Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, July 30, 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 30.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! I'm in Ohio this week and next, partly for my niece's wedding, and the weather is clouding up this afternoon and looking like rain. I've brought lots of books I'm supposed to write about in the coming weeks, in the hope, if not the expectation, of getting to at least one or two of them. As previously mentioned, things have been stressful lately, for multiple reasons, and I've found that I generally look forward to this hour as an escape from those problems and anxieties.
You know, when I was a kid I used to think that people my age--59--were, well mature and full of self-understanding and wisdom. But I find that Yeats is right and that the "60 year old smiling public man" is just a facade, and we often feel little wiser than our much younger selves, and just as full of yearnings and confusion. At least it seems so to me. Do we all just play at being adult? Certainly inside I think nearly every man feels that he's really about 34 physically and his spirit is roughly the same as when he was 17. Oscar Wilde used to say that the tragedy wasn't that we were old but that we were young. Anyway, I do know a lot more than when I was a kid, and must have some greater wisdom--indeed Book by Book is supposed to be a kind of demonstration of that. But lately, I just don't know about all kinds of things. Really troubling. I keep thinking of that Kierkegaard title: "Purity of heart is to will one thing." I think that's right.
All right, we've now had our introductory tone poem, in a minor key and a somber mode, and it's time to lighten up as we look at this week's comments and questions.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

Before getting to my own question, let me submit the following as a book I bought because I liked the title (this week's topic): "Le droit a la paresse" (The Right to Laziness), by Paul Lafargue. I was bumming around Paris on my first trip abroad decades ago, and somebody was selling these on the street. I wasn't much of a hippie even then, but the concept appealed to me. No doubt my 10 francs went into the coffers of the French Communist Party. It turns out, however, that this is a serious book which dates back to 1880 and has an entry in the French Wikipedia. I'm sure I'll never read it (even if I could find it).

My question is prompted by reference last week to "The Virginian" and other westerns, that being a genre I'd like to try out. Specifically, what do people think of "The Ox-Bow Incident"? When we studied it in high school (decades ago, once again), my classmates and I unanimously hated it. However, I later very much enjoyed the movie version (with Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan), and I think perhaps we were just too young to appreciate it. Or is it just a lousy book that made a better movie?

Finally, if I may go on at greater length than usual, my thanks to all those who commented on "The Glass Bead Game". I promise to read it by the end of the summer. Audio Book Girl mentioned that Hesse was from the Black Forest. I had never been able to find Calw (his birthplace) on a map until about 8-9 years ago, but I paid a visit in 2000. I don't recall that there was much to see, but if any of you other Hesse fans out there want to make a pilgrimage, I can tell that there is an acceptable place to stay but you have to change trains at least twice from Frankfurt. It's a nice enough town, but a bit off the beaten path.

Michael Dirda: About Hesse: He spent much of his life in Lugano, Switzerland, and you can visit his house--a museum now--on the Collina d'or. He's buried in the local cemetery, along with a famous conductor. I'm not sure which, but it might have been Bruno Walter.
As for the Oxbow Incident: I have no idea how it would hold up to rereading these days, but it was obviously a serious novel rather than a six-gun adventure. Clark's short-story collection--I've forgotten its title--is well worth seeking out, if only for his great science fiction parable "The Portable Phonograph." How barbaric would you be willing to be to preserve a modicum of civilization in a post-holocaust wasteland?


Houston, Tex.: One of my big concerns as a reader involves translation. Years ago, I was with a friend of mine who owned a great used bookstore in New Orleans. A woman came into the shop and asked for a good translation of Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons." We pulled three different translations off the shelf, and compared the first two paragraphs of each. Not only were they noticeably different, but the meanings themselves were different. As a common reader, how is one to know which one to read? Do you pick the one that sounds closest to your idea of what, for example, what Turgenev is supposed to sound like? How is one to know?

Michael Dirda: This is a recurrent question, and there isn't any easy answer. If you're willing to consult biographies and studies, you will generally discover which translations are favored by those who know the author and his work. On your own, you can sometimes go by the translator's name: Constance Garnett translated most of the great Russians, and gave them an Edwardian flavor--some people like this, others don't. My rule of thumb, though, is this: Most modern translations--i.e. of the past 25 years or so--tend to be at least good. Penguin or Oxford aren't going to bring out a shlocky version of a standard author. So check to see when the translation was done, and go for the one nearest to our time.


New Lenox, Ill.: I just finished reading "Books: A Memoir" by Larry McMurtry, wherein he writes that forming his personal library of some twenty-eight thousand volumes, "and reading it, is surely one of the principal achievements of my life," and that, "For the first twenty years of my career as a book hunter I actually read almost all the books I had gone to such trouble to find. Getting the books I wanted to read was the main reason for the pursuit."

Questions: McMurtry mentions Leslie Stephens's (father of Virginia Woolf) "Hours in a Library." Have you read it? Would it be worthwhile for me to buy in hardcover and read? Also, he talks about the bibliomysteries of Marianne MacDonald, whom I am not familiar with. Do you know of her work, and do you recommend a specific title? Thank you very much.

washingtonpost.com: Aug. 14 issue of the NYRB - you'll have to pay to read Dirda's piece.

Michael Dirda: My producer Elizabeth has provided a link to the article I've written on McMurtry's memoir--though I thought it was in a late July issue. But I didn't look very carefully, so could be wrong. At all events, it's in the Summer issue of the New York Review of Books.
Hours in a Library generally appears as three fat volumes of essays--Folio does a handsome edition--and they cover the kind of topics that would interest a bookman at the turn of the last century. Stephens was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and a great authority on the 18th century. In the right mood, I find him a great pleasure to read, but then I also enjoy--in the right mood--George Saintsbury, Austin Dobson and many other such men of letters. At one point, I think there was a paperback selection from Hours in a Library. You should probably read an essay or two before buying.
As for those mysteries: I don't know the author or the books.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, The Los Angeles Times Book Section is gone. Any chance that the Washington Post might drop Book World? Any other thoughts about newspaper and change?

Michael Dirda: Is it actually gone? I think that books are being folded into the broadsheet, as part of an arts or style section. This is the way that most papers cover books--a page or two in a cultural section.
As for the future of Book World: Since I don't work as a staffer any more--just a columnist--I don't spend time downtown and am not privy to the Post's inner workings any more. I certainly hope--more than hope--that Book World remains intact. The Post's CEO Donald Graham is himself a reader and book collector and I know he values the section as a requisite for a world-class newspaper. But The Post has a new publisher, Katharine Weymouth, and soon a new editor, so there are likely to be changes throughout the paper, in both its print and online versions.
Sigh. As my late friend and Book World colleague Reid Beddow used to say: "The old ways are best."


Speaking of translations: I am about to re-read Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers (all 78329483 pages of it). I see there's a new translation.

Should I go for the new one or the older one?

Michael Dirda: H.T. Lowe-Porter is generally looked down upon as a translator, though she did most of Maugham. So I'd go for the modern version. Is it by John Wood? That said, I remember a TLS article comparing the old and new versions of, I think, The Magic Mountain and finding an equal number of flaws in each.


Albuquerque, N.M.: I just finished Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children. Perhaps it's sacrilege to say so, but, as much as I enjoyed this "high lit" novel, I think the sci-fi novella Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg does an even better job at using the telepathy-device to explore weighty questions of the human condition. Familiar with this novella?

Michael Dirda: Yes. It's arguably Silverberg's greatest achievement. He was somewhat embittered--I am told--that the book wasn't proclaimed and didn't break out of the genre ghetto.


NoVa: hi - I remember reading about a Polish journalist who died a year or so ago whose writings (essays?) sounded very interesting, and whose work was highly recommended just after his death. Could you tell me his name? Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: I bet you are thinking of Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died in January 2007. Neely Tucker wrote an appreciation for The Post.

Michael Dirda: I think Elizabeth is right. The only other Pole who comes to mind--and I'm not sure if he's alive or dead--is Leslek (sp?) Kolakowski, who writes about politics and Marxism.


Translations: "So check to see when the translation was done, and go for the one nearest to our time."

I disagree a little. Using Tolstoy as my example, I don't know that the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation is any better than the Constance Garnett. (Seriously, Connie: call me!) Both Anna Karenina and War and Peace are just as readable -- in fact, -more- readable -- through Garnett's Victorian pen.

(P/V are useful with Dostoevsky, I think. I wasn't able to read him before. Thanks to those two, I've finished Crime and Punishment and The Idiot.)

Michael Dirda: In fact, the standard translation for Tolstoy wasn't Garnett's but that by Louise and Aylmer Maude, who were friends of Tolstoy. In my review of the PV translation of War and Peace I say that I think that Tolstoy's narrative power comes through in almost any translation one picks up.


Alexandria, Va.: In the noon Post gossip chat, a poster suggested "Every Wednesday is an office party if you read the Reliable Source chat while shotgunning a cheap beer in your cube." Well, it's now 2 pm. What should I be drinking while reading "Dirda on Books"?

Michael Dirda: You should be looking down at an emptied cup of tears, nothing left but the bitter dregs.
Hmmm. No wonder I don't have a big audience. Let's see:
Two pm is too early for cocktails. I think a chocolate malt, made with real ice cream, is what you should be drinking. In winter you can switch to hot chocolate.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Thomas Mann's "Joseph and His Brothers" - I have the translation you're talking about, and yes, it's by John E. Woods.

Michael Dirda: Thanks.


The Ox-Bow Incident: I read this quite recently with a group in Chicago (a couple of years ago it was chosen as the "One Book, One Chicago" selection). I really liked it and we had a good discussion about the book (I haven't seen the movie).

Interestingly, I was about 20 pages into the book before I realized what the time period of the book. If I remember correctly, it starts with two fellows out minding the herd and talking about the price of beef and lack of rain (I think) then they get back to town and drop in at the local bar. It wasn't until someone mentioned a stagecoach that I realized it wasn't taking place in at least the 1940s. My relatives are all ranchers in New Mexico and I heard conversations like this all the time growing up. I had to start the book all over again.

Michael Dirda: Excellent comment. Thanks.


Lenexa, Kan.: Some novels bought for covers alone: Binnie Kirshenbaum's "Pure Poetry" (beautiful diving legs splitting the water), Kirsten Bakis's "Lives of the Monster Dogs" (an aristocratic dog standing in maroon smoking jacket), Anthony Giardina's "Men with Debts" (a haunting Hopper cover), Steven Millhauser's "Enchanted Night" (I buy all Millhauser's but with this cover, it could have been by anybody).

Off topic: I found Charles Van Doren's piece in the last "The New Yorker" about his ordeal and life since (certainly admirable) to be heartbreakingly moving. As a teenager in a small Kansas town during that time, I found those period quiz shows totally inspiring--especially Van Doren and Teddy Nadler. It's the same feel that made me such a fan of Salinger's Glass family. Based on the quiz shows and Van Doren in particular, I wrote a novel (unpublished) years before the "Quiz Show" movie was made. Van Doren is currently teaching at U-Conn-Torrington. I just sent him a copy, hoping he might enjoy it. It'll be fun to see if he responds.

Part of your appeal to me, especially in this forum, is you come off as a quiz kid yourself. Van Doren said that in his period of ostracism, one of the people who reached out to him was Mortimer Adler. I recall you were such a bright young boy you once won a set of "Great Books" and $3000 in one of Adler's competitions. (One imagines your own kick-booking father very proud in spite of himself.) Anyway, any thoughts on the general subject? Thanks as always.

washingtonpost.com: Personal History: All The Answers by Charles Van Doren (newyorker.com)

Michael Dirda: I'm looking forward to reading this Van Doren piece. I, too, remember those quiz shows with great fondness. To this day, when I visit my mother--as this week and next--I will watch Jeopardy with her. Given the right categories, I do very well, and she and my sister's all urged me to go on the program. But I never did. I'm sure that were to be a contestant the categories would be "Hip hop songs of the 90s"; "Current Reality TV Shows"; "College Basketball" etc etc.


Bellevue, Wash.: Larry McMurtry's new Books:a memoir has a lot of good things for book lovers. The dust jacket says he lives in his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare, and collectible books. But he has good anecdotes about his life as book dealer in Georgetown, where he might still be if it were not for the rents. He says that book selling is progressive, the opposite of writing. All novelists if they persist get worse. Sellers though acquire knowledge as they go along.

Michael Dirda: Yes, it's an interesting memoir. But a bit hit-miss and perhaps of most interest to people who already know the book scene of the past 40 years. As you already know, I've written about the book for the New York Review of Books.


Woodlawn, Va.: Spinning off a little from this week's topic of irresistible titles, I nominate Carson McCullers for the best, uhm, titleist. I think "Reflections in a Golden Eye," "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" and "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" are among the most poetic titles in literature.

On a totally different note, I came across this colorful line from the end of Saul Bellow's "Herzog": ". . . we live in a hedonistic world in which happiness is set up on a mechanical model. All you have to do is open your fly and grasp happiness." I found it a great metaphor for the soul-killing conformity enabled by consumerism.

Michael Dirda: Certainly a striking sentence--though it seems to restrict happiness to only one half of the human species.
I agree about the McCullers titles. Still, my favorite novel title remains Persuasion. Simple, evocative, classic.


New Lenox, Ill.: Speaking of translations, do you have a preference for one for "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo? Thank you, again.

Michael Dirda: Nope. I read the book as a kid in a fat abridged edition from the public library and haven't had occasion to look at it since. I did read Notre Dame in graduate school--a course on the historical novel--and found it mightily impressive.


Alexandria, Va.: I sometimes look at my toddler and think now I am adult and I running (a small piece) of the world, but in front of me is next year's model. All my cares and joys matter not a whit to him, because he is concerned with the next stage of life. Youth does not notice its obsolescence.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. If we both go on this way, we're going to have to change this forum to D on Philosophy.


Houston, Tex.: "as readable -- in fact, -more- readable -- through Garnett's Victorian pen."

But when you say they are more "readable" are they readable in the way that Tolstoy intended, in Tolstoy's voice, or is it a voice that while "readable" is not Tolstoy's?

For example, Pevear and Volokhonsky's translations of Dostoevsky are not as smoothly readable as Garnett's, but I suspect they're closer to Dostoevsky's true voice, or as close as one can get when being translated.

Michael Dirda: Yes, PV make a big point of this. Most of us have to trust that they are telling the truth. That said, I certainly prefer Constance Garnett's classic opening to Notes from Underground "I am sick man. I am a spiteful man . . . "


Weems, Va.: Your neighbor Mr. Pelecanos continues his superb examination of the District beyond the federal buildings with his latest. The Monday Post reviewer believes that the Derek Strange quartet represent his best; I believe that Turnaround surpasses those. What a tremendous survey of the District's people and their lives.

washingtonpost.com: Pelecanos fans shouldn't miss this recent profile of him from the Washington Post Magazine.

Michael Dirda: Thank you, Elizabeth.


Albuquerque, N.M.: I gotta ask: do you ever play Buzztime or other pub trivia games? Having had the opportunity to read books and write about reading books for a living, I imagine that you'd be a stone killer at trivia -- especially the more academic/general-knowledge type games as opposed to the goofy trivia type games. Ever take the Jeopardy test?

washingtonpost.com: OK, this is kind of inside-baseball Postie stuff, but last year our gardening editor Adrian Higgins did Jeopardy!

Michael Dirda: I didn't know this about Adrian! Gosh. I did mention, a few weeks back, that his brother was the star of The Draughtsman's Contract.
I don't know what Buzztime is. But I'm pretty sure I'd do reasonably well in any kind of literary information game. You have to bear in mind my misspent youth and middle age in libraries and bookstores.


grasping happiness: Women wear flies too. But yes, being Bellow, I'm sure Bellow was thinking only of his own kind.

Michael Dirda: Women wouldn't "grasp" happiness in just that location.


Chicago, Ill.: I see James Woods has a new book out. I'd like to hear what he thought of his wife's book, "The Emperor's Children." I found it pretty tiresome, myself.

washingtonpost.com: I liked it, but then I am a tiresome Ivy Leaguer myself. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Claire Messud is a fine novelist. Apparently sometime when they still lived in England, James was a judge for the Booker and Claire's first novel was eligible. I'm told he said something dismissive about the book, that it wasn't of Booker short-list quality or something. The marriage appears to have survived, and been blessed with offspring.


Chicago, Ill.: I am intrigued by your suggestion in "Book by Book" that "the Bible itself may be interpreted as a subtle endorsement for independence of mind." Unfortunately, I don't have anything else to say about the book yet because I'm starting out of order, with the "Matters of the Spirit" chapter.

On a separate topic - a book I read because of its cover: "Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong. In my defense, I was 18 and it featured a woman's blouse, partially unzipped. It didn't disappoint.

Michael Dirda: I actually found it a little disappointing--good commercial entertainment. I say this, sheepishly, even though Erica, a few years later, in a moment of enthusiasm insisted on giving me one of her garters.
The Bible question needs space, but I do talk about what I mean in Book by Book.


Washington, D.C.: Hope you're enjoying Ohio (my home state as well, in the Cincinnati corner). I just finished reading Brideshead Revisited for the first time, and was rather underwhelmed, surprisingly so. I'd had high hopes. It was an OK summer read, but I found the narrator, Charles Ryder, fairly dislikeable. And poor Sebastian, the most interesting character, just disappears into a monastery in a drunken stupor and is never heard from again.

What's your take on the book?

Michael Dirda: It's Waugh's most famous book, but by no means his best--that honor belongs to Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, Scoop or even Put Out More Flags. I also don't think much of the Sword of Honour trilogy. But those early books--and D and F is my favorite--are perennial delights.


To Houston, Tex.: As someone limited to English -- I have to depend on translations only. So, when I say something is readable, I mean that I can read it, and I enjoy reading it. Since I can't know if something is true to the Russian (I can only take someone's word), I'm going to go with the version that brings me pleasure as a reader.

When I did a side-by-side comparison of the Garnett and the P/V (I hold no truck with the Maudes; they know what they've done), I found very little differences between the two. The differences I did find seemed negligible.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Houston, Tex.: Regarding Les Miserables, Modern Library has a new edition out translated by Julie Rose that Jeanette Winterson raved about in a recent article.

washingtonpost.com: Jeanette Winterson on the joy of books in translation (The Times of London, July 11)

Michael Dirda: Thanks, Elizabeth. I do like Jeannette Winterson--she's a woman of both taste and enthusiasm, and often very funny (see Oranges are not the Only Fruit.)


Anchorage, Alaska: I look forward to the chats each week and appreciate you sharing your feelings and responses to the vicissitudes of life. Do you think that most of us bibliophiles are more reflective and melancholy in our outlooks on life?

Michael Dirda: Probably. Scholarly and artistic temperaments tend to be introspective, and reading does develop sensitivity to the world. There have been studies of this, including one called Born Under Saturn, by Rudolph Wittkower (if I remember correctly). Many of the writers I know suffer from some sort of depression.


Incline Village, Nevada: Two quick responses: Yes, Emperor's Children: characters a little too spoiled and not quite clever enough (if you are going to be spoiled, you'd better be Waugh or Powell.) And Les Mis translation, the new Robin Buss is epochal.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Seems as if there are two new Les Miz translations out there.


Irresistible titles: "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" by Sloane Crosley. Nice lightweight growing-up-Jewish in New York State, but a funny quirky writing style. But I bought it for the title.

washingtonpost.com: ooh yes, second it. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: I love that title too.


Book Titles: I bought "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out" by Mo Yan because of the title. The title just seemed to sum up perfectly, the feeling one gets watching the news on TV and reading the paper every day.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I know what you mean.


Lexington: Michael, My nomination for most interesting title of a book that drew me to it initially is, : "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society", a wonderful book about books but really about the German occupation of the Guernsey Islands. For those interested in more on this there is the terrific BBC DVD set of "Island At War", about the first year of German occupation of the Islands.

"Quin's Shanghai Circus" years ago intrigued me to try Edward Whittemore who had a pinch of Pynchon but was unique. Sadly he died too young!

Michael Dirda: The great novel on this Guensey theme is G.B. Edwards's The Book of Ebenezer LePage, recently reissued in paperback. It comes with an introduction by John Fowles. I wrote a piece about it for the Barnes and Noble Review (online), so you can check that out for an overview of the book.
I myself don't care for the Guernsey Literary etc title. It sounds like a rip off of an Alexander McCall Smith title, e.g.. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.


Misplaced exactitude: I read a critic's statement that "Miss Smilla and her Feeling for Snow" was a much more accurate translation, but my feeling was So what? "Smilla's Sense of Snow" works much better in English, and I can't see a substantive difference between the two.

Michael Dirda: I agree.


Lenexa, Kan.: The "Hip Hop tunes" kind of question is what cost me my interest in watching most modern quiz shows. The question is often something like: Which sell most: Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, or Mars Bar?

It would also be easy to embarrass yourself. When I lived in Washington, we had a go-getter young Seminarian helping as a youth pastor. He actually managed to get on "Trivia" and even with "The Bible" as one of the categories, ended up in the hole for the day. It was also kind of funny. We all had a big laugh.

Michael Dirda: An object lesson for us all.


Born Under Saturn: I bought this a few weeks ago. I'm pretty sure it's only about visual artists, not writers. And it's cowritten with his wife Margot. Wouldn't want to short change the little lady.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I was pretty sure it was with his wife--believe or not--but couldn't remember her name.


Incline village, Nevada: oops -- the Buss translation was the Count of Monte Cristo. Sorry.

Michael Dirda: No harm done. Everyone should read The Count of Monte Cristo.


Oh, and titles...: "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil"

It ended up not being a great novel. But I still love it for the title.

Michael Dirda: Okay.


Trinidad, West Indies: Recently came across some second-hand books by French writer Jean Giono. What is your opinion about him? I think that some of his books were made into movies. I read some where that he was a supporter of the Vichy regime during WWII in France

Michael Dirda: He wrote novels set in his native Provence, and is much admired. I read on or two years ago--at the same time I read Henri Bosco's Le Mas Theothime--set in the same part of France. I can't remember anything much about either. But he is highly regarded as a regional novelist. Le hussard sur le toit is probably his most famous title.


Les Miserables: In trying to re-read it recently, I kept humming the songs from that infernal musical. I also re-experienced the slight motion-sickness I encountered from that spinning stage.

shakes fist in direction of Broadway

Michael Dirda: Never seen the musical myself, and didn't know that it's tunes were actually memorable.


Westminster, Colo.: Michael,

I have been enjoying Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century" and wondered if there were other popular historians from the last century whose works may be worth reading but have been forgotten by most readers. I suppose each generation has its preferred set of historians, so I wonder if works by Edmund Morris and David McCullough will stand the test of time.

Michael Dirda: Hard to say. I suspect Morris's Theodore Roosevelt will be a standard source. Not so sure about McCullough, who has grown somewhat suspect because of his popularity.
There are many good popular historians from "the last century"--Christopher Hibbert, for instance.


Drink for Dirda on Books: For goodness' sake, how can it not be "a cup of real or limeflower tea"?? To be accompanied by madeleines for dipping.

Michael Dirda: Have you had madeleines? One wonders what Proust ever saw--or tasted--in them. And I don't really like tisanes. Strong tea for me, stronger the better.
Of course, if this show were on after 5, the drink would be Guinness: A pint of plain is your only man, as Flann O'Brien would say.


Garnett et al: I look forward to reading the new translation of "War and Peace" but can't give up my beloved Garnetts. I do wish I could remember the name of the translator of W and P that my MIL owns; I can't read it without laughing. The Dashing Denisov, who "pronounced his Rs in the French manner" (i.e. uvular instead of rolling -- Russian has a verb for this pronunciation) which was obviously intended to make him even more dashing -- well, the translator decided that, in English, W fit this description, making the dashing soldier sound like Elmer Fudd.

washingtonpost.com: I am looking for a link to the Book World Podcast I produced last year with an interview with the translators Pevear and Volokhonsky (sp?)

Michael Dirda: Stay tuned, and see if Elizabeth finds this podcast.


Minneapolis: Don't despair, Mr. Dirda. Your audience is bigger than it appears. I frequently indulge in the guilty pleasure of "reading" the chat. I just the other day discovered that there is a label for those who sit silent in the chat - a lurker. That made my day. So I am jumping in just to say -- Magister Ludi - why not? I read and loved all the Hesse novels back in the day. Don't think I would find them interesting now, nor would I want to make a pilgrimage to the Black Forest or to Lugano, although they are both beautiful destinations. On book covers, I picked up a lovely book at the thrift store a few years ago. It has a golden yellow linen cover with art nouveau designs in red and black on its front and spine. It is David Harum by E.N. Westcott -- a 1904 edition. It is unlikely I will ever read it, although I take it off the shelf periodically to admire it. Enjoy your intros to the chat. But wonder about the cryptic references to stress and blues. Perhaps another memoir is in order. Oh, and a cool slice of cantaloupe goes well with Dirda on Books, because it is definitely too early for a cocktail!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for emerging from the shadows. Come out again sometime.


washingtonpost.com: Found it: Book World Podcast of Nov. 11, 2007 - This was very challenging to edit but I think it turned out well. Alan Cooperman, a Russian speaker himself, interviewed Pevear and Volokhonsky. I had to leave a lot on the cutting-room floor. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Alan is an editor at Book World and extremely knowledgeable guy about many areas. My family is half Russian, half Slovak, and I've long regretted not knowing either language.


Need a birthday book: I am out of ideas. I need a book for my mother's birthday. I'd like to find something on the light side (she's going through chemo), but not silly. She's enjoyed the Ladies' Detective Agency books...she's a painter (and Canadian) so I was thinking something about Emily Carr perhaps (maybe The Forest Lover by Diana Vreeland?). Normally I have no problem matching books with people, but I'm really floundering on this one.

washingtonpost.com: Three Junes by Julia Glass? Best to your mother. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Thanks, Elizabeth.


Albuquerque, NM: Regarding depression and the artistic temperament, a book the previous poster might want to check out is Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic temperament, by Kay Redfield Jamison.

A more light hearted treatment of reading opening up one's horizons and expanding one's sensitivity to the world is Alan Bennett's latest, The Uncommon Reader about Queen Elizabeth II becoming an avid reader late in life, much to the dismay of her court and handlers. Very droll.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I reviewed the Bennett--a lot of fun, but I still think his diaries/essays are his best work (aside from the plays).


For New Lenox: Try the Fahnestock and Macafee translation of Les Mis, from Signet; this seems to be the most highly regarded, and I certainly found it readable.

Michael Dirda: Thanks for the lead.


the Azores: I bought "The Pursuit of Loneliness" by Philip Slater for the title, back in the early 80s as a youngster. Seems to fit in with today's depressive theme....

Michael Dirda: I remember the book, but never read it myself.


Pittsburgh: When I was little my mother checked out from our local public library the book "Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing," by Robert Paul Smith because she was enchanted by the way it so perfectly captured a child's behavior and mindset.

As a professional translator, modesty and ethics restrain me from mentioning any of my own titles here, tempting though it would be.

To readers of translations: I could write a whole essay on the push-pull between staying faithful to the author's original words and the need to make the finished product sound the way the it would have been written it if the author's native language were English. Besides fidelity and accuracy, considerations include matching tone, difficulty of vocabulary, formality/casualness of diction.

Michael Dirda: Thanks for adding at least a little more to the translation thread. This is a complex subject, with many views--some posters may recall that Nabokov and Wilson fell out over the former's literalist translation of Eugene Onegin.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. D: As a 66-year-old, I sometimes forget the "last century" is the 20th! It is horrifying to think that Barbara Tuchman's works are going out of circulation, but no doubt is true. There is not a better popular history written than "The Guns of August."

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I once edited a piece by Tuchman and got to spend some time on the phone with her. She was a bit snippy over the headline (which I've now forgotten).


Annapolis, Md.: My favorite recent title: Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman. Clever in concept, not great in execution... but a great title.

Going the other way, I've just read Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, a great book (crime thriller set in Stalinist Russia) with a nondescript title.

Michael Dirda: One of the Bond movies uses a similar phrase: a computer geek announces "I am invincible" (just before being killed).


Freising, Germany: Recently, there was an interesting article in the German press about the "Inklings", the group of scholars and aspiring novelists at Oxford that read aloud their works-in-progress to other members in the group. he most famous members were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Apparently Tolkien and Lewis were fast friends until the 1950s, when, for some reason an estrangement occurred, precipitated perhaps because Tolkien was more cultivated than Lewis.

The article describes the possible influence of a certain Charles Williams, also an Inklings member, in this estrangement. Williams works were apparently shockingly shrill, and he is credited with creating the genre of "Urban Fantasy", and hence perhaps the forefather of the likes of Dan Brown.

Charles Williams is such a common name. Do you have any idea who this fellow was?

Also interesting to note in the article was the translation of Inklings: Tintenlinge (Tinte is German for ink). The German translation failed to mention the meaning of Inkling in the sense of vague idea or faint shimmer. Translation is often a difficult endeavor, isn't it?

Michael Dirda: Read Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings--very fine. This Charles Williams wrote supernatural thrillers--All Hallow's Eve, The Greater Trumps, etc etc. He was by day an editor for Oxford University Press, and also a great Dante scholar (The Figure of Beatrice). C. S. Lewis admired him a lot.
Noel Erin once wrote about All Hallows Eve for a Rediscoveries column he contributed to Book World. That essay can be found in his book A Reader's Delight. It's well worth picking up. Ah, Ned, we miss you still.


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

When I read what this week's "assignment" was, I felt a little weird, because, not an hour before, I found myself in "that situation." I was at the library, rudderless, having forgotten my list. So what caught my eye? The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus by Joshua Kendall. Not only the title but the jacket drawings of a "writing hand" and Roget himself sealed the deal, so to speak. I'm nearly finished, & have thoroughly enjoyed it. He was, um, something. Switching gears: If you admire The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban) you have to listen to the audio version read by William Dufris.He is mesmerizing!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the Roget biography and the lead to the audio version of Mouse and His Child. I love that book.


Fairfax: Does the Post ever review photo books? I was just out at Arlington National Cemetery and bought A Living Treasure by a local photographer, Robert Knudsen. It's AMAZINGLY beautiful. Since it's by a local and about a local attraction, I thought the Post would be perfect to review it, but then I wondered if you do photo books. Do you?

Michael Dirda: Book World occasionally reviews photography books during the year, but for many years the holiday issue in December would catch up on art and photo albums.


Popular historians: I'm surprised you mention Morris as outlasting McCullough. I'm not a professional historian, but Morris greatly harmed his standing in my eyes with his weird choices (and self- contradictory statements) on his Reagan bio.

Michael Dirda: I did say the T. Roosevelt volumes, and not the other books, which are, as you say, far more problematic.


Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Gremlins prevented me posting last week, so I'm taking the chance to address a few things in last Wednesday's discussion. . . .

I'm about halfway through "Butcher's Crossing", and yes, it is very McCarthy-like, bleak and stark. If you like McCarthy and the Williams, try Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Englishman's Boy", which is set mostly in Canada but takes much the same approach and tone as his American counterparts.

Glad you enjoyed Mitchell's "Who Has Seen the Wind" and Mowat's "Owls in the Family", Maryland. You'd probably also enjoy Mowat's "The Dog Who Wouldn't Be", which is laugh out loud funny in spots (the demonstration of Mutt's hunting prowess makes me smile just thinking about it) And I second the recommendation of "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher"; excellent, engrossing, chilling read.

I have yet to read Fraser's "The Reavers"; I've earmarked it for holiday reading next month, but expect I shall feel somewhat bittersweet about the experience, as it will mean I have no further Fraser to read fresh, as it were. "The Pyrates" is indeed a romp, but like our host, I give Flash Harry the edge, simply because there's so much of him (he also makes a brief but highly satisfactory cameo appearance in "Mr. American", and his father, of whom we really only get a glimpse in "Flashman", has a major role in "Black Ajax", and comes across rather more sympathetically then he does in the former book). Anyone who wants something in the style of Flashy, although not quite reaching those giddy heights, should read Eric Nicol's "Dickens of the Mounted", in which the humorist re-imagines the lacklustre career of the novelist's son, who really did come to Canada and joined the newly-formed Mounties. There's a special guest appearance by everyone's favourite knave and blackguard, by the way.

Starrett's "Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is one of the books that played a pivotal role in my life: when I initially read it, at age 13, it was the first indication that there were other people in the world who felt the same way about Sherlock Holmes that I did. It's magic, pure and simple, shot through with a love for, and admiration of, Holmes and Watson and their world that shines from every page. I envy anyone coming to it for the first time.

As for "got" vs. "gotten": my own editorial preference is to replace the latter with the former on all occasions except dialogue where "gotten" is being used deliberately as the word that character would use. In general, though "gotten" is North American and "got" is British.

Finally, to bring my post round to this week's question and end where I began, the cover for "Butcher's Crossing" is indeed beautiful, and I have, more than once, bought books based on their cover illustrations; usually Penguin and Oxford Classics back in the days when they were adorned with details from classic paintings. It didn't take me long to realise that any book which utilised work by William Frith, Constable, Turner, Atkinson Grimshaw (masterful at rain-soaked dockside streets and vaguely sinister country houses, and as a consequence used a lot on ghostly/eerie works), Joseph Farquharson (who turned up on a number of Hardy books; he did a nice line in sheep at sunset), or Gainsborough on the cover would probably appeal, and I was seldom if ever disappointed.

Michael Dirda: Lovely, useful post, Ashcroft. Many thanks.


Maryland: Former librarian Laura Bush recommends that everyone keep a written list of the books they've read. Do you keep a written list, Mr. Dirda?

Michael Dirda: Not since childhood. I found a list of the books I'd read in high school in one of my old journals--I reproduce it as an appendix in An Open Book. But I've never done this sort of thing since. If you can't remember whether you've read a book or not, you haven't read it. And even if you have read it, the good books are always worth rereading.


Evans, Georgia: I actually found an old copy of Grumbach's Chamber Music in our public library. You are right. It is beautifully done. I had never heard of her before. Thank you for recommending her. Do you think she had a particular composer in mind? How about sending down Georgia way some other less-known writers? As an avid reader it is wonderful to discover such a treasure.

Michael Dirda: Glad you liked Doris's book. Doris Grumbach was the literary editor of The New Republic before Roger Rosenblatt, which is already some while back. She's written biographies and novels and memoirs of old age, been a book collector and dealer, and for much of her life, reputedly, read a book a day.
I think the composer is based on Edward MacDowell.


Michael Dirda: Alas, there are lots more questions, but I've run out of steam and time. So, please try again next week. And until then, keep reading!


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