Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, July 16, 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 16.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's been a rather harried week here in Washington. Why you ask? (To use the most hackneyed of all rhetorical devices.) Because I wish I were elsewhere, beside a lake, relaxing, taking a watercolor class, playing tennis, enjoying the idle pleasures of summer days and nights. Instead, as the old song goes, I've got worries, I've got troubles. Well, don't we all?

But for the next hour, we'll forget about all that. I find that this forum gives me as much pleasure, instruction and escape as I hope it offers, at least some of the time, to all those writing in with questions and comments.

Before I begin I would like to recommend a recent book: Pushcart Press has reissued Doris Grumbach's achingly beautiful and heartbreaking novel Chamber Music. It's set in turn of the century Europe and Saratoga Springs, features a composer, an unhappy marriage, an artist's colony, and an unexpected blossoming of unexpected love. Most of all, though, it's beautifully composed--just the right verb for this book too.

And now let's look at the week's questions.


Seattle, Wash.: I've been looking at a lot of older Western novels from the 1930s by William Colt MacDonald and more recent books by Robert Parker as well as new non-fiction on Tombstone and the OK Corral fight. Is this an area that you find interesting, the great American Myth of the West? My family was still in the Russian Empire and the Pale of Settlement back in the 1870s and 1880s but still find it fascinating.

Michael Dirda: While I'm basically a print-oriented guy, the American West for me has always meant the movies. I think one could argue that the Western is the only original form to come out of Hollywood. So while I've read the occasional novel set in the West--e.g. Little Big Man, The Searchers--I think that the myth has really been cinematic. Like the hero of The Moviegoer, I remember how John Wayne falls from a stagecoach, firing his pistol, or the Clantons with steely eyes waiting at the OK corral or . . . Just the fact that I know the names Clanton and Earp and Holliday and Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and a good many others testifies to the power of those images.


Houston, Tex.: Nice to be here again. I have two questions for you...

1. Ivy Compton Burnett. I read Manservant and Maidservant and loved it -- thanks for the recommendation. Are there any other titles of her that you particularly enjoyed, or are they, as I kind of suspect, all of a piece?

2. Patrick Hamilton. Any thoughts?


Michael Dirda: Compton-Burnett is pretty even in her level of achievement, and if you like her style--many people don't--you can safely try almost any of the other books. Still, you might look for Brothers and Sisters.

-Burnett, for those new to her, wrote black-humored novels set in stately English country houses, where the families often reenact the kind of things one usually associates with Greek tragedies--incest, murder, etc etc. She details all this in elegant, refined prose, in which every one speaks with especial correctness. It's quite delicious and intoxicating in its way.

Ah, Patrick Hamilton. Long have I meant to read Hangover Square and his other books and long have I not managed to do so. Should I make a greater effort?


Augusten Burroughs: Thoughts?

I just read DRY and loved it. I want to rush out and get the rest of his books.

Michael Dirda: Well, I think you should just wait an hour until DOB is over, and then hurry on to the bookstore. Alas, my Burroughs are all named Edgar Rice, John, and William.


Formerly Friendship Heights: HI Mr Dirda,

Hope you and the animals are well.

A vet school buddy of mine was reducing the size of her library and gave me, among other things, a copy of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove". Have you read it? Is it worth the 843 page or so effort? (yes, I am sounding wimpy now, but have never read a western and don't know if this is a good one to start with.)

Many thanks, R.

Michael Dirda: Yes, you should read it: It's arguably his best book and one of the best novels of the American west.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, Have you read Larry McMurtry's Books: A Memoir? Can you recommend any new book on books or bibliomystery?

Michael Dirda: Two questions about Larry McMurtry in a row. What are the chances? Yes, I've read Books: A Memoir, and have in fact written a piece about it (not for the Post). I won't say any more about it now.

New books or bibliomysteries? I can't point to any right off hand, but have you read all the classics: Charles Everitt's Adventures of a Treasure Hunter? David Randall's Dukedom Large Enough? Those are memoirs. Many of the Edmund Crispin mysteries turn on bookish matters--lost Shakespeare plays, for instance. One might also include Michael Innes's Hamlet, Revenge!, in which Polonius is murdered during an amateur production of Hamlet on a great English country estate.


Alexandria, Va.: What's the least dense book by Don DeLillo? I'm looking for a starting point to jump into his work and Mao 2 lost me quickly several years ago.

Michael Dirda: Read the opening section--set at a play-off baseball game--of Underworld. It's practically a standalone short story. If this doesn't grab you and lead you into reading the rest of the novel, I don't think DeLillo is for you.


Washington, D.C.: I love writers like Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, and Haruki Murakami. I love them so much that I have bought ARC of Auster's new book (due out in August) and Carroll's (due out in September). Any other authors you could recommend that are as good as these three? Thanks!

Michael Dirda: I like these writers too, even if I was rather critical of one of Auster's recent novels. Is it the stylishness you like? The insertion of mystery into seemingly ordinary life? The sense of the uncanny and off kilter?

Let's see. Have you read the novels of J.G. Ballard? I think these might work for you. Also, Angela Carter's early books, perhaps Russell Hoban's too--not so much Riddley Walker as Kleinzeit and The Medusa Frequency. I'm sure there are lots of others that will occur to me in a moment.


Westerns: The UK newspaper "Telegraph" recently listed Charles Portis's "True Grit" as one of "100 Books Every Child Should Read." Overlook Press has reprinted it.

Michael Dirda: Portis is one of those authors that people love and yet who seldom quite registers on the literary radar. His comic novels have been reissued lately with encomia by Roy Blount, among others, but I still don't know many readers of The Dog of the South.


Houston, Tex.: I think "Libra" might also make a good starting off point for DeLillo.

Michael Dirda: Ok. Or White Noise.


Charlotte: Michael, I recently bought a collection of Wodehouse short stories and am having a hard time getting into it. They seem so, so, so contrived and predictable. Help, what am I missing?

Michael Dirda: They are contrived and predictable. What's wonderful is the prose--the similes, the chirpy tone of voice--and the way he manages to bring everything together at the end. Wodehouse is, in his way, all about surface. As he once said, he wrote musical comedies without the music.


Now you've done it: After learning of Peter H. Cannon's Lovecraft/Wodehouse combo, several of us decided we could not live without it. It took several of us because the cheapest copy we could find was $75. Once we all read it, the question of actual ownership, i.e. place of residence, will arise...

Michael Dirda: Is this true? Scream for Jeeves used to be found pretty readily at sf conventions and I didn't think it had actually gone out of print. Well, I hope you enjoy it. As for who should keep it on his shelf: Perhaps you could have a lottery and the person willing to pay the most for the rights could keep it, then you could all divide that sum and reduce the cost of your own investment. Is this how Wall Street types think? Did I miss a career in arbitrage or leverage buyouts or something?


Baltimore, Md.: Re the Seattle poster and books on Tombstone/Wyatt Earp: The poster did not mention what he or she has read, but there are two books I would recommend. To Die in the West, by Paula Mitchell Marks, looks at Tombstone through a semi-Marxist prism (seriously!) with the Earps, who were agents of the business faction, arrayed against the Cowboys, who are depicted as agrarian and Southern. A good Earp bio is Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. Can't recall the author's name but it's in print.

That the O.K. Corral and its aftermath (the so-called Vendetta Ride, when Earp went hunting for the men who murdered his brother Morgan after the gunfight) lives on in American life was brought home to me in the Metro a few weeks ago when I heard a woman behind me on the escalator say of a shooting in her neighborhood that, "It was like the OK Corral out there." Remarkable, since we're talking about an event that took place in the space of about 15 seconds back in 1881.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. But everyone knows about the OK Corral. Heck, there was even a Star Trek episode where the Enterprise crew ended up as the Clantons. It was a pretty good episode too.


Chantilly, Va.: Michael: The opening section of Underworld IS available in standalone form as a "novella" called Pafko at the Wall. Andy Pafko was the Dodgers' left fielder when Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run (since tarnished a bit following the revelations that the Giants had a sophisticated sign-stealing system in place when they went on the tear that got them into the playoff with the Dodgers).

washingtonpost.com: If you subscribe to Harper's Magazine you can read "Pafko at the Wall" on their website, harpers.org.

Michael Dirda: I knew that it had originally appeared as long story in Harpers, but not that it was available as a standalone book. Many thanks. It's a wonderful piece of writing--and I'm not even much of a baseball fan.


Monterey, Va.: Which of Russell Hoban's books would be good for a first? Anyone who can create a totally cool character like Frances the badgerette -- one of my favorites -- obviously has the art of characterization down cold.

Michael Dirda: Well, you should read The Mouse and His Child--it's a perfect novel, though intended for 12 year olds. Of the adult books: I already mentioned Kleinzeit and The Medusa Frequency, but Turtle Diary is also good--and was actually made into a movie (which I haven't seen). Supposedly a good movie too.

Also, don't miss his children's story The Marzipan Pig, about a candy pig that is lost and forgotten behind a couch. "I am growing hard and stale, and there is such sweetness in me."


Sherlock Holmes movies: Turns out the Sacha Baron Cohen/Will Ferrell version aspires to be a comedy. But Robert Downey Jr. has been announced as playing the great detective in a serious Holmes movie. Good choice? And whom would you cast as his Dr. Watson?

Michael Dirda: I like your use of the verb "aspires."

Gee, I haven't a clue who would make a good Watson opposite Downey. How about it,Ashcroft? You're a Sherlockian and a cinephile--any ideas?


Washington, D.C.: Last week a reader was interested in books that are non-linear narratives, e.g., the book may be 'backwards' starting with the final scene and then traversing to the beginning point.

My best suggestion would be the "Soldier of Arete" series by Gene Wolfe. The story is about a soldier who has a head injury and each day when he wakes up, he can't remember the day before. He uses all sorts of devices to prompt his memory and discover what happened to him.

One of the most interesting books I have ever read. The reader has to work to suss out what's going on. Just a marvelous piece of work.

Michael Dirda: Excellent suggestion. All of Gene Wolfe's works are, to say the least, intricate in their narrative forms.


Lenexa, Kan.: I watched Katha Pollitt recently on Book TV's "In Depth." Asked whether she found it easier to write her prose or her poetry, she went beyond the question by saying she found all her writing was by far the easiest if it was done under the pressure of a deadline. As a writer, she says she actually "loves the pressure." She said, "I sometimes tell would-be writers, 'Get yourself a deadline'." Any thoughts? Thanks as always.

washingtonpost.com: In Depth with Katha Pollitt (C-SPAN)

Michael Dirda: As the Oulipo said, constraints liberate the imagination. By working on assignment to deadline, I am able to focus my thoughts and energies. Technically, I'm on vacation now and should be reading for pleasure, but I've found this incredibly hard. What should I read first? next? I dither. When you have assignments with deadlines, you can't dither, you just read and work. It's a blessing, in that regard. But it does leave your reading at the mercy of others.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

Last week, Ashcroft pointed out that we shouldn't let guilt or a sense of duty play too much of a role in our reading choices, e.g., one can be a "good Canadian" without a steady diet of Atwood, Davies, Gallant, etc. Nevertheless, I do feel a bit of an obligation to read Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game", if only because I've read pretty much everything else he wrote and enjoyed most of it. I've read "Steppenwolf" five or six times even though I don't really get all the Mozart mysticism and am not crazy about all the "druggy" stuff. No one ever talks about "The Glass Bead Game", so my question is whether you or anyone else taking part in today's chat has read it. Is it a book that people enjoy, or would it be a "duty read"?

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Any help for WpgMan?


Texas: I read recently that Steven Millhauser (sp.??) lives in Saratoga Springs. I know you've commented on him very favorably. I'm wondering if you know whether he likes the races? Saratoga is certainly the place to be for one who does.

Apparently Hemingway once said to someone: "Do you read the Racing Form? There you have the true art of fiction."

Michael Dirda: Yes, Hemingway said this in his Writer at Work interview for the Paris Review.

I don't know if Millhauser goes to the races; I rather doubt it.

The poet Stephen Dobyns did write a series of mysteries set at the track there--they all have Saratoga in the titles.


Formerly Friendship Heights (again): Hiya again,

Jack Finney's "Time and Again" was also in that box of books my friend gave me. It looked intriguing (from a time travel standpoint) -- what do you think?

(And thanks for letting me bug you again.)

Michael Dirda: It's only the most famous time-travel novel of modern times. That said, I prefer Finney's time travel short stories, which are collected in a volume called About Time. Try "I love Galesburg in the Springtime."


Duluth, Minn.: Would you recommend a guide to the works of Wallace Stevens?

Michael Dirda: Would I? No, I wouldn't. I'd just buy a copy of the collected poems or of The Palm at the End of the Mine (a selection), and read the poems over and over. No doubt there are guides out there, but unless you have an academic reason for such research, I think just living with the poems is what you need to do.


Washington, D.C.: Finding Wodehouse contrived: You are of course exactly right. Wodehouse not only made the comment about writing musical comedies (very different in his day than now) without music, but he also said something like, "There are novels that go deep down into life without giving a damn, and then there are the kind I write."

For me, the quintessential Wodehouse line is in Uncle Fred in the Springtime, when one member of the Drones Club says to another, "I don't know if you know what the word 'excesses' means, but excesses are what Pongo's Uncle Fred, when in London, invariably commits."

The rhythm, structure and payoff of that sentence caused me to unthinkingly memorize it the first time I read it.

Michael Dirda: Excellent comments.


Houston, Tex.: It seems like $75.00 for "Scream for Jeeves" was a good deal. I just checked out Amazon, and the cheapest edition they had was $149.96.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I always knew I should be keeping better care of my books. But, being the author (long ago) of Caring for Your Books, I'm rather like the shoemaker's children who go shoeless. Now that's a cumbersome and illogical sentence, but I suspect you know what I mean.


Lexington: Hi Michael, Summer, initially, seems like such a good time to make an ambitious reading list with vacation time and leisurely days; but, then the heat and humidity sets in and I look for some lighter fare. So, herewith, a reading list of "summer books" not quite so ambitious ( or, at least the book is in "season" ) as Tolstoy, Proust, or, Cervantes:

Indian Summer by Wm D. Howells

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Summer by Edith Wharton

Other Men's Daughters by Richard Stern

A Dance to the Music of Time:Summer by Anthony Powell

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

Maybe you have some suggestions to add!

Michael Dirda: Very fine books. Anyone want to add a summer title or two?


Lexington: Mea culpa, how could I have forgotten to add to the summer list "Love on a Branch Line" by John Hadfield, set in a kind of Arcadia; so, another summer reading pleasure. Especially as I'm watching the DVD set with the beautiful Abigail Cruttenden romp around as the delightfully uninhibited Belinda!

Michael Dirda: Lucky you.


Incline Village, Nevada: Reading order? I bought both Sylvia Bedford's autobiography Quicksand and her autobiographical novel Jigsaw. Which would you read first?

Michael Dirda: Jigsaw. But I'd read A Legacy before either.


Arvada, Colo.: Hi - Hope you will tell us more about your talks to the Baker St. Irregulars, and the nature of their meetings. Do you plan to publish your talks to them as a special collection?

Michael Dirda: Oh, someday I may talk here about the BSI, but July doesn't seem quite the time for Sherlock Holmes. The three papers I've given at the BSI or related Sherlockian events have appeared in the Baker Street Journal and Canadian Holmes. I have no further plans for them just now, though I will be giving another Sherlockian or Doylean talk next year in Toronto.


Freising, Germany: I came across a quote recently, from historian G.M. Trevelyan, who in 1944 wrote in his book, "English Social History - A Survey Of Six Centuries - Chaucer To Queen Victoria", "Education has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading." Now obviously this chap had never heard of Dr. Dirda. What were you doing back in 1944?

I've also read recently a lament about the lack of world leaders with the ability to express themselves pithily. France's Charles de Gaulle, Britain's David Lloyd George and America's Lincoln, and of course, Sir Winston Churchill, are all noted to have produced fine words in adversity, but nobody has recently won admiration for their rhetoric. Do you know of a book that deals with speeches and quotes from renown political leaders?

One of my favorite political quotes is "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Actually the full quote from John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, known as Lord Acton, who in 1887 wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." I actually hope that he was wrong about that last point.

Michael Dirda: Back in 1944 I was apparently wafting about the astral plane, hoping not to be reborn as a weasel or ferret or something. My birth didn't take place until 1948.


Annapolis, Md.: To WPGMan: I haven't read the Hesse in question. But life is too short, and there are too many books, to read anything out of duty. If you've given it a good shot, and it hasn't grabbed you, then let it go. Even if it's just for now; you can always come back to it five or ten or twenty years down the road.

Michael Dirda: Good answer.


Palookaville: As to summer books, one of your recommendations of a few years back, "The Go-Between," is just about perfect, if only because it takes place in the summer. A bit of hot-weather Faulkner, like "The Hamlet" would work also.

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. Or Tennessee Williams--Suddenly, Last Summer; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Jack Finney: wonderful, wonderful short stories. "I Love Galesburg in the Springtime", "The Woodrow Wilson Dime", the semi-fantasy "The Intrepid Aeronaut", and my own favourite, the haunting (in every sense) "The Love Letter".

Holmes and Watson: the Cohen/Ferrell comedy version could be another "Without a Clue"; then again, they're not Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine, so it might be more akin to the fiasco that was the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore "Hound of the Baskervilles". Robert Downey Jr. has the acting ability to pull off Holmes, but much will depend on whom they cast as Watson. Don't know whether they'll go for another American actor in the role, or try for a Brit. I'd like to see the current incarnation of Doctor Who, David Tennant, have a go at the role; but he might be too young compared with Downey, and he might also be taller, which wouldn't be ideal. Come to think of it, he'd make a great Holmes.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft.


Michigan City, Ind.: Summer Books -

A Place to Come To (Robert Penn Warren)

Mansfield Park (Jane - what's-her-name)

The Three Policemen -or- At Swim Two Birds (Flann O'Brien)

Glad to be back, it's been a while.

Michael Dirda: The Third Policeman. I don't know about Mansfield Park--it's such an anti-Pride and Prejudice kind of book.


Lewisburg, Pa.: This is the first time I've dropped in on your Q and A, so forgive me if this has been discussed before. I am curious about the sudden popularity of young adult fiction among adult readers and writers, like Sherman Alexie and Nick Hornby. Why the uptick?

Michael Dirda: My guess is simply: The hunger for story. Children's fiction tends to move quickly, emphasize plot and action, and have a (relatively) happy ending. All these are occasionally lacking in modern adult fiction. Also, fantasy--a popular genre in general just now--has long been a traditional and accepted part of children's literature. Viz. Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, etc etc.


Pittsburgh: For anyone looking for "Scream for Jeeves" (and other costly books), if it's not important to you to OWN them but rather just to read them, check your local public library. If they don't have the book you seek, look up the title on http://www.worldcat.org

Doing this just now, I find that 70 US libraries have "Scream for Jeeves" available for Inter Library Loan.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the useful reminder. Libraries are wonderful.


Houston, Tex.: I'm currently close to finishing Roberto Bolano's "new" book, 2666. In section two, a main character meets a young man in a pharmacy who talks about his affection for short, perfectly shaped novels like Bartleby the Scrivener and The Metamorphosis instead of more ambitious books such as Moby-Dick. The main character observes:

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

Any thoughts?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Sounds as if Bolano had been reading Faulkner, possibly even Faulkner's Nobel speech.

Actually, I think there's a place for both the "perfect" work of art and the ambitious failure. In the long run, though, it's probably better to try to do something no one else can do and fail than to do something that you know you can do and succeed. In the immortal words of Samuel Beckett: Fail better.


The amazing bouncing ferret: Ah, but if you were a ferret, you might now be relaxing by a lake.

Michael Dirda: Hmm. Is that where ferrets live? By lakes? Gee.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Anyone want to add a summertime title - I just reread with pleasure "Dandelion Wine" by Ray Bradbury, thanks to the Post.

washingtonpost.com: Five Books That Have Summer Written All Over Them (Book World's Short Stack blog)

Michael Dirda: Thanks. And thanks, again, for the link, Elizabeth.


Calgary, AB, Canada: The Glass Bead Game. Nobody talks about it? When I was in University in the 70s, it was practically socially required reading or you couldn't call yourself a self-respecting English major!

The Glass Bead Game is like all his other works, and that is why it was perfect for the 70s. Very heavy on the teutonic-intellectual-philosophical stuff, quite druggy, but so well written (I read it in German, so can't speak to the various translations) and idea-rich that it is rewarding to read. If you liked Steppenwolf, you'll probably enjoy TGBG.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Edmonton, Canada: Hi Michael. I am sorry for the tragic loss of your friend Thomas Disch. I went online to read about him and consequently have placed a library reserve on a couple of his books. It is unfortunate that his death has brought him to the attention of readers, but this kind of post- mortem fame seems to happen all the time. On a happy note, we are enjoying long, summer daylight hours in Alberta, which means more time on the front porch to read. I would like to recommend Germaine Greer's "Shakespeare's Wife" for a boffo exploration of the little-known facts of Anne Hathaway's life, and Salman Rushdie's "The Enchantress of Florence," which I read on the strength of your review. Also quite wonderful is Jhumpa Lahiri's marvelous, compelling collection of short stories, "Unaccustomed Earth." She opens with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." Do you know where this quote is from? Other than "The Scarlet Letter," which I read in high school, I have not read anything else by him. What can you recommend? Or, is it time to re-read Hester Prynne's story?

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I'd read Hawthorne's short stories--find a good selection in paperback and check out "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappacini's Daughter," and "My Kinsman, Major Molyneux." These are spooky and powerful. I think you'll be impressed.


Tokyo, Japan: Hello Mr. Dirda,

Thank you so much for your informative and interesting books and for making this website available to booklovers all over the world.

Could you please tell me if there a recommended order for reading the novels of Faulkner, or does one just dive in? Where would you suggest a beginner to start?

Michael Dirda: I'd probably start with Malcolm Cowley's Viking Portable Faulkner. It consists of snippets and stories, but with linking matter and chronology and helps give you a whole sense of the history of Yoknapatawpha County. Of the novels, you might start with an early simpler one like The Unvanquished. The big three are The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom! Absalom!


Lenexa, Kan.: Which would you say was more important: Truman beating Dewey or Michael Dirda being born?

Michael Dirda: Dirda beating Dewey--in fact, I decimated him. Those shelves were never the same again.


Adams Morgan, Washington DC: Pleased to see Tove Janssen's name on a list - please, those of you with a fondness for children's literature, read The Finn Family Moomintroll -especially read it aloud to the young ones. I think I have bought at least ten copies of this book over the years to give away, and still measure summer by it (white butterflies mean a quiet summer, yellow ones mean a happy summer, but they see a golden butterfly first).

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Carrboro, N.C.: Hallo hallo...

Care to recommend any good ghost/creepy stories set in the British 1920's? I've been reading Sheridan Le Fanu, but he seems to be a 19th century sort, and I've a craving for a "Lord Peter Wimsey Goes A-Ghosting" sort of thing.

Also, looking for investment $$$ to invent a device called the ReadeRase, a sort of brainwave deleter that connects to your brain and erases any book or story you want, thus adding untold value to one's mystery section. Imagine being able to read "Hound of the Baskervilles" without recalling whodunit! Heck, I'd be thrilled to read Calvin & Hobbes with new eyes.

Also also, as I recall that you (M. Dirda) enjoy the sartorial comforts of Charvet, might I recommend Peter Mayle's book of essays, "Acquired Tastes"? It's a collection of essays he wrote for GQ. Each month, he samples a different Ridiculous Luxury. (This is the kind of assignment that makes me want to write professionally.) He details the perfect hotel (the Connaught in London), good caviar, dealing with servants...and a trip to Charvet in Paris to have a hand-made shirt created. "The best part about Charvet," he writes, "is that it's within walking distance of the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz."

Excuse me, I have to go and purge my jealousy. Happy Wednesday!

Michael Dirda: I've actually read Acquired Tastes (and several of Mayle's other books, too). I wish I could afford to actually go to these stores, rather than look for treasures in thrift shops. Or rather I don't. I like going to thrift shops and seeing what turns up. I don't actually need any more clothes at all.

As for ghost stories in the 1920s--where to begin? I suggest that you take a look at the website for Ash-Tree Press, which specializes in classic supernatural fiction, much of it from the era you're interested in. Or you might check out Realms of Fantasy, run by Otto Filip, who handles most of the small presses in this field. The big names you want to try are M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen. But I'd probably suggest looking for a good anthology like The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories.


Monterey to the Awesome Elizabeth via magniloquent Michael: In re last week's: "the less distinguished Elizabeth Terry": not less, just different. What would we do without your links and logions?

Michael, are you familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson's TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY IN PROVENCE? I lost my reproduction copy in the move to the booming megalopolis of Monterey just as I had started it. It was lots of fun.

washingtonpost.com: Sitting here feeling very honored. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: You should be able to pick up that book pretty readily in California, where Stevenson spent some time on his way to the Pacific. I read a lot of Stevenson--fiction and nonfiction--years ago, and liked him a lot. I remember most his writing advice, how he played the "sedulous ape" to many writers he admired, trying to imitate their styles in an attempt to find his own.


Rexburg, Idaho: Any suggestions for a well-written biography of William Shakespeare? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: You mean the man from Stratford? Just kidding. I still think the best is S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: A Compact Life--or something like that. Schoenbaum authored several scholarly books on Shakespeare and was the greatest expert on his life and after life. I heartily recommend his wonderful Shakespeare's Lives, which describe the legends and rumors and fancies that gradually came to surround the playwright.


Michael Dirda: Well, I've run out of steam, and have to stop. I'm sorry I didn't get to all the questions. Please try again next Wednesday at 2. Till then, keep reading!


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