Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, July 23, 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 23.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Burda on Dukes, the website devoted to the study of the upper echelons of the British Aristocracy. This week we will take up the vexed question of escutcheons, and the recent mass-marketing of forgeries of these ancient insignia . . .

And no, I'm just fooling around. This is Dirda on Books, and for the next hour we'll talk about, well, books, reading, reviewing, publishing, writing, the literary life, the perils and pleasures of authorship, whether poets should be free or kept tethered to their desks, why novels are always too long, and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.

It looks like rain here in Washington, with the occasional drop of, well, rain. But it's not pouring yet though the skies are gray, gray as my troubled, ancient heart . . . and there I go again. Enough. Let's look at this week's questions.


Santa Cruz, Calif.: If any of your readers are looking for an affordable copy of Scream for Jeeves, they may want to try eBay. After last week's chat, I found one there for $15 including shipping. There's at least one more available the last time I checked. And for the record, I'm not affiliated with the seller in any way.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the heads up. For those new to Scream for Jeeves--this is Peter Cannon's blending of H.P. Lovecraft and P.G. Wodehouse. A major minor classic of contemporary something or other.


Seattle, Wash.: Michael, I am currently reading the last book by George MacDonald Fraser, 'The Reavers.' It's more of a wacky romp like his 'Pyrates,' which I liked a lot. Still, I'm sad not to have any more Flashman stories to read.

Michael Dirda: You're sad. You and a zillion other readers, who will lie abed for the rest of their lives and try to imagine Flashman's role during the Civil War. A dear friend gave me a copy of The Reavers some while ago, but I haven't got to it yet.

Language note or query: I would normally have written "gotten" to it, but I seem to recall that in England, at least, this is a solecism (if that's the word I want) and that "got," though rather abrupt is actually the preferred form. Language mavens, please advise.

By the way, I do love The Pyrates, even more than Flashman, but Flashy wins out ultimately simply because there's so much more of him.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, I am reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I saw the movie several years ago but have always had a problem reading Woolf. It seems more interesting now because of its connection to Vita Sackville-West. What is your opinion of Orlando and Virginia Woolf?

Michael Dirda: I've tried to read Orlando three or four times and found it dead boring. You'd think I'd revere the book, but it just didn't capture my attention. Truth is, Woolf is rather a gap in my supposed literary expertise--I gobble up the essays and letters and diaries, but have been put off the novels. In truth, I was just thinking of giving To the Lighthouse another try, since it is often ranked among the top dozen or so English novels of the century.

You'd think I'd be ashamed and hangdogged to make this admission, but I just figure, "Hey, if Ginny is that good, I've got some good times to look forward to."

For me, the Woolf that I quote most is Leonard, but just for that one wonderful title in his multi-part memoirs: Downhill All the Way.


Lenexa, Kan.: It was fun having Francis Tanabe check in with us recently -- would be nice if he became a semi-regular. He led some great WP Book Club sessions: "The Makioka Sisters," "The Leopard," "Marjorie Morningstar," among quite a few others. He also seemed, among other things, to have a comprehensive knowledge of Henry James.

I've only read, although really admired, four Henry James novels and three of his most famous stories. I have read much about the man, know quite a bit of his brother's work, and have been reading reviews through the decades of the many James biographies, and hybrid works like Colm Toibin's "The Master." How about you? Can you pretty much say you know all of Henry James? Would he be in your top-five American novelists? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: Cyril Connolly once said that he preferred to read about Henry James rather than to actually read him. One knows what he means, when you're halfway through The Golden Bowl or The Wings of the Dove.

I actually think that James was the greatest all around man of letters in American history. A great and influential novelist, a major theoretician of his genre, a brilliant reviewer and essayist (read the two volumes of the Library of America collected nonfiction), an important travel writer and memoirist, and a letter-writer of the first rank. Nobody ever wrote better condolence letters. In my essay on James in Classics for Pleasure I focus on this nonfiction James because that side of his accomplishment tends to be dwarfed or overlooked because of the fiction.

As for that fiction: The Ambassadors, The Aspern Papers, The Jolly Corner, Brooksmith, The Turn of the Screw--so many masterpieces. But, in some ways, above them all stands The Beast in the Jungle, that terrible, heartbreaking story of a man who missed his life.


Houston, Tex.: Have you read David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas?" I am having such fun reading it; the kind of fun I've not had in a long time. He slips easily from genre to genre, with each new story subtly nested in the previous one. It's fascinating...

Michael Dirda: Nope. I should, and would like to, given the chance. I'm sorry I missed reviewing it when it came out. As you may know, I really like these sort of tricksy novels.


Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.:.Mr. Dirda, I read and enjoyed you for many years when I lived in D.C and MD. After four years in South Florida, I just saw your byline when I logged onto The Post and it was like seeing an old friend. My heart leaped. Thank you for your writing.

Michael Dirda: Thank you for the kind words. You know, I think you can probably dredge up the last 50 or so pieces I wrote for The Post, as well as past week's of this chat. That'll be the real proof that you really care for me, and aren't just saying this to brighten my day. Just kidding. But you still could do this. . .

Fort Lauderdale--I have good memories of visiting there. And I can remember how I used to call up Charles Willeford, who resided there at the end of his life, and he always addressed me as "Ace" or "Chief." Can't tell you how happy that made me feel.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Mr. Dirda;

There was a brief mention of the great bookman Vincent Starrett during last week's discussion. A new edition of his book, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, published by Wessex Press, has just been released. I confess that I know the publishers, but I'd have bought this new edition if I didn't.

Michael Dirda: Starrett's book is THE classic on Sherlock Holmes, and the one book that every fan of the detective should, uh, consult. The Wessex Press edition, which I've seen, is beautifully done. As you may know, I gave a rather whimsical talk about Starrett at the last Baker Street Irregulars dinner, and it has been reprinted in the most recent issue of the Baker Street Journal. It's titled "A Study in Starrett."


Rockville, Maryland: Any thoughts on Thomas Disch? I thought "Camp Concentration" was overlooked and liked his adaptation of "The Prisoner." I want to get his new book. Had I known he was in distress, I would have sent something.

But as I remember the same sort of thing happened to H. Beam Piper. We really need a better way to help each other.

Michael Dirda: I've never had many close male friends as an adult--not of the kind I had in high school--but Tom was certainly among the dozen or so men I enjoyed visiting and talking to. He was such a strange and wonderful man--cynical and sentimental, cruel at times and weepy at others, a mind that moved like lightning though his diction was always just a little slower than you expected, as he phrased his comments just so. And he was incredibly good at everything he undertook--novels, poetry, criticism, children's books.

I first met him at Noreascon II in Boston in 1980, where he was in the pros suite, wearing a polyester bowling shirt, with his huge tattooed arms bursting at the seams. But such an exquisite sensibility behind the full back look. Sigh. It's hard not to say "Poor Tom" and not think of Lear's fool. But Tom was nobody's fool; he was a man who was just carried too much weight, both in his body and in his heart.


Freising, Germany: After reading that Radovan Karadzic worked as an alternative medicine practitioner and recently gave a lecture on "How to nurture your own internal energy," I thought, boy, this is too unbelievable for fiction. But then I remembered that Comrade Johnny, from Doris Lessing's "The Sweetest Dream," who constantly maintained that "The revolution comes before personal matters," also turned into a New Age religious guru by the end of the book.

Perhaps this really is the alternative for failed revolutionaries and despots.

Michael Dirda: Hmm. You must have missed the sixties--when the political radicals lost faith in the outer world, they began to cultivate the inner world. Or they just got into dot.coms and say the hell with it all.


Gotten, schmotten: You're American, not British. Beware of any British injunction about vocabulary; it's probably just a code for class prejudice.

Michael Dirda: Ich bin ein Berliner, as a famous American once said. Actually, I'm an Anglo-Franco-Italophone. Now that's what I want to buy from Verizon.


Maitland, Fla.: Edison Marshall, Jay Williams, Rupert Grayson and James Gould Cozzens.

I was in a bookstore in Newberry, SC recently and came across books by all these gentlemen, who were active at least a generation ago and I've read three of the four and love them. In fact, I've now gone on line to Amazon's used books and ordered more books by each of them.

Would I be correct in calling them second tier authors of their day and yet very, very competent and still worth reading? Or are they "known" and better than second tier? I certainly had heard of and read Cozzens before, and Grayson once was "known" for his Gun Cotton series. Anyway this has been a delightful discovery that I wanted to share.

I received particular pleasure from the Jay Williams bio on the back of his novel Solomon and Sheba wherein it says of the author that he's been active in community affairs and had "served for several years as a Cubmaster"! Can you imagine anyone putting that on their bio today and having a publisher print it? Very 1955 and quite endearing to me.

Michael Dirda: Endearing indeed. I think of Edison Marshall as the writer of Christian uplift books. Cozzens started off as a kind of allegorist--see Castaway--and my late friend Noel Perrin staunchly maintained that his Guard of Honor was the best American novel about World War II. I don't know anything much about the other two guys. Wasn't Solomon and Sheba a big Technicolor epic of the 1960s? One of those sword and sandal flicks with Victor Mature and Gina Lollabrigida or their like?


Colorado Springs, Colo.: I was struck by the similarities in styles of G. Marquez and William Faulkner. How do you think Henry James would have liked those writers? Can you recommend writers of 'hard realism' that you think James might like?

Michael Dirda: All those Latin Boomers looked to Faulkner as a model.

James--gee, that's a hard question. He might be interested in Faulkner's dissection of the levels and mores of Southern society, especially the aristocracy (Sartoris et al). Garcia Marquez too he might like--James was pretty eclectic in his tastes. He wrote to Owen Wister that he would have liked more blood in The Virginian, and he was immensely fond of the true crime annals of William Roughead.


Chicago, Ill.: You might appreciate this, being nuptialed to someone in the art world. I bought two books solely for their cover art: Butcher's Crossing by John Williams, with a gorgeous Albert Bierstadt; and Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White, with an enlarged detail of an Odilon Redon. I'd heard of Williams before, and heard that Butcher's Crossing is Cormac McCarthy-like, violent, nihilist, apocalyptic, Western. I'd never heard of White. They look good, plus they are handsome. Hopefully you can judge a book by its cover.

Michael Dirda: White won the Nobel Prize. Riders in the Chariot is arguably, with Voss, his best book.


Pittsburgh: Your thoughts on the work of next Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan?

washingtonpost.com: Recent Style profile of Kay Ryan: Verse of the Turtle (Washington Post, July 17)

Michael Dirda: See below. Many thanks, Elizabeth, who is joining us from beautiful downtown Brooklyn, New York.


Chicago, Ill.: In my limited literary experience, I've found reading Henry James to be a lot like reading Nabokov. I stress that this is only my opinion, of course - I find them to be not great storytellers, but great writers. So you'll come across a fantastic sentence, or a brilliant paragraph, but feel less than satisfied about the arc of the book. When I want a really great story I'll go somewhere else.

Michael Dirda: I see what you mean, but some Nabokov books do have a lot of plot to them, and are often plotted like mystery novels, with riddles and trapdoors that keep you alert. I'm thinking of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Lolita, and Pale Fire, in particular.


Chapel Hill, N.C. (Audio Book Girl): Hi, Michael.

Perusing last week's chat transcript, I was taken back in time. In high school I devoured Hesse; he was one of my minor gods. (Yes, WpgMan -- read The Glass Bead Game.) When I got to college (in Saratoga Springs) my Latin prof, an Amazon in mind and body, told me she was from the Black Forest, as was Hesse. She was one of the best profs I ever had.

I just finished Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter. (Another Saratoga denizen). I have mixed feelings about it. While I admire the originality and precision of his writing, several of the stories seemed to follow a predictable arc. I've also just finished listening to The Places In Between, written and read by Rory Stewart. (It's the story of his walk across Afghanistan.) I found it to be completely captivating.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. As you know, I'm a big Millhauser fan, but I do recognize that there is a certain typical quality and arc to much of his work. But I don't generally mind this. It's part of the package.

Rory Stewart--gee, I wonder how you get the name Rory. Were the parents fans of westerns?


Anchorage, Alaska: Could you recommend biographies of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson? Thanks for the chats.

Michael Dirda: Robert D. Richardson's biography of Thoreau; and for Emily that big life by Sewall, I think Richard. I can say that you should read the latter's poems in the Thomas Johnson edition ideally in the three volumes which gives all the variants. Thoreau is available in handsome volumes from Princeton, which has been gradually bringing out the wonderful journals as well as the more famous books and essays. How is that a guy who died at 44 could have written so much and so well?


Nashville, Tenn.: My favorite example of the move from political figure to new age piffle has to be Kenneth Widermerpool in The Dance to the Music of Time sequence. The descent from MP, to ineffectual college dean, to dying during a naked run of the cult he belonged to was hilarious, satisfying and terrifying all at the same time. His last reported words of "I'm leading! I'm leading!" come to my mind whenever I run across a Widermerpool in real life.

Michael Dirda: Wonderful post.


Maryland: I'd like to thank the poster(s) who recommended Farley Mowat's Owls in the Family and W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind. I recently read both these Canadian books and enjoyed them very much.

Michael Dirda: There you go, Ashcroft (I believe).


Freising, Germany: It must be centuries ago that I read "The Mystery of Nine Mile Island" (actually, the correct title might be "Mystery on Nine-Mile Marsh"), but recently I came across a book called "Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story", and I thought that it would also make a suitable whodunit for young readers.

Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep, together with her flock, investigates the murder of their beloved shepherd, George. The only thing is that it starts with the sheep finding George on the ground with a spade in his chest.

All I can remember about Nine-Mile Marsh is a group of kids cycling around together to solve a mystery, but never being confronted with death or dead bodies. Do you think that kids today are far more accustomed to violence than 30 or 40 years ago?

Michael Dirda: How could they not be more accustomed to violence--look at the movies, look at the computer and video games. In my day, violence was a rumble between the Sharks and the Jets, not a bloodbath with machine guns.


Enterprise, Ala.: Have you read Norman Mailer's latest (last?) - the novel about Hitler's youth? I can't recall you ever expressing an opinion about Mailer. I've read The Executioner's Song, but I don't think I've read any of his fiction.

Michael Dirda: Nope. I read Mailer years ago, but only some of the fiction. I did mention recently his story The Time of Her Time. Mailer was a great force in American literature, just astonishing, a tsunami. Most of the books will likely be forgotten, but The Armies of the Night and The Naked and the Dead are probably going to be around.


Incline Village, Nevada: In response to last week's post, yes, you should read Patrick Hamilton, and start with Hangover Square. If that sounds peremptory, please know it is not on my own (feeble) authority. When I was in England last year, the wondrous John Gross told me that. He was right. Hangover Square is gripping, funny and is one of those few novels (like, say, McTeague) that has a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. I enjoyed other Hamiltons too, but none so much. As to Hesse's Glass Bead Game which I read in college, I'm prejudiced by having played tournament chess, but it is a magical book. The game is a sort of combination of the Japanese game go and chess, but the stakes are mysteriously greater than either. Finally for fans of mysteries, I strongly urge the recently Samuel Johnson prize winning "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" a gripping, true Victorian crime story, which not only features terrific notes (and bibliography) of studies on crime and crime literature, but is beautifully constructed and written. No fan of Wilkie Collins (or Dickens, Thackery and Victorian lit. in general) should miss. Enjoy!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the info and the recommendations. I resisted Hangover Square because of its unpleasant hero and plot; it just struck me as a mite too disturbing for my fragile psychological nature. I have a couple of his books somewhere, 20,000 miles under the sky or something like that is one. Sigh. World enough and time. . . .


Annapolis, Md.: Anent Flashman and the Civil War: Do you suppose that this will become the great untold story that devotees will rush to tell, much as there have been about 20 decent attempts at a pastiche of "The Adventure of the Great Rat of Sumatra"? Or Flashman in Australia?

Or aren't there enough friends of Flashman to make up, um, the Canterbury Irregulars?

Michael Dirda: There is some kind of Fraser or Flashman site online, I know. Probably several. I imagine the character of Sir Harry is under copyright, so it would be hard for anything but an authorized pastiche to appear. I'm excluding fan fic which operates below the radar.


Re Jay Williams: The author of Solomon and Sheba is apparently the same Jay Williams who wrote the Danny Dunn children/YA books, which I loved in my early teens (mumble-mumble) years ago. I didn't know he'd written any adult works. I'll have to go looking for them.

Michael Dirda: Oh, yes, yes. That name did ring a vague bell, and I loved Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint (among others). I mean, books don't get any better than that, do they? And I vaguely recall some kind of anecdotal stuff associated with Williams, but I can't recall if it was scandalous or just interesting.


Monterey, Va.: Hi, Michael,

Ah; depression... it's like being a mudpot, when you'd rather be a meadow.

In re: Ich bin ein Berliner. I've heard that German doesn't use the definite article in a generic term -- We can say either, "I am an American" or " I am American." In German, the definite article always refers to a definite noun. What Kennedy really said, on that gray day in Berlin, wasn't, "I am a Berliner," but "I am a jelly doughnut."

I'm enjoying ENCHANTRESS of FLORENCE, but am about to decide that I'm basically a non-fiction reader. Still, my ideal reading week would be, one new P. G. Wodehouse (Bertie and Jeeves Or Blandings Castle), one new Georgette Heyer Regency romance, and one new Tony Horwitz. Just a sybarite, I guess.

Michael Dirda: Actually, I am a Glazed Doughnut from De Luca's Bakery (long defunct, in Lorain).


Los Angeles, Calif.: Have you heard of the new owner-publisher of the L. A. Times talking of doing away with the Sunday Book Review section and just including some reviews in the Calendar section? What a loss that will be. I remember years ago a used book seller telling me that one way to find a good book was to look for good reviews of it by the NY Times, the LA Times and the Washington Post. If all three gave it a good review, chances are it was a pretty good book. Over the years that has been true, but now we will be down to two. Have you heard of any other big city papers doing this?

washingtonpost.com: Sad but true, this weekend brings the last dedicated book review section in the LA Times: LA Times to Fold Standalone Book Review (Publishers Weekly)

Michael Dirda: Sigh. Elizabeth's addition says it all. I remember when the LA Times aspired to give the New York Review of Books a run for its money.

It did strike me the other day that I am probably one of the last people to have ever had a career as a professional book reviewer and editor for a print newspaper. This is hard to believe or conceive. We live in an age of Ragnarok, Gotterdammerung, or something.

ON the other hand, we have these wonderful forums, where all of us can just hobnob together online for an hour a week. So there's an upside, of sorts.


Formerly Friendship Heights: Hi Mr. Dirda,

Read (and finished!) Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove". Wow. I was very impressed with his character development and the 843 pages flew by. I didn't think I could be easily shocked, but the characterisation of the outlaw Kiowa, Blue Duck, made me shudder.

Thanks for the recommendation. Had you not approved it, I think I'd have given it away without reading it.

Michael Dirda: You're welcome. Self-advertisement time: I have a piece on McMurtry's memoir "Books" in the upcoming summer issue of the New York Review of Books.


Columbia, Md.: Another way to get _Scream for Jeeves_ is in the collected volume _The Lovecraft Papers_ which also includes a Holmes/Lovecraft pastiche. _The Lovecraft Papers_ seems to be more available than _Scream for Jeeves_ on its own.

Michael Dirda: Oh, yes--that's a very good idea. I should have thought of that.


Moab, Utah:...the perils and pleasures of authorship,...

The joys of a well written manuscript offset the deep depressions that are triggered by the rejections that come back from the lower echelons of the big, bad publishing houses.

...whether poets should be free or kept tethered to their desks,....

Most definitely tethered. We can't have poets running around loose, getting drunk and seducing our women.

...why novels are always too long,....

They're only too long when they are boring.

...and why the sea is boiling hot...

It's summer, you big silly.

...and whether pigs have wings."

They do but they are too small to notice under their skin.

Michael Dirda: Always glad to be set straight. Poets, I know, are dangerous folk, can never tell what they might do. They can smile one moment, and be at your throat the next. As the old French proverb goes "Ils sont fous, ces poetes."


Houston, Tex.: I know you're a huge fan of Terry Pratchett. I haven't read anything of his yet. Where do you suggest I start?

Michael Dirda: At the beginning, then go to the end, and then stop. To paraphrase, I think, the King of Hearts. I think you might with "Guards, Guards." The two most admired books seem to be Moving Pictures and Small Gods.


Cleveland, Ohio: No question--just chiming in to note that I bought a copy of Book by Book last weekend while visiting the Oberlin campus. It's a nice place. Alas, I could not locate Yala's Pizza. What's your favorite memory of life at Oberlin?

Michael Dirda: Yala's is on Oberlin Avenue, in Lorain--13 miles north of where you were.

My favorite memory of life at Oberlin--I blush even to think of it after all these years. Little did I know that such ecstasy was possible on this fallen plane of ours. . . . Actually, I have lots of good memories of Oberlin--read the sections of An Open Book about my first two years there.


Rory Stewart-ville: I just listened to that book, too. Rode the Beltway while feeling I was in Afghanistan. The book actually stayed good through till the end, which is rare.

It even incorporates a moderately uplifting dog story.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


(An American in) London, U.K.: That is correct - "gotten" is not used here, unless something is ill-gotten. People keep items "to hand", use "momentarily" as horribly as we do, talk about "trying and doing", and are puzzled by the possibility of gerunds following nouns or pronouns in the possessive case. And I work with editors. So, I say, stick to your "gotten"! (I do, if only to amuse myself when they wince.)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I got game. Ill-gotten gains. Got it.


Adelphi:"Can you pretty much say you know all of Henry James?"

I can say I know too much. Do not read The Sacred Fount! I wasted a weekend on this book in January. It's basically some guy at a weekend party trying to figure out which people in the group are having affairs. One method he theories you can tell this by is that one lover must necessarily rob the vitality, youth, etc. from his or her partner. It's utterly absurd. I suppose Henry must have read some tract on the conservation of energy at the time (1901). I cannot wholeheartedly reject a book more than I can The Sacred Fount. I suppose if the choice was to clean your gutters or read this... no, NO, there are reasons not to know all of an author's work!

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Actually, you make The Sacred Fount sound utterly irresistible. You mean one lover doesn't suck the vitality, vampire-like, from the other?

I suspect this goes back to Balzac, who believed in a kind of vitalism too. See The Fatal Skin. His view was that if you lost energy through sex it wasn't available for creativity. You see this with actors and bullfighters and assassins like Francisco Scaramanga, who refrain from sex before they have to perform.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: I read the first volume of Gibbon many years ago and wanted to read all three volumes, including a thorough re-reading of the first, this summer/fall. Do you of any useful companion volume? Ideally this would be a book that examines the history of Rome before and after the period narrated by Gibbon, tests some of Gibbon's historical claims, provides some background to the writing/research, etc.

Michael Dirda: You should read the David Womersley edition, available in big hardbacks or fat Penguin paperbacks. A very good intro, notes etc. Then you should look for Roy Porter's book Gibbon, which will give you more of the general background and info you want.


Green Eggs and Hamlet: To be, or not to be. That is the question, I ask of me. This sullied life, it makes me shudder. My uncle's boffing dear old mother.

Would I, could I, take my life? Could I, should I, end this strife?

Should I jump out of a plane? Should I throw myself before a train? Should I from this cliff just leap? Should I put myself to sleep?

To shudder off this mortal coil, I should stab myself with fencing foil. Should I slash my wrists in the bath? Would that end my angst and wrath?

To sleep, to dream, aye there's the rub. I should drop yon toaster in my tub. Would all be glad, if I were dead? Perhaps I should kill them instead ...

That line of thought merits consideration! I am King of Procrastination.

Michael Dirda: Wonderful. I guess this comes from one of the Bad Quartos that was rejected by modern editors in preference to the much stagey, and stolid version we're all familiar with.


London, UK: I am writing this because I have just finished Book by Book and I wanted to tell you how profoundly it affected me. Your book has reignited my longing for beautiful language and liberal thought.

I suppose a symptom of the Generation Y mentality (or maybe just youth) in which I find myself, is the sense of being at a remove from others, that my experience of life is unique. This I realise is a fairly arrogant, even egotistical, standpoint but most significantly it misses the point completely. Book by Book reminded me that perhaps our greatest strength as humans is our shared experience and that this should be central to life and to great art.

Thank you for a wonderful book.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for your kind words. They warm the cockles of my heart--and what are cockles? Aren't they like mussels? Of course, the heart is a muscle, so I suppose it might have cockles associated with it. . . .


Mountain View, Calif.: Scream for Jeeves - just bought it on eBay for $9.95 plus $4.50 shipping. Don't restrict your book searches to Amazon and the other online specialists.

Michael Dirda: Take note, people.


Houston, Tex.: I'm the Cloud Atlas Houston Texas, not the Terry Pratchett Houston Texas. But I happen to be a lifelong Pratchett fan and would love to talk to the other Houston Texas about his books...

washingtonpost.com: Any Houstonians who would like to meet non-virtually may email me at elizabeth.terry AT wpni.com and I'll introduce you.

Michael Dirda: Thank you, Elizabeth, for your kind offer.


Silver Spring: Re: Terry Pratchett. do NOT start with the first two he published in the Discworld series, which are not characteristic. Not as funny or satirical as the rest, more devoted to parody of a certain type of fantasy.

Start with Guards, Guards as mentioned, or Witches Abroad. Once you start you can go chronologically or pick the subseries you like.

Just don't start at the beginning.

Michael Dirda: Well, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are deliberate parodies--of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, for instance--and in them Pratchett hasn't really developed his own vision.


Moab, Utah: For next week, how about books that people have bought simply because the title was so good/stupid/silly/funny that you didn't care if it was well written or not?

Michael Dirda: That sounds like fun. You can tell a book by its cover, or title. Or can you?


South Asia: I recently read Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and enjoyed this book so much. Do you like it? It seems more a love story than a political novel.

Michael Dirda: Never read it. Did see the movie--a small, indie film, as I recall, largely featuring unknowns, but well worth renting if you can find a copy through Netflix.

What I most remember about the movie: That red ribbon around Julie Christie's neck and Tom Courtenay as Strelnikov: "The personal life is dead."


To Monterey: the pedant. Everyone already knows that story about Kennedy. And "an" is not a definite article.

Michael Dirda: Oh, now, let's make nicems, here, okay? I mean, what is definite really, in this crazy ever shifting world of ours?


Alexandria, Va.: Are you a fan of The Man Without Qualities? Is there a particular translation you would recommend?

Michael Dirda: I would be a fan, if I had read it. Which I've, sigh, long meant to do. The recent translation sits on a shelf and looks at me, night after night, and whispers to me, "You intellectual charlatan. How can you regard yourself as an educated man if you haven't read me?" And, I nod silently in agreement, bowing my head in shame.


Columbia, Md.: Some chatters may be interested to know that P H Cannon's _Scream for Jeeves_ is also available, along with his Holmes/Lovecraft pastiche, _Pulptime_, in a volume called _The Lovecraft Papers_, which is much more reasonably priced than the hard to find _Scream for Jeeves_ volume.

Michael Dirda: Again, many thanks for this information.


Michael Dirda: And in the immortal words of Looney Tunes, "That's all, folks"--at least for this week's session of Dirda on Books. Be sure to keep reading and keep writing in, too. Tell your friends. I want to see a chain letter effect going, so that when I sign on next week, Elizabeth will tell me that the queue has 85,000 questions in it. Is this a deal?

No, really: Let's try to think about books we bought because we liked their covers or titles.

Till then, keep reading!


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