Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, July 2, 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) In 2006 he brought out "Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life" (Henry Holt), and in 2007 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, July 2.

A transcript follows.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! I've just come back from three hours at the local mall, having exchanged a pair of khakis for my no. 2 son and bought a tee shirt. I was also lured by a street vendor into having my hands washed with Dead Sea sea salt and one of my finger nails buffed. This last was a particular mistake, in that I now have nine dull looking fingernails and one bright shiny one. It reminds me a little of professional bookbinders, who always let one of their nails grow long because it was useful in some aspect of binding--I can't remember what any more.

This past couple of weeks I've received in the mail some interesting books, two by David Meyer: "Memoirs of a Book Snake: Forty Years of Seeking and Saving Old Books" and "Inclined Toward Magic: Encounters with Books, Collectors and Conjurors." I read the first with pleasure, having a longstanding interest in book scout memoirs. The other deals with magic, a subject that also fascinates me. Another small publisher sent me an updated version of a classic book called "How to Be A Perfect Gentleman," though I don't have it right at hand to verify. Ever since college, I've been fascinated with manners, proper dress, etiquette, and all those other social niceties--I guess at least partly because my background didn't include much that encouraged these skills. As it happens, my hero Stendhal was particularly finicky about being dressed a la mode, since he considered himself fat and ugly (not entirely a mistaken judgment), but that his wit, combined with nice duds, would win the hearts of men--and more important, ladies. It did too.

Well enough of this rambling. Let's look at this week's questions on another bright sunny, but not too hot, day in Washington.

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Maryland: Last week Wilmington, Del., asked for titles of biographies of losers. How about "Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure" by Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster. It was first published in the U.K. in 2005. I haven't read this book myself, but I came across Brian Howard's name recently when I read Diana Mosley's autobiography, "A Life of Contrasts" and a biography of her sister Nancy Mitford called "Life in a Cold Climate." One of the books said it was difficult to say why Brian Howard never achieved success, because he was intelligent, well-educated, and could be charming.

Michael Dirda: I've been looking for this book for years. Brian Howard and Harold Acton were the two leading decadents at Oxford during the era of Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly and company -- the so-called Brideshead Generation. I believe that Brian served as the model for Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited -- a golden boy, with a taste for rough trade. At all events, he was talented but never accomplished much, partly through living a life of indolence and excess. He's also a key figure in Martin Green's Children of the Sun.

Acton wrote a two-volume set of memoirs (as well as book about his friend Nancy Mitford), but there's not much to be found by or about Howard. I once saw a copy of a book about Howard--I don't think it was this one, since it was older and prohibitively expensive. Anyway, this is a good addition to our library of failure.

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Michael Dirda: Help--did my very long post about Brian Howard go through? I hope so. For some reason there was some kind of glitch here.

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Anonymous: I think that my submission lost its way. In case you never got it here is a short version: Can one be a good writer without reading books? This writer believes that creative and imaginative processes and emotions come from "inside" not borrowed from outside (books, for instance) What is your opinion ??

Michael Dirda: Anything is possible. But most writers started out as readers, and great writers were, at least in their younger days, usually great readers. It's not as if you're going to ruin your inner fire by studying how novels are made or poems created. All imaginative art, at its best, is combination of inspiration (in the widest sense) builidng on solid technique. Sometimes you don't need the inspiration, but always need the technique.

At least until you're an old master. In old age, something happens and artists often become freer, wilder, and more artless than they had been early in their careers. It's as if they've been freed by age to do whatever they want, that when all the circus animals desert, one needs to go down to the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

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Moab, Utah: Do you -- or any of our illustrious readers -- know who said (something like), "There are two types of great stories, when extraordinary things happen to ordinary people and when ordinary things happen to extraordinary people."? Also, if you don't get to answer all the submissions, do you still read all of them?

Michael Dirda: I know the phrase, but don't know its originator. I tend to go through the posts in order, answering them one after the other. As time runs out I will then start to jump around a bit. I do tend to read all the questions that my producer sends to me. Sometimes I'll skip a question if I've answered it a zillion times or if I don't have anything at all to say about it, or if I just don't think it very interesting. But this is rare.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a long car ride with three boys coming up and we would like to give each of them a book that would grab their attention relatively quickly and quite possibly hold it for a good portion of the trip. The oldest is 13, the middle one is 11 and the youngest is 7. Could you recommend a book for each of them?

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. I'd say, starting from oldest to youngest: Look for the anthology Five by Daniel Pinkwater or Four More by Daniel Pinkwater--these include "Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars" and "The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death," among other wonderful titles. I think the 13 year old and the 11 year old too, for that matter, would like them. For the 7 year old, you might try the Time Warp Trio novels of Jon Sciescka (or is it Lane Smith--they work together).

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Mount St Joseph HS Baltimore, Md.: Good afternoon. A gentle to reminder to all that good summer reading might also include non-fiction! Three suggestions: David Maraniss' "ROME 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World"; Jack Weatherford's "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World"; and Kim MacQuarrie's "The Last Days of the Incas". Enjoy!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. My colleague Maraniss makes me despair--why can't I write big best sellers that are also very fine books?

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Syracuse, N.Y.: I am looking for a book I read as a pre-teen in 1984. No memory of title or author, but the plot went something like this: A teenage girl travels back in time (1800s, I think it was) and assumes the identity of a woman who (I think I am remembering this right) is actually her ancestor. She falls in love and gets pregnant. (Side story: This book was on the shelf in my sixth grade classroom; a bunch of us read it, but when the teacher found out that the main character got pregnant out of wedlock, she confiscated the book.) At the end of the book, when she returns to present time, she finds in her family album a photograph of herself in the past. Can anyone help me figure out what book this was? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: I can't. But there are innumerable novels about time travel in which the modern day figure becomes his or her ancestor. Perhaps some other poster will recognize your description.

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Carrboro, N.C.: I was unexpectedly moved by the poem by Vincent Starrett that you quote in the Classics for Pleasure entry on Arthur Conan Doyle -- the one that goes "They still live for all that love them well/In a romantic chamber of the heart/In a nostalgic country of the mind/Where it is always 1895."

What a wonderful way of expressing why so many people enjoy Holmes and other historical detectives: they operate safely on a stage not yet scorched by the horrors of the 20th century. I suspect Conan Doyle had some feeling of this as well, in one of the last Holmes stories, "His Last Bow." After foiling a German who is spying in preparation for World War I, Holmes and Watson stand overlooking the sea on a warm English evening.

"There's an east wind coming, Watson."

"I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."

"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared..."

Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that for once, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, always right, ever vigilant...was wrong.

Michael Dirda: These are famous lines, in general, but especially poignant ones for members of the Baker Street Irregulars. At each year's birthday dinner, there comes a period when the Irregulars who have died during the previous year are briefly memorialized. This part of the program is called "Stand with me here upon the terrace"--the lines that introduce the section you quote.

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Chapel Hill, N.C. (Audio Book Girl): Hi, Michael.Sorry to have been a delinquent here. (June was a tough month; I'm just glad it's over!) Anyway, I'd like to share a few books I've enjoyed recently: Roger Grenier's (French) "The Difficulty of Being a Dog" and, just completed, Andrew OHagan's "Be Near Me." I found the latter to be exceptionally sensitive and well-written for such a young writer -- he's only 40.

On the audio front, I've listened to "The Planets" by Dava Sobel; "Two Teaching Co.: The History of Ancient Rome" and "The Science Wars." I'm almost finished with "The Aeneid," read by Simon Callow,who is marvelous, as you might expect. (He tends to drop his voice at he end of lines, which is maddening, but I've forgiven him...)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the update. Somewhere I have a tape of Callow reading an abridged version--two cassettes--of Kenneth Tynan's delicious and scandalous diaries. He is indeed a terrific reader.

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Ocala, Fla.: I'm working my way through the wonderful "Flashman Papers," and it occurs to me that they would probably be unpublishable today, due to their political incorrectness. Your thoughts?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm: There are two answers to this--1) Yes, the Victorian mores that the General describes are indeed out of fashion today, and 2) What do you mean? The Flashman books have been incredibly popular, and Fraser's recent death widely lamented in general and, in particular, because we will apparently never know the whole story of how Flashman served on both sides during the Civil War (and was honored with highest awards for valor from each).

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Stirling, Scotland: Last week someone asked about books featuring people with lives where nothing works out right. I realized later that the husband in "Madame Bovary" is that sort of character. I've always thought it was brilliant for Flaubert to open the book with his childhood, to put her in relief, and then complete the story with a bookend (so to speak!) about his fate. As always, thanks for the chats.

Michael Dirda: I'd disagree with this. Charles is a dolt in many ways, especially when he bungles the operation, but for most of his life he has been blissfully happy with his beautiful Emma and totally unaware of her infidelities or unhappiness. Where Emma seeks fulfillment of her romantic dreams and fails, Charles actually succeeds--at least until the very end when he learns the truth. And even then he can't quite believe it.

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Richmond Hill, Ga.: I'm currently about halfway through Peter Ackroyd's "Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination," which I am finding very interesting. I've also enjoyed his book on London and his bios of Shakespeare and Dickens. Although I found things of interest in his novels, "The Trial of Elizabeth Cree" and "The Clerkenwell Tales" and in the short volumes on Newton and Chaucer in his new "Brief Lives" series, I didn't really care for them. Is that me or is his reputation higher in the areas of literary history and longer biography?

Michael Dirda: Ackroyd's earlier novels tend to be the more admired--Hawksmoor, in particular, and Elizabeth Cree (aka Dan Leon and the Limehouse Golem). Since then, he's become such a producive and daunting writer of biographies and histories that it's hard to keep up with him. He seems to be trying to capture every nuance of British character and life in a series of nonfiction books, of various kinds. I've only read a few of these, but I thought his life of William Blake quite thrilling and insightful. London struck me as loose and baggy and full of just too much stuff to be a book to read rather than one to consult.

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Irish Lit: Early post, doctors (as in Nabokov's picnic, lightning). Read a ton of books for a trip to Ireland, over many months and emerged with two powerful recommendations: John McGahern's spare, graceful and painful memoir, "All Will be Well." And Sebastian Barry's war novel -- poetry, but not of the clotted kind; easy to read and a fine etched portrait, "A Long, Long Way." Well known in Europe and a prizewinner, but seemingly little read here.

Summer project -- Dance to the Music of Time.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I've read short stories by McGahern but it's been a while. Both books sound appealing.

But I don't get your reference to doctors: As I recall, Humbert is talking about how his mother died and uses the parenthetical and ellliptical phrase "picnic, lightning." A quiz: What modern poet uses this phrase as the title for one of his collections? No googling.

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Freising, Germany: How would you campare Guy de Maupassant with Gustave Flaubert? If de Maupassant was a protege of Flaubert, which aspects of their writing would be similar?

Michael Dirda: There uses to be rumors that Maupassant was Flaubert's natural child, but these seem to now be discounted. Flaubert taught Maupassant the virtues of precision. Remember his famous lesson in which he asked Maupassant to describe some common object-- a carriage for hire, I think--so that one could distinguish it from all the others, which looked essentially just like it.

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Pittsburgh: Who do you think was the best Sherlock Holmes? I liked Jeremy Brett on the series aired by PBS. What do you think of Sacha Baron Cohen ("Borat") now being cast in the role, with Will Ferrell as Watson?

washingtonpost.com: Elementary, my dear Borat: Sacha Baron Cohen to star as Sherlock Holmes (Mail Online, July 2)

Michael Dirda: Well, this is news to me. Without having read the article, I presume this will be a comic version of Holmes, a la Gene Wilder's Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother. I like Rathbone best, but Brett runs him a close second. I think the two Watsons on the Brett series were the best ever, a much harder role, in some ways.

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Dragonfly - Silver Spring, Md,: In "An Open Book" you wistfully wrote of childhood summers spent shooting half-ripe elderberries from your Daisy air rifle and smoking cattails. Would you please elaborate in some detail on the latter? I do hope that cattail-smoking didn't lead to the harder stuff, such as pickerelweed. My what a louche lad from Lorain you were...

Michael Dirda: Oh, from cattails I progressed right on to candy cigarettes and from there to bubble pipes. I was a pretty hard case, let me tell you. In truth, other than those cattails, I've never smoked anything in my life. I have my vices but tobacco hasn't been one of them.

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RE:"picnic, lightning. A quiz: What modern poet uses this phrase as the title for one of his collections?" : Billy Collins!!!!! I heart him. Do I win? The doctors reference, I think, is that the poster is posting early because he or she has a doctor appointment.

Michael Dirda: You win! Yes, Billy will appear on a mutually agreeable date to recite his poetry during a summer barbecue when thunderstorms are threatening. Poetry and life -- together again!

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A Random Recommendation: Summer always makes me turn to mysteries,so I thought I would recommend recently discovered (by me) Peter Livesey. I have to say that nobody writes mysteries like the British. His are a great combination of intriguing mystery, great character development, droll humor and fine writing. For starters, I'll pick out "The House Sitter" in his Peter Diamond series.

Michael Dirda: Yes, Peter Lovesey is a fine writer. Crippen and Landru, that estimable pubilsher of short-story collections by mystery writers, has a just published round-up of some of his short fiction: "Murder on the Short List." I recommend that any detective story aficionados check out this publisher's website. Besides Peter Diamond, Lovesey has some novels in which the detective is none other than Bertie, the Prince of Wales and some others featuring the Victorian detective Sergeant Cribb.

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Philadelphia: For the parent of three boys -- you didn't say how well they get along, or how long the trip is, but here are my suggestions (some of these you may have to find from libraries or used book sources). Gordon Korman's "Son of Interflux" or "Losing Joe's Place" for the oldest, one or more of Gordon Korman's Bruno and Boots series or the Bugs Potter series for the middle, and then Gordon Korman's, er, nose picker books for the youngest.

No, I have no affiliation with him, but I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents' car reading one of his YA books when I was about 13 at the same time my younger sister -- then 10 -- read a Bruno and Boots book with our brother, then 7. (Korman hadn't yet written the nose picker ones.) When I finished my book and she finished hers we swapped, because we'd found what we'd been reading so funny. Our brother, sadly, missed out on the Gordon Korman until the return trip, by which time we'd made sure to pick up the Bugs Potter ones to read together along the way. (This trip, I should note, was not a typical one. Normally we read, yes, but not to each other -- we mostly tried to ignore the fact that we had siblings when we were trapped the car for those endless trips.)

As long as your sons don't read the books out loud to each other, you can encourage them to trade once they finish them. And if they do read out loud to each other, you'll probably find the books almost as amusing as they do.

Michael Dirda: Good advice about sharing and trading. I'm sorry to say that I know nothing about Gordon Korman. This surprises me, but I've been away from kids books, as an active reviewer, for more than a decade now. Still . . .

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Re: Syracuse Book mystery: I couldn't find the book through different google searches (though the plot sounds familiar) I found this website, which may be able to help!

Stump the Bookseller Reading the entries is also pretty interesting!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Is this my competition? I thought we played "Stump Dirda" here?

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Another Sherlock: I heard that Robert Downey, Jr., is going to be cast as Sherlock in a movie version. I guess he has the drug experience. But I fear we are verging into Celebritology land here.

Michael Dirda: Well, there have been more movies about Holmes, I think, than just about any other fictional character. And as many different approaches. Whatever keeps interest in the Master alive is what counts.

Hmmm. I wonder if Downey or Borat would come to a BSI weekend?

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Silver Spring, Md.: To Syracuse,

Here is a link of romance time-travel books. Hopefully you'll see a title or author you recognize.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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New York: I'm a sucker for affecting books, like Vonnegut and Heinlein and Cervantes and the like. Can you recommend five or so such books, perhaps not as well known, that are on your "must read" list?

Michael Dirda: Five "affecting" books? You mean, like, tear-jerkers, heart-breakers, that sort of thing? Well, here are some classics:

Marie Madeline de La Fayette: The Princess of Cleves

Benjamin Constant: Adolphe

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night

Lampedusa, The Leopard

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State College, Pa.:"Michael Dirda: You win! Yes, Billy will appear on a mutually agreeable date to recite his poetry during a summer barbecue when thunderstorms are threatening. Poetry and life -- together again!"

I can hardly wait! Billy Collins is my very favorite poet. I love his use of natural language, humor, and the twist at the end of his poems that always bring the reader to an unexpected place.

Years ago, I had an opportunity to meet him. I lived in Chicago at the time and worked for John Van Doren (son of poet Mark Van Doren), who was active in Chicago's Poetry Center. They'd invited Billy Collins to come do a reading (this was before he was well-known). Mr. Van Doren, knowing that I wrote poetry, invited me to come to dinner with him and Mr. Collins and to the reading. I have no idea why, but I declined. I was young and stupid. Sigh...

Michael Dirda: Young and stupid go together like peanut butter and jelly. Look at it this way: Maybe Billy would have been obnoxious in person and you would have found yourself incapable of reading his poetry ever again. Such things happen.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I agree with your opinion of the two Watsons who worked with Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes. David Burke and Edward Hardwicke were superb.It seems to me that Watsons are the Rodney Dangerfields of the literary world. They present the hero, make him/her look really good, and get no respect.

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. But Burke and Hare--I mean Hardwicke (I must have my little jokes)--made Watson into a worthy friend of Holmes, not just his butt or a well-meaning bumpkin. One of the triumphs of the Jeeves and Wooster series was in fact Hugh Laurie's Bertie--it's easy to be Jeeves, but a great Bertie takes true genius.

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Michael Dirda: And that appears to be it for this week's session of Dirda on Books! So now, friends, get back out into the sunshine or, perhaps, under that shade tree in the backyard and crack open . . . something to read.

Till next Wednesday at 2 -- keep reading!

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