary fiction, which could explain part of my reluctance to pick it up. I spend enough time professionally defining basic words to writers as it is. I don't want to sit there and wince through a poor editing job that didn't prevent an author from misusing the word "debacle" or "inchoate." (Truthfully, the vocabulary in much YA writing is more advanced than what I've found in non-YA, non-children's lit - and tends to be used correctly far more often.)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Monterey, Va.: In Re: Product placement--I love 'fracturing'. It allows for just plain silliness. Takes some of the heaviness out of life, and Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu who would fardels bear as tomorrow creeps in its pettipants towards all our grim yesterdays and o'ertops these prison walls like a naked, newborn babe. If he had just been wearing the new Pampers Ultrathins, this would never have happened.

Michael Dirda: Fracturing? This is new to me, though I've seen the technique before. Harry Mathews wrote a series of "perverbs" that would elements from two proverbs and put them together. And I created--or think I created--the world's shortest fairy tale, complete with a fairy tale beginning, ending and a theme that is relevant to real life: "Once upon a time they lived happily ever after."


Fairfax, Va.: It's one thing when adults read children's lit, but do you think that children today are capable of reading classics of children's literature? I think of what my father read as a ten-year-old ("The Last of the Mohicans", "Kidnapped", "Lorna Doone", etc.) and can't see most fourth graders handling them. These books were assigned in his school. He also memorized poetry which stayed with him throughout his life (some of it involved cowboys, pirates, horses and blood, but still...).

Michael Dirda: Yes, this is a good point. A lot of older children's literature is not only beyond our modern children, it's beyond our modern grownups too. But I can remember when I was a boy that one expected books to have hard bits in them--strange words, long descriptions, stuff about history. Now our literature aspires to the condition of television.


Door County, Wisconsin: Wow - Sen. Jim Webb's Vietnam novel "Fields of Fire" - temporarily out of stock at Amazon - was reviewed by 81 readers and got 73 5-star reviews. That's pretty darn good. I might have to read it. Have you read it?

Michael Dirda: Haven't read it, but I did assign it for review when it came out. I can almost but not quite remember to whom. Also, I used to talk to Webb occasionally--he wrote a couple of reviews for Book World. Gee, if he becomes a VP candidate maybe I can succeed my friend Dana Gioia as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Not that I could half as good a job, though.


Thrift Store Girl Mpls: I love that you not only scour for books in thrift stores, but have also amassed an impressive wardrobe shopping in them. You were green before it was hip! For the person who didn't care for Walker Percy, A Confederacy is great! I would also recommend the living writer, Valerie Martin. Her short story collection, The Unfinished Novel has many stories set in New Orleans, as is her novel Property. I always swing between dead and living writers, actually really enjoyed Death in Venice and have the Magic Mountain on my shelf. Currently reading An Chi Min and listening to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind as it is a long one and I am a slow reader. Any advice as to what a wise balance of reading would be for someone who hears the clock ticking?

Michael Dirda: Turn off the clock--the thing's distracting you. Just enjoy whatever pages you're turning. Which reminds me of Kipling's great "Sestina of the Tramp Royale": "It's like a book I think this bloomin world/ Which you can read and care for just so long/ But presently you feel that you will die/ Unless you get the page you're reading done? But what you're after is to turn 'em all." Something like that.


Palookaville: They threw me off the GMC air-cooled hay truck about noon.

Michael Dirda: Was that with the fuel-injected 427 cubic inch motor? Or Was it the 389? Makes a difference. Can't get too many details--or too much detailing, either, for that matter.


No no no: Last night I dreamed I was at Manderly again... in my Maidenform bra!

Michael Dirda: Push-up?


Careful with that criterion: If singlehandedly creating a phenomenon and becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world is a hallmark of a great author, that would couple J.K. Rowling with Tom Clancy (the inventor of the techno-thriller and, as Christopher Buckley put it, the most successful bad writer of his generation).

That said, I love Rowling's books.

Michael Dirda: I think Rowling was an inspired choice by Harvard. I was worried about what they'd do after I had to turn them down.


Franconia, Va.: I was interested in the mini-uproar over a German newspaper's use of the headline "Uncle Barack's Cabin" and a picture of the White House. To me, it was obviously an effort to show how times have changed and what a historic event the nomination was, in terms of American history. Many others seem to assume that any mention of the book is racist, which is bizarre considering it is an abolitionist tract (though one later condemned by Black Power advocates).

I read the book a few years ago and enjoyed it. Then again, I love all Victorian potboilers.

The most interesting scene is when the northern abolitionist aunt recoils at seeing her niece playing with Uncle Tom. The aunt hates slavery but can't imagine letting a white child touch a black person. The southern slaveholders are in turn genuinely shocked by her attitude. To me, that summarizes the differences between southern and northern racism in a nutshell.

What is your take on the book and whether you'd recommend it?

Michael Dirda: I remember a Southern girlfriend telling me about racial attitudes: In the North--as high as you want but not too close. In the South--as close as you want but not too high.
Never read Uncle Tom's Cabin. In fact, all I know is what I learned from watching the Little Rascal's parody of Eliza on the ice.


Lenexa, Kan.: Last week "Bronx, New York" expressed difficulty trying to get through "Brothers K." Our gracious host invited me -- I had recently mentioned it was my third favorite novel after "In Search of Lost Time" and "The Tale of Genji" -- to comment. "Bronx" expressed himself well. Who hasn't had such feelings even with the greatest works? ("Don Quixote" and "Moby-Dick" are two in my experience.) I generally never stop a book once I have begun it. I usually know what I'm getting into, and when it turns out I didn't, I soldier on -- sometimes being rewarded in the end. I hope "Bronx" persists in this case.

"Brothers K." is a great world classic ("Bronx" made no suggestion that it isn't). I especially like it because it's a first-rate novel of ideas (Fadiman says Doestoyevsky anticipated many of the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud, and influenced such non-Russian writers as Mann, Camus, and Faulkner); that the three brothers so marvelously represent archetypal life choices: hedonism, cold intellectualism, benign altruism; and for the heartbreakingly poignant subplot of Ilyusha and his father. Regarding Fadiman, he says he ("like "Bronx") personally enjoyed "Crime and Punishment" more, but that "Brothers K." is "generally considered his most profound work."

I keep handy a copy of lit-professor Daniel S. Burt's 2004 "The Novel 100: a Ranking of the Greatest Novels or All Time" (also includes the second hundred in alphabetic order). Dr. Burt's top 22: 1. "Don Quixote," 2. "War and Peace," 3. "Ulysses," 4. "In Search of Lost Time," 5. "The Brothers Karamazov," 6. "Moby-Dick," 7. "Madame Bovary," 8. "Middlemarch," 9. "The Magic Mountain," 10. "The Tale of Genji," 11. "Emma," 12. "Bleak House," 13. "Anna Karenina," 14. "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," 15. "Tom Jones," 16. "Great Expectations," 17 "Absalom! Absalom!," 18. "The Ambassadors," 19. "One Hundred Years of Solitude," 20. "The Great Gatsby," 21. "To the Lighthouse," 22. "Crime and Punishment."

Finally (sorry this is so long), I've always been saddened that the enormously gifted Marilyn Monroe, at the time married to Arthur Miller, was denied the 1958 Brooks' film role of Grushenka. (She had desperately sought it.) As part of my fancy, Marilyn wins an Oscar for the role -- elevating her as a serious actress to the higher echelon she deserves.

Michael Dirda: Lovely posting.


Olney, Md.: Good afternoon Michael. Your glowing review in this past Sunday's Post's Book World of the book, GERMAINE DE STAËL and BENJAMIN CONSTANT A Dual Biography By Renee Winegarten prompted me to order the book on Amazon. Can't wait to read it.

I also ordered the much anticipated first novel, THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE By David Wroblewski. From all the advance notice for the book, this should be a great read as well. Do you think this will be a future classic?

Michael Dirda: Don't know if it'll be a classic. If I were betting, people here know that I'd guess it isn't. I mean the time between 1950 and 2000 might yield a dozen novels that people read a hundred years from now with any regularity. Maybe a few more, but not many.


Freising, Germany: Pretty well exactly 20 years ago, while walking down the streets of downtown Munich, a woman called out, "Das ist ein tolles Buch, nicht wahr?" (that's a great book, isn't it?). In my right hand, I was carrying a paperback edition of "Catcher in the Rye."

Recently, while considering the character of Holden Caufield, I was reminded of the more recent, "Vernon God Little" by DBC Pierre. In the opening of "Catcher in the Rye," when Holden Caufield talks about "all the David Copperfield kind of crap," it reminds me of the voice of Vernon Little, when in the opening lines he says, "It tells you normal times just ran howling from town."

After reading "Vernon God Little," I was struck by the unusualness of the narrative. At first I was impressed and enamored, but eventually I thought that Vernon was just too smart and clever for his age (maybe I was just too doof at the same age).

Is the idea of a young and irrational yet insightful narrator a unique invention of Salinger, or has this concept been seen before?

Michael Dirda: I'm not sure if I can answer your question. But it has always seemed to me that Salinger invented the YA novel in Catcher in the Rye. The troubled teen, the hip voice, etc etc.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): I didn't say that "creating a phenomenon and becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world is a hallmark of a great author"; but it does, I think, qualify Rowling to speak to the Harvard graduating class.

I'm 44, female, live in Ashcroft, British Columbia, and am a writer, editor, and publisher, co-founder of the World Fantasy Award-winning Ash-Tree Press, and mother of 10-year-old Tim, a "Doctor Who" enthusiast.

Michael Dirda: There you have it. The writer part means she writes very fine supernatural stories.


Freising, Germany: Regarding last week's chat and "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", isn't this a book that I've heard of, "The Dirda Code", where Dr. Dirda and his faithful sidekick, Seamus, put on wigs and run through the neighborhood fighting evil influences on classic literature?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. You really shouldn't have said quite so much on a public forum like this. There's going to be a hellhound on your trail now. Name of Seamus the Wonder Dog. Don't be fooled by the fact that he can hardly walk any more. It's all an act. Just mention food.
And that's enough silliness for one week. Till next Wednesday at 2, Keep reading--whether it's children's books or adult books or any other kind of books!


Lenexa, Kan.: Not trying to be one-up (if I am even), rather trying to learn something. Is there a J.W. Robertson who has written a history of the world, or did you mean J.M. Roberts?

Michael Dirda: A quick P.S. Oh, I meant J.W. Roberts. J.M. Robertson was a German scholar, wrote the standard history of German literature. Too quick typing and not quick enough remembering.


Bethesda, Md.: To return us to our customary high level of literary discourse I request a recommendation: I'd like to read an excellent literary erotic novel or a novel that treats the Herzog (older man/younger woman) theme. I think you'll enjoy Uncle Tom's Cabin.

washingtonpost.com: Consider Scott Spencer's "A Ship Made of Paper." - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: And another P.P.S. You might also check out Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters.


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