Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, June 25, 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 25.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It began as a beautiful summer day here in Washington, but the temperature has begun to rise and I'm told by informed sources requesting anonymity that it's going to be in the nineties for the next week.
I'm actually back in Book World today, using the desk of Ev Small, my eminent colleague and well known woman of letters.
It's quiet here at the Post, and it's always seemed unnatural to me, having started to work in the days when phones rang constantly and typwriters clicked loudly and carriages dinged when you hit return and there were even pneumatic tubes to send copy down to composing, where the clattering linotype machines ran just above the basement presses. All these have basically disappeared. The Post is printed in Virginia, there are no more linotypes, and the phone hardly ever rings in the era of email.
Sigh. Next I'll be having a six year old come up and say, "Tell us, gramps, what was it like in the old days, you know, those days you talk about so often with a tear in your eye and a catch in your voice?"
Well, I've decided I need to be more with it--hmm there's a phrase that in itself dates me--and must learn more about these Computers and the Internet. No, really, I hope to get more cutting edge technologically speaking. As soon as I can find some time, that is.
But enough of this prattle. Let's look at this week's questions about books, reading, the literary life, Book World and whatever else that involves the written word and the printed page.


San Salvador: Hello, Dr. Dirda.

A question: I learned about a new WP buyout including some of your friends at BW. In your case, five years later, any reflections on your decision regarding its impact on your path as a man of letters?

Would your novel (no close reading of a personal narrative intended) allude to your own buyout and the unexpected series of events it brought about?

A comment: Thank you for your list of children's books on Readings.

Another question: Would you please recall the half-dozen or so Paris Review interviews that strike you the most?

Thank you for this weekly feast.

Michael Dirda: A weekly feast--I like that. And it's a moveable feast too.
In my case, the buyout was what I needed to do and I have only occasional regrets. I do miss--sometimes--the camaraderie of the paper, and being alone a lot of the time hasn't been good for my psyche. I probably shouldn't keep typing, over and over, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."
It's also meant that I've had to hustle to find other ways to supplement a meager base income. So far this has worked out, but essentially one can't weaken and there are few safety nets. If I stop writing or if people stop wanting me to write for them, I would be learning to say, with conviction, "Why not have fries with that? Don't worry about the cholesterol. Those reports have been much exaggerated."
The best of the Paris Review interviews were in the first two or three volumes--I'd recommend those with Faulkner, Hemingway, Simenon, and Eliot, in particular.


Washington, D.C.: Hey there Michael,

OK, so I have the $600 from my stimulus check to spend at a local used bookstore and get a nice rare book of some sort. Any recommendations? I mostly lean towards fiction and some of my favorite authors are Cormac McCarthy, Delillo, Melville, Graham Greene, but am not in any way confined to them.

Anyone in the chat got suggestions?

Thanks for the chats. Books good.

Michael Dirda: There are the incredibly desirable copies of An Open Book available for just this sum: They come with an actual printout of an actual page of the original manuscript, with a signature of authentication by the author, whose name temporarily escapes me.
Well, if I were you, I'd just go visit some of the local used bookstores that deal in higher end material and swagger in as if you owned the place. Break out your roll of twenties and ask to see the best literary firsts in the place. Then see if anything catches your fancy.
Offhand, I'd say that first books by favorite writers or high spots are your best bet.


Wilmington, Del.: Can you recommend a biography of a true loser, one who never had anything go his way? I'd prefer a story without any sense of hope or redemption.

Michael Dirda: What! You've been peeking at volume two of my memoirs. Shoot. I knew that this internet security wasn't what it was cracked up to be.
Well, losers generally don't have biographies written about them. But one of the great memoir-novels about failure of dreams is Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes.
In truth, I think that most of us feel that most things don't go our way and that we have an inordinate share of pain for pleasure in our lives. The glowing exception to this rule is--and now I'll show you all that I'm not just a dryasdust antiquarina--Tom Brady. One of the world's greatest quarterbacks ever, who is also incredibly handsome and whose girlfriend is supermodel Gisele Bundchen. I can only hope that he's as dumb as a plank off the playing field.


International Falls, Minn: I've been reading a number of Nabokov's interviews and am thrilled with some of his responses and his views on the world but am disappointed to see that he thinks so little of Faulkner and Dostoevsky. Any major authors that you think don't deserve the hype?

Michael Dirda: Hype implies undesrved praise, but Faulkner and Dostoevsky are great writers by any measure--except one. Nabokov felt that they were sloppy artists, that they wrote badly, engaged in false sensationalism, and simply lacked a sense of form.
In one sense, you can certainly say he's right. But they are artists who practice what one might call the literature of power rather than perfection. So, if one admires such writers, those who prefer classical virtues--figures like Evelyn Waugh or Nabkokv himself--seemed prissy, tightly controlled, artificial or minor.
The only writers that I think are overhyped are those who are on the best seller list. Often they've written one or two good books, but have developed enough name recognition to keep doing the same thing over and over, but more and more poorly. Even John Grisham has admitted that he views his first novel as his best.


Pittsburgh: Re "clattering linotype machines": One of my grandfathers was a linotype operator till 1929, chiefly at newspapers, but also at times for books. Following my parents' deaths I inherited a few books whose type he'd set. Do you know if they have any added value, or just as family keepsakes?

Michael Dirda: I think they are just cool to have.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, I am reading a book called The Fate of Fenella that was written in 1892 by a group of popular authors. One chapter was written by Arthur Conan Doyle. ACD was invited many more time to participate in these multi-authored works of fiction but refused to lower his art to gimmicks.

What is your opinion of these books? Have you ever read any good ones? Would you ever be challenged by trying to write a chapter of a story started by someone else and then handed off to another?

Michael Dirda: These sorts of books are popular as gimmicks--English detective story writers used to do them pretty often in the late 1920s and 30s. And there are examples of share-cropping among sf authors, a similar venture. But I don't think that anyone regards them as much more than larks or works done for special occasions, sometimes charities.


New Lenox, Ill.: reread "The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford, in a Folio Society edition. "Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men's lives like the lives of us good people... the Ashburnhams... broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies?" Any comments or opinion? Thank you.

Michael Dirda: You quote one of my favorite observations in the book, and confirmation, I suppose, of my often dire view of life's messiness. I suppose it's human to yearn for a terrestrial paradise, and sometimes we may glimpse or experience it for a brief moment, but mostly such places exist only in the past or in our imaginations. I also think that such desires are implicit death-wishes. Life is trouble, said Zorba the Greek, and we just have to plunge into its waves and ride the crests and troughs as well as we can. If we're lucky, we learn to body surf.


Rockville, Md.: I was once told about a children's book about a town where the weather, precipitation in particular, was food. It sounded wonderful but can't remember the name or the author. I have a friend with a 4 year old I hope to visit this summer. It sounds like a perfect gift to bring along. Can anyone put a name to this book? Thank you so much.

washingtonpost.com: Sounds like 'Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs' -- according to Wikipedia a movie is on the way next year.

Michael Dirda: Thank you, Elizabeth, producer extraordinaire. Yes, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a perennial classic for young kids. I must have read it thirty times--aloud--over the years. It always made me feel happy. There's also a similar book called something like June 31, 1999, in which various giant vegetables start to fall from the sky. I think it's by David Wiesner. Note to precisians: These are approximations, memories, and doubtless the exact title and author can be found with a bit of computer effort.


Arlington, Va.: Summer reading recommendation?

13-year old son, loves reading, but is frustrated with what is presented at libraries as YA (can't say I blame him). Recent forays into "Adult" section have yielded Adams (Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy in Five Volumes), Asimov (the first Foundation book), and Card (Enders' Game). Yes, he seems to be going alphabetically, which may not be a bad thing, if slightly inefficient.

I've tried plunking classics down in front of him (All Quiet on the Western Front, etc, as he seems interested in war/effects of war) to no avail (then again, I am just his mom).

Any recommendations? It doesn't even need to be SF/Fantasy (in fact, he says he is 'off' SF for a bit).


Michael Dirda: It seems to me your kid is doing just fine in his choices. But as he is going alphabetically you might try Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You might also go back to the great boys's adventures: Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines, Journey to the Center of the Earth (a new movie of this last ia about to come out). My own son loved H.P. Lovecraft at about this age.


Washington, D.C.: Biographies of losers: A biography on Bukowski or Jackson Pollock might have the right sense of desparation that the reader is looking for.

Michael Dirda: Good choices.


Washington, D.C.: Michael,

Thanks for these chats. I look forward to them every week. You've introduced me to so many writers I would not have either known or tried, including John Dickson Carr, Cordwainer Smith, James Tiptree Jr., Vernon Lee, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and Clark Ashton Smith. (I must admit, however, I've tried a few I just couldn't get into -- Rex Stout comes to mind.)

My question is related to the last three writers on the above list: Vance, Wolfe and Smith. As a kid I was a voracious, indiscriminate reader of fantasy. Around high school I started to cool on the genre as my literary palate became a bit more refined. I thought that Sturgeon's Law had caught up with me and that I'd read the 10% of fantasy that wasn't crap. Until, of course, I found your chat and discovered the aforementioned writers.

Now my appetite is whet, but I'm not sure where to go. I read the first of Naomi Novik's novels, and liked it quite a bit, but can you recommend anyone else who might appeal to a reader like me? Is, for example, George R.R. Martin worth checking out?


Michael Dirda: There are so many good writers of sf and fantasy, beyond those you mention. Here are some books and authors you should look for:
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
R.A. Lafferty, short stories (these can be a little strange)
John Collier, Fancies and Goodnights
Roald Dahl's stories for adults
The ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James and H. Russell Wakefield and Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.


Losers: Not a bio exactly, but Gore Vidal's BURR would be a great read about a loser.

Michael Dirda: Sort of. Hamilton always struck me as the real loser--he died in the duel, not Burr.


Books by groups: The most notorious modern-day example would probable be Naked Came the Stranger, by "Penelope Ashe."

Michael Dirda: My esteemed colleague Jon Yardley was part of the crew that created Naked. All the elbow fetishism is his work. No, I just made that up.


Arlington, Va.: For Wilmington, Del.:

You might try to find a copy of Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith. Although a novel, it may assuage the need to read about a loser.

Michael Dirda: But he doesn't view himself as a loser. He's just kind of a middle-class bumpkin. Or so I remember from a distant reading.


Loser Lit: How about "Post Office" by Charles Bukowski?

Michael Dirda: I think that Bukowski will always be a safe choice for the loser genre.


Arlington, Va.: On the true loser front, I know the poster asked for memoirs, but the best true loser story ever written has got to be A Confederacy of Dunces.

Michael Dirda: Yes, but again our poster was looking for a biography. Still, we obvously have the makings of an unusual book list going here.


Washington, D.C.: I'm currently reading Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. Have you read it? What did you think of it, as a Sherlock Holmes/ACD aficionado? Sorry if you've already discussed this; it was published a few years ago and I'm finally getting around to reading it! I'm curious how accurate the portrayal of Doyle is, especially concerning his interest in spiritualism and seances.

washingtonpost.com: Dirda on 'Arthur and George' (Book World, Jan. 15, 2006)

Michael Dirda: Note review link above. The portraits of both Arthur and George are very true to what we know of their personalities, though obviously there are liberties.


Lenexa, Kan.: I've always liked it when art, literature, music, and other disciplines coalesce. I remember your essay in "Bound to Please" on Ted Hughes's "Ovid"; and recently came across in The Teaching Company's Robert Greenberg's lectures on the symphony an 18th-century composer, Carl von Dittersdorf, who wrote a dozen symphonies based on Ovid's "Metamorphosis."

In his Symphony in C Major: "The Four Ages of Mankind" (based on Ovid's poem of the same title), his four movements represent Gold (pristine age), Silver (Jove's ascendancy), Bronze (deterioration), and Iron (Evil waging for Man's soul). Greenberg especially liked the composer because he was decades ahead in his use of programmatic themes in symphonies (later a feature of the Romantic Age, e.g., Beethoven's 6th, the "Pastoral").

Writers have made attempts at drawing together these vaious disciplines into sweeping intellectual histories. Which such writers would you recommend? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: As always, Lenexa, we learn more from the lead-in to your questions than I can ever supply in the way of an answer. But I will second your endorsement of Greenberg's lectures--I've enjoyed many of them over the years, and they must number in the hudnreds since he seems to have talked about every aspect of classical music for The Teaching Company.
The four ages is actually part of the Metamorphoses.
The notion of mixing genres goes back to classical times and is usually summed up in the phrase Ut Pictura Poesis. Here we mean poems that are like pictures, or pictures like poems--i.e. genres escaping their apparent limitations. The great neoclassical treatise on this is Lessing's Laocoon, about the famous statue of the man and his two sons being strangled by serpents. In modern times Jean Hagstrum has written a good book on the relationship among the arts, and Mario Praz's Bollingen lectures on the same subject were published as Mnemosyne. (M is the muse of memory--Nabokov was originaly going to call his memoir Speak, Mnemosyne rather than Speak, Memory.)


Bethesda, Md.: Michael, Thanks again for recommending Scott Spencer's "A Ship Made of Paper." Rarely are middle-class black characters portrayed with such depth and authenticity in contemporary American fiction. It's good to know they interest someone other than Terri McMillan.

Now -- to lob a grenade into the cozy heart of this congenial discussion -- would you class Alice Walker as a bestselling but overrated writer? I was a huge fan of the early works but never recovered from "By the Light of My Father's Smile," which I thought boring and badly written.

washingtonpost.com: I think I was the one who suggested the Spencer, and I'm glad you liked it. As for Walker, if you want to be in on a recent blogosphere storm, read this article by her daughter. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Please see my co-conspirator's link above. I think most people would say that Walker wrote some good early poems and a good novel --The Color Purple--and a good polemic--about female circumcision--but that she has fallen from the ranks of those widely regarded as serious literary authors. But I say this with no knowledge of her later books. I did review one or two of her early poetry collections, as part of roundups and remember liking them.


Falls Church, Va.: re: loser biography

Not a loser, exactly, but a sad story about a talented blues guitarist who died too soon:

Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I always feel that most blues and jazz biographies are full of sorry and angst and early death.


SF/Fantasy: I've read much of what you listed, but not Zelazny or Collier. I just ordered the NYRB reprint of Collier. Thanks!

Michael Dirda: You're welcome.


John Grisham: -shudders- I don't like his books much, at all. And he's right, the first one he wrote (which not the first bestseller if I remember correctly) was the best. After that, I felt like I was reading a pitch for a screen play, since of course a movie would be made. I read The Pelican Brief and knew he had written the female protagonist to be eventually cast by Julia Roberts.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I am told that Grisham is a really nice guy--plus he used to finance The Oxford American, a very fine literary magazine.


For 13-year old reader: Perhaps The Lord of the Rings? He's probably already seen the movies, but the books are marvelous, especially for summer.

Ray Bradbury might be a good choice too. What he doesn't know about 13-year old boys isn't worth knowing.

If he likes history, Rosemary Sutcliffe's books dealing with the Romans and ancient Britian might appeal.

Michael Dirda: Excellent choises. Godine reissued some of Sutcliff a few years back and books like The Eagle of the Ninth can be found pretty readily, I think.


Lansdale, Pa.: In a bookstore this weekend I saw a new series from Penguin of circa 1900 Ripping Yarns. The titles displayed were The 39 Steps, The Lost World, She, and The Riddle of the Sands. What other authors and titles would you consider to belong in this comapny?

Michael Dirda: Gee, I'll have to look for this series--these are my kind of books. I do know that Michael Sims will be bringing out, from Penguin, The Penguid Book of Gaslight Crime. As for other ripping yarns of the period, which is part of the great age of storytelling, include: the Sherlock Holmes stories, E.V. Hornung's Raffles stories, The Prisoner of Zenda, Jules Verne's science fiction, and much , much else.


Concord, N.H.: Just sent a post about not liking Grisham as I felt he was casting the eventual screenplay in his novels, which led me to another dislike: Seeing the covers of books plastered with the stars from the movie.

It was cool when it was SE Hinton and Outsiders when I was 12 and my Teen Beat posters weren't enough to satiate my love for Ralph Macchio. Now, I see it everywhere - not just on commercial stuff like The Other Boleyn Girl, but also on classics. What do you think about that? It makes me feel like I have to visualize the movie stars as I read the book, instead of allowing my imagination to fill in the visuals.

Michael Dirda: I don't like photographs on the covers of books: I like paintings or typographical designs. But this is just me. Covers and dustjackets have always just been about marketing.


Alexandria, Va.: Bardamu in Journey to the End of the Night by Louis Ferdinand Celine might fit the bill for a loser. Although he did bed quite a few working girls.

Michael Dirda: Oh, yes: Celine in general is a good choice. He certainly views the world as a cesspit. I've got an essay on Death on the Installment Plan in Classics for Pleasure. A wonderful, exuberantly bilious book.


at 13...: I (a girl) was reading Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Charles Dickins, Leon Uris (which throws him off alphabetically - and I read his works and turned out fine, but there is sex in some of them, which some parents may object to), Ed McBain, plus anything by Gillian Bradshaw I could find, although I should note that her stories are often - not always, but often - centered on a woman, which may turn some boys off. But my brother really enjoyed her book The Sand-Reckoner, about Archimedes, and so was willing to have a go at her other work. Also, a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy, which I won't name since if he's off them at the moment it's probably better not to try to push it too hard.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the fine suggestions.


Bethesda, Md.: Hello, Michael. This is your former colleague, Francis Tanabe, back from Ireland, France and Spain. Read "Dubliners" and "Ulysses" before my trip which I hadn't touched in decades. But because of my visit to Dublin, it all came alive, flowing like the River Liffey. This was my first trip to Ireland. Missed Bloomsday but walked along some of Joyce's old haunts. The view of Dublin Bay is now fixed in my mind and can appreciate those beach scenes (in Portrait and in Ulysses) and with more visual accuracy.

Before my visit to Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, I read Henry Adams; before my first trip to Venice, I read Thomas Mann. I'll keep on doing this with my future trips.

Hope you are well.

Michael Dirda: Good to hear from you, Francis. I envy you those trips. Francis, by the way, for those of you who don't know him was Book World's art director for many years--and the most cosmopolitan man at the Post.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): The person looking for a biography of someone for whom nothing went right should definitely read "The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst" by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. It's a biography of a man who tried to sail around the world single-handed in 1969, and whose life story contains enough tragedy and heartbreak and instances of nothing going right to fill several lifetimes. The acclaimed documentary "Deep Water", about the round-the-world boat race and Crowhurst in particular is a stunning piece of film, and also worth seeking out.

My own favourite quote from "The Good Soldier" - apart from the one already quoted - is "The pieces were all there to content everybody - yet everybody got the wrong thing." (And apologies to any nitpickers if I got it slightly wrong; don't have access to the book right now).

As far as edible non-food items in books go, few are more delightful than the scene in "The Phantom Tollbooth" when Milo and Tock are at the marketplace which sells letters and numbers and words, all of them in deifferent flavours according to their nature: the letter "c" is icy cold and delicious, for example. Later, at a banquet, Milo is asked to make a short speech and proceeds to say something very dull and stumbling, while everyone else rattles off lists of delicious foodstuffs. Imagine Milo's horror when he finds, at dinner, that one has to eat one's words - literally.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft. And Donald Crowhurst has moved up toward the top of my TBR pile. Soon perhaps. World enough and time. . . .


Palookaville: One of the best literary losers going is Jim Anchower, an occasional columnist for The Onion, and about the only thing in that mag that's usually worth reading in its entirety. (Generally, the best joke in an Onion piece is the headline.)

Here's a sample.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. The Onion is brilliant. My agent once wrote to tell me that The Onion wanted information about me, and I was hoping that I would be mocked, vilified or otherwise made a laughing stock in its pages. But it hasn't happened yet--or if it has, people have kept it from me as an act of human kindness.


N.W. D.C.: Have you ever read Ken Bruen? He writes some seriously dark detective novels, mostly set in Galway, though some are in London.

Jack Taylor (one of his characters) is probably the most self-destructive PI/Cop type I have ever encountered - including Rebus, Robicheux, Harry Bosche and many others.

Great stuff...

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Actually, I figure that I mess up my own life quite a bit without needing guidance from novels. My role model is Lord Emsworth, who is never fazed by anything more serious than the eating habits of the Empress of Blandings (a prize-winning pig, for those who haven't discovered the Wodehouse stories).


Movie Covers: The most laughable example of movie cover I've seen was for Tracy Chevalier's "Girl With a Pearl Earring." When the movie came out, the publisher replaced Vermeer's painting with a shot of Scarlett Johansson dressed up as the subject of Vermeer's painting.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm, not sure about this: I rather fancy Scarlett Johansson. . . .


Books by Multiple Authors: I just read The Chopin Manuscript and I enjoyed it. Certainly not the best murder mystery ever, but part of the fun was trying to figure out if the writing style changed drastically with each new author.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Monterey to Arlington via Dirdaville: For your thirteen-year-old. How about Bernard Cornwell or (haven't tried this one, but my 13-year-old neighbor seems to like him) Conn Iguldon (Know that's not spelled right, but close) Also, could the wondrous Elizabeth please provide some a link to the May 4 BW? There was a travel book that was reviewed right below (on-line edition) Tony Horwitz's VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE, but I can't think of the reviewer or the title. If you haven't been able to pick up VOYAGE... it's delightful, as was BLUE LATITUDES and one of my all-time favorites, CONFEDERATES in the ATTIC. Thanks. Hope you're getting at least a little break.

washingtonpost.com: LOVE Horwitz - here's the Book World review of his "A Voyage Long and Strange." The other travel book you are trying to remember that was reviewed in that issue might be No-Man's Lands.

Michael Dirda: There you have it, from the wondrous Elizabeth herself.


Washington, D.C.: Capote can't seem to do anything right in the last third of his bio.

Michael Dirda: So true about Tru.


Baltimore Md.: Michael: Two weeks ago, the question came up as to whether anyone reads D.H. Lawrence now. Just wanted to say that anyone with an interest in Lawrence's life and work, should they they find themselves in Taos, NM, must pay a visit to the so-called D.H. Lawrence Ranch, about 1/2 hour north.

The wealthy bohemian Mabel Dodge Luhan (who counted Jack "Ten Days That Shook the World" Reed among her lovers) gave Lawrence and his wife Frieda the property in the early 20s. Lawrence loved the landscape and climate so much that Frieda had his body disinterred from its burial place in Italy, cremated what remained and took the ashes to the ranch, where she built a tasteful little memorial.

Not as tasteful was the brouhaha over the ashes, with both Mabel Dodge Luhan and another woman (whose name I can't recall) contending with Frieda for their possession. According to a pamphlet available at the ranch, Frieda had Lawrence's ashes mixed with the concrete used in making the altar inside the memorial, exclaiming, "Let's see them get their hands on him now!"

Luhan is buried in the town of Taos, in an unassuming grave in Kit Carson Cemetery, where the grave of the great pathfinder and scout is the main attraction.

By the way, given that the ride to the ranch is a bit bone jarring today in a 4-wheel drive, I can only imagine what it was like in the early 20s in, I presume, a horse drawn vehicle.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Lexington: Michael, For those interested in historical novels, does anyone read Hervey Allen anymore? He was a descendent of the Allen family that raised Edgar Allen Poe, and "Anthony Adverse" is his best known book. A best seller, it was made into a movie with Fredric March, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and Fritz Leiber, father of the SF writer. Still a great book to lose oneself in for a summer read as I did at fourteen ( it's over 1200 pages! ). It's an exciting read still, full of incident, intrigue, revenge, romance; he was trying for a "Count of Monte Cristo." Not in print, but that's what libraries are for, and copies are readily available through the internet.

Another terrific book for a summer read is one that you mentioned recently - "Other Men's Daughters" by Richard Stern, not read much any more (his collected stories were recently published by Northwestern Press), but this book has been kept in print. This book could have been written by Roth and, in fact, a blurb on the dj has Roth describing the novel as if Chekhov had written "Lolita" (not quite, since the daughter of the title is actually a college student, the age of his own daughters - but there are resemblences). It's a beautifully, poignantly written novel of an academic (he teaches Physiology!!) who has settled into middle-age stagnation in his marriage and his career. Suddenly one summer he is jolted into a renewal of self, in the words of Roth - "The theme is Leaving Home, departing the familiar and the cherished for erotic renewal." But the telling is more Chekhov than Roth and it is gently told, comedic and does not overlook the pain and pathos of renewal. This belongs on the same shelf with Malamud's "A New Life" and John Willians' "Stoner."

Michael Dirda: Thank you, Lexington. I think you'll start a run on Stern's novel.


Lenexa, Kan.: Let me come to the defense of Alice Walker (I've always been an admirer of "The Color Purple" which did win a Pulitzer).

I saw her recently on Book-TV's In-Depth. Living in Berkeley, she came across as very intelligent, gracious, and in the course of the program fielded a wide range of questions with very impressive scholarship. She also said insightful things like: "Hip Hop has some problems but it also has a lot of energy and a lot of truth" (from a note I took).

washingtonpost.com: Alice Walker on Book TV's In Depth

Michael Dirda: Okay.


Chicago, Ill.: Not a biography, but this is a memoir penned by a most definite loser: "A Memoir of No One in Particular: In Which Our Author Indulges in Naïve Indiscretions, a Self-aggrandizing Solipsism, and an Off-putting Infatuation with His Own Bodily Functions" by Daniel Harris. It's actually hilarious.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Bookstore shelving: This is something that's always bothered me about bookstores. Why do they have a classics' section, especially in the children's section? It seems to me that the way to get the young 'uns to read "classics" is just to mix 'em in with the other books--once something gets called a classic, it's doomed (well, not always, but mostly). Why don't they just shelve books alphabetically by author and let us wander at sweet will?

Michael Dirda: I'm with you. I can only suppose that they figure that it makes better marketing sense to separate them.
Now, wouldn't it be great if bookstores shelved all the books at random, forcing people to go through shelf after shelf in search of any particular title and doubtless discovering others of even greater interest along the way?


Westminster, Md.: I'd like to hear from other chat participants for recommendations on Library Thing and other book cataloguing programs.

Last week I catalogued 200 titles on Library Thing -- the maximum allowed for free -- and am considering paying the $25 lifetime fee to list the rest of my books. What experiences do Dirda on Books chatters have with Library Thing or other similar programs?

Maintaining a list of my large book collection in a Word or Excel document has gotten cumbersome and I'm looking for a convenient alternative.

Love the chat. Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Library Thing

Michael Dirda: See the link. I have a friend who does Book Mooch and, I think, Library Thing (not sure about this). I remember looking at the site once, but didn't quite get the point. I probably need to look again.


Freising, Germany: Wouldn't you agree that in literature, when someone is thrown to the dogs, it usually isn't with the intention of educating the dogs?

In "Decline and Fall," when the governor of the prison talks of "Observation Therapy" and describes Pennyfeather's plight as, "I decided that R. was suffering from misanthropic tendencies induced by a sense of his own inferiority in the presence of others. R.'s crime was the result of an attempt to assert individuality at the expense of community."

The term "expense of community" seems ironic here since the outside world remains ignorant of Pennyfeather's past and also of his soon-to-improve future. With the exception of Socialist or Communist tomes (Upton Sinclair comes to mind), isn't society usually portrayed as a hopelessly unchanging, uninformed and uninspired entity that can still make or break men of ambition?

Actually, the term "individuality" reminds me of Ayn Rand, but she was quite critical of the intelligence of the masses.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks just for quoting a bit of Waugh's delicious prose. Yes, society has nearly always been viewed as a monolith, stiff and inhuman. Just look at "Antigone." Of course, it's portrayed this way because it largely is this way.


Bronx, New York: Hi Michael,

I'm the one who complained about The Brothers K. I ended up sticking it out and am glad for it. I read some criticism, which really helped me appreciate the book. In fact, I'd say one shouldn't read it w/out some criticism. I used "A Karamazov Companion" by Victor Terras and those editions edited by Harold Bloom. I'm digging into the Holocaust now and am reading Saul Friedlander's "Nazi Germany and the Jews." I'm learning a tremendous amount. He writes with such clarity and detachment. It's kind of amazing considering he was a survivor. I'd like to read "The Coming of the Third Reich" by Richard Evans next, but I don't know anything about it. Have you read it? If so, would you recommend it? Does anyone else know about it?


washingtonpost.com: I have a book to recommend, which I read in a college seminar on Holocaust literature: "Patterns of Childhood" by Christa Wolf, who was a child in Germany during the Nazi period. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, to Bronx and Elizabeth.


Carrboro, N.C.: I'm a big fan of Boswell's London Journal, his Life of Johnson, and the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Thanks to your newest book, I am now reading with great amusement Aubrey's Brief Lives (Swisser swatter swisser swatter!) as well. Can you recommend any other memoirs/journals/letters by equally amusing Englishmen from those feisty days of yore?

Also, do you plan on coming out with another book of reviews or, perhaps, "Classics for Pleasure II: Twice the Pleasure"? Without such books, my volumes of Sheridan Le Fanu, Georgette Heyer, E.F. Benson, etc etc. would be naught but empty spaces on my bookshelf. My wallet would be thicker, but that's quite beside the point...

Michael Dirda: I'd like to do another book of essays and have the material, but I keep thinking I should hold off a while and first try something else. But since nothing else has come to mind recently, I may just try to see if anyone would be interested in more essays by MD.
As for other books of the genre you like: You should try The Goncourt Journals, translated by Robert Baldick, for a taste of French literary life, with Flaubert, Maupassant, Turgenev as characters. I'm also fond of Vasari's Lives of the Artists--some great stories there too. And of course there's the original: Plutarch's Lives.


Losers: What about Robert Falcon Scott, the explorer who died after reaching the South Pole second? Nothing went right for that guy, absolutely nothing. I'd recommend The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford.

Michael Dirda: Yes, but he became a model English hero. In truth, this idea is very Japanese: There's a great book by Ivan Morris about the Japanese tradition of admiring those who die in a noble endeavor without succeeding. It's called The Nobility of Failure.


Jeopardy for $5,000: Whose children were named Napoleon, Franklin, Athalie and Irma?

We love your pieces in Book World, your books, and this on-line discussion!

Michael Dirda: Who told you the names of my kids?


Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Dirda,

In writing about your Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books, Amazon.com customer book reviewer OPK wrote:

"This is an excellent book for idle perusing. But one really longs for Dirda to be given a better platform than the Post's Bookworld pages. Many of these essays seem like they were quite a bit longer in an earlier draft, and most of those can use the extra length.

I'd be interested to see Dirda taking up a post like Christopher Hitchens's gig at the Atlantic. In fact... it would seem to me to be trading up at this point to replace Hitchens with Dirda."

Beyond impugning the integrity of your Washington Post platform, what do you think? You're already a cause celebre here in metro DC; do you fancy yourself making an even bigger splash from a higher platform?

Michael Dirda: You're kind to say these things about me. I do now write longer pieces for The New York Review of Books and The American Scholar. But it is hard to find venues that will allow more than 1500 words for a single literary piece. That is, venues that pay and that will allow me to write about the odd books I favor. In fact, I rather like writing short rather than long. I think I'm best as an introducer and enthusiast, rather than an analytic critic (though I can do that when I need to). But the fact is I don't like seeming superior or supersmart or being polemical and didactic. I feel these are just showoffy forms of writing. I'm etymologically an amateur at heart--one who loves.
That said, I'd write a column for The Atlantic or Harper's in a heartbeat.But I now wonder if there's not some way to take my personality and knowledge into the increasingly popular world of blogs and such. I don't know how to make it pay, though.


Bethesda, Md.: (Not Francis Tanabe)

There is only one book for a boy of that age: T.H. White's "The Once and Future King." It is better than any Harry Potter book by a power of ten.

Michael Dirda: Certainly The Sword in the Stone--the first volume--is just about perfect.


Michael Dirda: Sigh. There are many more questions today, but I'm running out of steam and, I suspect, Elizabeth needs to get on to other things too. I'm sorry if I didn't get to your question. Try again. Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!


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