Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, August 6, 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, August 6.

A transcript follows.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! I'm writing this from my sister's house in Ohio, and feeling a bit frazzled, having just driven two hours and forty five minutes to get here in time to do this chat. That's a story for another occasion. The weather here in Ohio is sunny and hot. But let's just get on to this week's questions, okay?

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Lenexa, Kan.: One more thing on quiz shows: when living in the Washington area, I discovered that either "Jeopardy" or "Tic Tac Dough" came on a Baltimore station half an hour before it did in Alexandria. I had some fun with it. For three weeks, I never missed a question until my wife figured it out. She's never looked at me the same since.

Willie Morris tells of something similar in his marvelous memoir, "North Toward Home." As a boy, he discovered he could get an earlier broadcast of east-coast baseball games on his father's shortwave. An hour later he'd be sitting in the local Mississippi barbershop, everyone listening to the Cards and Giants, and say something like: "I wouldn't be surprised if Schoendienst and Country Slaughter both single, and Musial knocks them in with a triple." People in Yazoo City thought they had a young seer on their hands. Have you read Morris's book? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: Alas, I've never read Willie Morris's book, though I've known a fair number of people who used to know and love him. I'm sorry I never got to meet him.

This seer business reminds me of a joke of my father's from his boyhood. He was walking along with a group of kids, picked up a rock and flung it onto the porch of a house they were passing. The irate owner stormed out, and all the boys naturally ran off--except for my father, who stood there, pointed and said "There they go."

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Columbia, Md.: Missed last week, but my nominee for the best book I ever got because its cover goes to Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley, a wonderful description of medieval life by season, which a friend gave me for my birthday because of the bucolic, pleasant landscape on the cover.

Michael Dirda: Sounds good. Do you know Peter Laslett's book The World We Have Lost, about lost country traditions of England?

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Vienna, Va.: As a book reviewer, what are your thoughts on the "Twilight" phenomenon? I've heard it compared to "Harry Potter" many, many times, and I was curious as to your views on the staying power of the series.

Michael Dirda: I haven't a clue to its staying power and--bows head sheepishly, looks round the room, then whispers--in truth I haven't ever even looked at these books.

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Bangkok, Thailand: Hi Mr. Dirda,

Thanks for doing the chat - I look forward to it every week.

I know you're a big fan of Wodehouse and find his books very funny - so I thought I should give it a try. But, I read somewhere that Wodehouse humor is based on his play on words - will this prevent me from getting the jokes as English is my second language and I hardly am fluent at it?

Thanks!

Michael Dirda: You'll be able to appreciate the absurd plot developments, and to follow the action, but you may have some difficulty in seeing the astonishing humor of his similes. But I'd give him a try nonetheless. Wodehouse is surprisingly popular in Asia, especially in India. I suppose it has something to do with colonialism, British models of education, etc etc.

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Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, I happened to be in my local Barnes and Noble Bookstore last Thursday evening and was crowded by a huge crowd of adolescent girls and middle aged women with faint Goth like appearance and a few with special T-shirts. The new Stephenie Meyer book was being released at midnight. It seemed to be bigger that Harry Potter. Have you read any of this Twilight series? Do you have any comments about promotional events or riding the popularity wave?

Michael Dirda: As I said just a moment ago, these books have completely escaped my radar. Why? Because I have sons, because I no longer keep up with children's or YA books in the way I did when I was reviewing them regularly, and because I generally have minimal interest in best sellers.

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Chicago, Ill.: My daughter (10) wants to read a collection of good essays to understand how this literary genre works. I told her that essays could be funny, exciting, and puzzling. There were no collections for kids in our local library. The kids' librarian printed us some winning essays written by kids, most of them predictable, politically correct, and dull. We went to the adult section, and I checked out a collection of essays by E. B. White. We read some of them together, and it was a revelation for my daughter. I wonder what your recommendations are for a collection of essays by great writers appropriate for kids. Are there really no collections of essays for kids? Wouldn't great essays inspire kids to think and write differently?

washingtonpost.com: I have a suggestion - take a look at "A Patriot's Handbook," edited by Caroline Kennedy, which is an anthology of pieces from all genres from throughout American history. Or the "A History of US" series by Joy Hakim, which uses original source material to trace American history - this is meant for kids.

Michael Dirda: I'll second Elizabeth's endorsement of The History of US--I reviewed a couple of the early volumes and they are wonderful accounts of America's past. But they aren't really essays. When I was a kid there was a paperback called Great Essays, edited by Houston Peterson (I believe) that included pieces that were supposed to have wide appeal. You might try that. Otherwise I'd probably suggest that your daughter try other New Yorker writers, in particular James Thurber, whose story-essays are hilarious. Before him there is Robert Benchley, whose collections turn up regularly in used bookstores. Good luck. Let us know if you find a good book of essays for kids.

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Freising, Germany: The Bavarian forest is a strange place to be reading about tomahawks and Indians, but I finally got around to reading "The Last of the Mohicans". As the pace of the novel would pick up and I'd imagine nasty Hurons or Iroquois hiding in every shadow, I reminded myself that the nastiest beasties in this forest were sheep ticks (Ixodes ricinus) whose bite can cause encephalitis. (Visitors to Upper Bavaria, be sure to get your FSME vaccination if you're planning to walk around the forests).

The book brought me back to childhood, when I was brought to the top of a 350 ft. cliff where the Iroquois would sacrificially throw off captured Mohawks into the lake below. Needless to say, none were known to have survived.

It also reminded me of the stories of Indian prowess in the forests, seeing and hearing things that the white man would never notice. As even Hawk-eye mentions, "We must give a call to Uncas. The boy has Indian senses, and may hear what is hid from us; for being a whiteskin, I will not deny my nature".

Was Cooper alone in establishing the concept of the Indian as at one with nature? What other novels take a look at this concept? For instance, I'm reminded of the film, "The Emerald Forest" set in South America which utilizes magic realism to depict the American Indians' unity with nature.

Michael Dirda: The notion of the Noble Savage--of which some of Cooper's Indians are descendants--is an old tradition: You find it in Montaigne and as a trope throughout 18th century essays and satires that contrast Happy Simple Primitive Natural Life with Corrupt Artificial Civilization. In France Bougainville's Voyage to Tahiti extended this idea to South Sea Islanders, where it continues virtually to this day. I suspect that Indians began to resemble noble Natural and Instinctual Souls roughly at the time that they began to be wiped out. It's always easy to idealize the past.

Balzac, by the way, was much influenced by Cooper--he and other novelists transformed Paris and other big cities into urban forests, where mysterious things might happen in the shadows. Think of the hidden beggar kingdom of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Mr. Dirda;

After a period (about a year) where I didn't read much fiction, I've been reading some recent novels recommended to me by friends. Is that common to other readers, where one stays away from some form and then returns to it?

And I remember some summers where I read just one author. One that I spent in the company of Dashiell Hammett is particularly vivid. Do you or other readers occasionally focus on one author?

And don't worry -- if the weather in Indiana means anything, you'll soon have some thunderstorms and somewhat better conditions.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I hope those thunderstorms don't hit on Saturday, when my niece is getting married in an outdoor garden service.

I suspect that many readers discover a writer and then gobble up all his or her books. In my own case, I used to go on such jabs--reading all of Orwell's essays and journalism, making my way through The Story of Civilization, etc etc. In fact, I read a lot of Hammett one year, mostly the early stories and a couple of the novels I hadn't caught as a boy. I do think that periods of intense focus can lead to a sense of mastery, that one really knows a writer and can thus talk about him or her with some authority.

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Chicago, Ill.: I know now (from reading Book By Book) that Trollope was a full time administrator for the British postal system. And the poet Wallace Stevens was a lawyer and then a full time executive at an insurance company. (After winning the Pulitzer, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard but turned it down because it would have required him to leave his insurance job.) I'm intrigued by these artists who have their feet so firmly planted in the world many of the rest of us inhabit - banal offices. It gives me hope. Are there other writers and artists like this?

Michael Dirda: Yes. Dana Gioia, an admired poet and now chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, was a businessman at, I think, Proctor and Gamble for 20 years. Or Was it General Mills? The prolific science fiction writer Gene Wolfe worked as an engineer--and invented Pringles--and used to work on his fiction in the morning. The poet Ted Kooser was, I think, a banker. And of course journalists and teachers are often weekend or early morning novelists, or would-be novelists. I recall that Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent on his subway commutes to his Chicago law practice. If you want a thing badly enough, you can generally find the time for it.

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Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: On the essay question, your reader might like George Orwell's essays, many of which are quite approachable - the ones about his prep school experience, Charles Dickens, and language (e.g., abhorring the use of contact as a verb) come to mind.

Michael Dirda: Yes, a good idea. Orwell's pieces are often used in classrooms because of their force and clarity. But I'm not sure if his themes would appeal to a ten year old.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Speaking of books for youngsters, I liked your brief description in one of the Readings Essays of you reading Citizen of the Galaxy to your son. Brought a smile to my lips since I fondly remember devouring all the Heinlein Juveniles when I was about 8 or 9 in the mid 70s. Then, they were 20 years old, but I loved them.

I have a nephew who's turning out to be a very precocious reader at 5. I was thinking of giving him a copy of all the Heinlein juveniles in another couple of years or so. But, I wonder if they'd be too dated for a kid--reader though he may be--weaned on CGI special effects extravaganzas, photo-realistic video games and Harry Potter. Any thoughts?

Michael Dirda: Why not give him one or two and see if he asks for more? My youngest son read several of the juveniles, and indeed reread one this summer (at age 17). I think that Heinlein's simple language, fast action and superb plotting should appeal to kids even now. Harry Potter will always be there waiting.

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Wodehouse's words: A lot of PGW's wordplay is based on his having a classical education, so some stock phrases from, say, the Book of Common Prayer or other well-known English literature, but you don't need to get those to get his humo(u)r in general. Don't let that stop you from diving into PGW, one of life's great pleasures.

Michael Dirda: Seconded.

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Essays for Children: I second Mr. Dirda's recommendation of James Thurber. I started reading Thurber at around 10 and loved his off-beat humor. "Thurber's Dogs" was my favorite.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I loved most of The Thurber Carnival. Who forgets Walter Mitty's ta pocketa-pocketa, or its great climactic sentences: "To hell with the handkerchief. With that faint fleeting smile playing about his lips, Walter Mitty faced the firing squad, invincible to the last." Something like that.

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Essays: John McPhee is one of the best nonfiction stylists in the country. He has a number of essay collections.

Michael Dirda: Yes, no argument, but the poster was thinking of essays that would work with 10 year olds and somewhat older. McPhee can be a bit leisurely at times, and his pieces tend to be long, sometimes booklength. Again, I admire him as much as you do. I've even taught his essays. Really, I can't think of any writer who writes essays for children. Unless, of course, we think of the great children's nonfiction writers as essayists--James Cross Giblin, for instance, or the several who have won Newberys like Russell, oh what is his name? He wrote a lot about American Indians.

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State College, Pa.: Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.

Michael Dirda: Indeed, he was: a pediatrician, in fact.

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Chicago, Ill.: To take last week's discussion in a slightly different direction - books I read eagerly, being entranced by their titles: "Vile Bodies", Evelyn Waugh; "That Hideous Strength", C.S. Lewis; "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men", David Foster Wallace. I was also drawn to "The Charterhouse of Parma" by Stendhal, subconsciously misreading it as "charnel house".

C.S. Lewis's space trilogy had the most fantastic covers - the editions I read were from the 60s and so campy looking.

And books whose titles completely turned me off: "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"; "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Michael Dirda: How odd that Walter Mitty should come up again, in a completely different context. You should read the Spark and Thurber if you haven't.

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Belmont, Mass.: Hi Mike, I keep up with you through Lindsay, but here's a question I have for you. My book group really enjoyed reading The Odyssey this spring, the Fagles translation, and we're thinking about reading Joyce next. Might be too much, tho! Just read Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad. What else can you recommend to continue our odyssey? Ann

washingtonpost.com: Watch the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: There's a good suggestion. If you're interested in the Ulysses theme, you could read the relevant canto in Dante's Inferno, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Tennyson's "Ulysses" and even Katzanzaki's "The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel." (He's the guy who wrote Zorba the Greek.)

There are also poems, such as Wallace Stevens's "The World as Meditation," about Penelope waiting for Odysseus. W.B. Stanford has a book called The Ulysses Theme that would give you some good ideas.

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Trinidad, West Indies: I see from the introduction above that it is your opinion that either "The Tale of Genji" or "A la recherche du temps perdu" is the greatest novel. Both of them are pretty long but I am going on a month long vacation to a place where my wife and I will be waited on hand and foot and there is going to be minimal sightseeing and even less shopping. Is there any one translation of these novels that you would recommend? My wife has opted for the Proust since she heard it is all about love and its many permutations.

Michael Dirda: Actually, Proust is about love but largely from a single angle: Jealousy and the desire to wholly possess the other person. There are, however, examples of filial love in the book. You have a choice with Proust--the Scott Moncrieff translation revised by Kilmartin and Enright, or a new translation by divers hands--love that phrase--brought out over the past decade or so. In this some of the translations are better than others.

There are three translations of Genji. The most poetic and readable is the first by Arthur Waley; the most scholarly and enjoyable is the latest by, J. Thomas Rymer. In between is that by Edward Seidensticker. I've only read Waley.

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Albuquerque, NM: Do you have an opinion on Shelby Foote's fiction? I have read his massive narrative of the Civil War, but know next to nothing of his fiction.

Michael Dirda: Me neither.

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College Park, Md.:"In Search Of Willie Morris," by DC resident Larry L. King, is a very worthwhile biography of that writer.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I see the movie "My Dog Skip"--based on a Morris memoir-at the local video store.

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College Park, Md.: And where titles are concerned, "Time Will Darken It" by William Maxwell's one of my favorites. I've often wondered if it's borrowed from another writer, or if Maxwell devised it on his own.

Michael Dirda: It does sound like a quotation, doesn't it? I suppose one can just google the phrase now and see if anything comes up. I've always liked titles taken from earlier works: Gone with the Wind (from Dowson's Cynara poem), For Whom the Bell Tolls (from one of Donne's meditations on death), The Grapes of Wrath (from the Battle Hymn of the Republic), etc etc.

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Speaking of Odyssean Themes: I've long owned a copy of Derek Walcott's "Omeros" but have never gotten around to actually reading it. Have you read it? How is it? Walcott won the Nobel so I assume it passes the laugh test.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes, I should have included that too. It's a wonderfully imaginative transposition of Homer to the Caribbean.

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Pittsburgh: For the group who read "The Odyssey" and is now looking for other such materials, perhaps a good English translation of Vergil's "Aeneid" or Luis Camoes' "Lusiads"?

Michael Dirda: Yes, one could--if studious--read a dozen or so of the greatest epics: Aeneid, Nibelungenlied, The Persian Shahnameh, Paradise Lost, etc etc. Mark Van Doren has a good survey of those called The Noble Voice.

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Palookaville: Other literary doctors include Chekhov and Walker Percy (though I don't think Percy practiced).

I can't remember when I last bought a book because of its cover but I did once buy the Horace Silver LP "Blowing the Blues Away" (I had never heard of HS in those days) because of the terrific ink-brush drawing on its cover, of a piano player going to town on the keys. The music absolutely lived up to the cover too, and the album remains on my short list of recommendations for newcomers to jazz.

Michael Dirda: Thanks for the guidance. I feel ignorant to say that I don't know anything about this album or Silver.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Your youngest son (Nate, isn't it?) seems to have some of your literary instincts. I remember you quoted him once that when asked his favorite book growing up, he said something like: "It would have to be a Dido Twite, but I'm not sure which one." Sounds perceptive to me. Which of your three sons do you think might be the most closely aligned? Thanks.

Michael Dirda:"Most closely aligned?--you mean most like me? It depends: In sensibility my eldest son Chris, in interests my middle son Mike, in focus and independence, Nate.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I've loved Thurber since I first read him when I was fourteen or so. I did wonder why his aunts and uncles seemed to be very close to my own.

And as far as Wodehouse is concerned, I certainly didn't have a classical education and I think he's hilarious.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. You might enjoy looking up the website for Thurber House--it's the house where Thurber grew up in Columbus and now serves as a writer's center.

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Harwood Heights, Ill.: So did you actually read that memoir "My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian"?

Michael Dirda: Nope. Just loved the title.

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Bonn, Germany: Re book titles that contain quotes: I love (and highly recommend) Stegner's "Crossing to Safety" -- the title comes from a poem by Frost. I remember you did not want to read this, fairly autobiographical, book while you were working on "An Open Book". Have you had a chance to read it since?

Michael Dirda: Alas, no. But thanks for reminding me of it.

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the Galapagos islands: My father had John Gunther's book "Death Be Not Proud" (based of course on the John Donne poem) on his bookshelf when I was growing up and I found it terribly mysterious and haunting sounding. We ended up seeing the movie version of it in elementary school (starring Robby Benson).

Michael Dirda: That used to be a standard book for older elementary school kids. It was right up there with Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters.

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Kid's essays: Not all of them of course, but Mark Twain could spark anyone's interest.

People who haven't read the Harry Potter books should probably not take swipes at them. The 1st was a bit pedestrian and amateurish, but the rest of the series is very good. I don't see the corollary drawn by another poster between video games and Harry Potter.

Michael Dirda: Good suggestion. I liked the first Potter, thought the second wasn't half as good.

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Stevens Point, Wis.: Michael:

Fans of or readers yet to begin Gene Wolfe's masterful Book of the New Sun may be interested in hearing that Michael Andre-Driussi has published a second edition of his Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle. Besides bringing back into print a valued resource, Andre-Driussi has incorporated over 300 new entries into the updated work -- a scholarly mix of maps, definitions (Wolfe, like Cormac McCarthy, delights in obscure words), onomastics, and informed speculation about the novel's many obscurities. One can only wish all of Wolfe's oeuvre came with similar Baedekers.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the recommendation. He also compiled a book of essays, with Alice Turner, devoted to John Crowley's work: Snake's Hands.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Michael,

My wife and I finally got around to reading "The Shadow of the Wind," which a friend had given us a couple of years ago. We both enjoyed it and I remember your highly favorable review.

We reported back to our friend about our pleasure and after recalling it fondly himself, he said it made him want to read more Spanish fiction.

That book's merger of romance and intellectualism didn't strike me as particularly Spanish, but then perhaps I'm ignorant.

Anyway, this is a long windup to asking you what you would recommend in the same vein or with similar appeal, whether Spanish or otherwise.

Michael Dirda: Try Arturo Perez Reverte, especially The Club Dumas. You might also enjoy some of the books I mentioned in my review in trying to situate Shadow: e.g. Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary.

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State College, PA: For The Odyssey group: I noticed that Ursula Le Guin has a new book called "Lavinia"--taken from Virgil's Aeneid. She's always worth reading.

Michael Dirda: Indeed she is. Lavinia has been very well received too.

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Baltimore, Maryland: For Belmont, Mass: "Cold Mountain" by Charles Fraser.

Michael Dirda: Thanks.

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Ovid, N.Y.: I am trying to decide on which Dirda book to give as a gift to a 19-year old student that loves reading but has not read many of the classics. I was think a bundle of Classics for Pleasure plus The Lifetime Reading Plan would make a nice gift. But then the title of the Lifetime Reading Plan always makes me shy away from giving it as a gift, plus the pressure of a massive reading list. I am leaning towards Bound to Please, covering a broad assortment of titles. Hmmm, perhaps I can't go too wrong.

Michael Dirda: I can see merit to all these choices, but I wonder if Book by Book might not work best for a 19 year old who doesn't read too much. Or possibly the memoir An Open Book, which ends when I am . . . 19.

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Ashcroft, BC (BR): I don't know how they'd go over with most ten-year-olds, but some of Joseph Mitchell's pieces might be the ticket. I read our ten-year-old 'Up in the Old Hotel' and he enjoyed it. Perhaps the trick is to read selected pieces to a child, so that you can select the right ones and explain or discuss as necessary, rather than thrust a book of essays into a child's hands and let them get on with it as best they can.

A title that intrigued me as a child was E. L. Konigsberg's "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler". How can a book with the title be less than wonderful? More recently, I thoroughly enjoyed "Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes" by Barry Aitchison, which my husband bought on a whim because of the title and the cover.

As for reading an author's works en masse: I used to do this with classic English fiction, reading all of Dickens at once, and then Austen, and then Burney, and Smollett, and so on. That was when I had a lot of time; nowadays, conscious that there are a lot of books out there I want to get to and not quite so much time in which to read them, I'm more inclined to spread my favours around, as it were, although I did go on an Alexander McCall Smith jag a couple of years ago.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. But such promiscuity!

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Other literary doctors include...: Maugham and Conan Doyle, who was a ships doctor, according to Wikipedia

Michael Dirda: There are many doctors who were literary men--Thomas Browne, for instance, is another. But the original poster was interested, I think, in business people who wrote on the side.

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Falls Church, Va.: For the 10-year-old, just give her a book of O. Henry's short stories and -tell- her that those are essays. By the time she figures it out, she'll be ready for Joan Didion.

Michael Dirda: Cute idea. But O. Henry's language can actually be a bit demanding at times, because of the period flavor.

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Pittsburgh: For Chicago, Ill.: It's not only authors who may have separate careers besides their art. American composer Charles Ives (from Connecticut) was an insurance executive, and I seem to recall reading that he was a major innovator of whole life insurance.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Blackstone Avenue and 51st Street: Waiting for someone to pipe up with a tribute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.....

Michael Dirda: So far, no one has. It would seem that Solzhenitsyn has come to be regarded as a writer of a certain period and with a certain power, but somehow locked into his moment, like, say, James T. Farrell.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi, Michael. Thanks for feeding your loyal fans even during your vacation.

Following up on Chicago's question: All the real world worker-writers you named were men. I would like to know if there are any big names in literary writing who are/were married women with children. Joyce Carol Oates, one of our most prolific female writers, has no children. I can't think of a single one.

Michael Dirda: With some exceptions, most women before the 20th century only had one of four jobs: Wife, mother, spinster or widow. As a result, they wrote on the side from their domestic duties. In the Victorian era this started to change when women cranked out magazine fiction and novels and much else, but their only other job was still that of wife or mother. Today I suspect that a great many young women writers double as academics, teaching literature or creative writing. Of course, this is true for many men writers too. The businessman/writer isn't all that common a commodity.

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business people who wrote on the side.: Lots of academics who write fiction - Robertson Davies was Master of Massey College but was a small town newspaper editor when the first of his novels were written.

Civil servants who wrote on the side - Kafka and Bukowski

Michael Dirda: A good addendum to the previous post. Thanks.

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Rochester, Minn.: Have you read "The Balkan Trilogy" by Olivia Manning, and what do you think of Anthony Trollope's writings (better on Masterpiece Theatre?) and those of Isak Dinesen? There is a good book on the making of "Out of Africa," but I don't have the title at hand.

Michael Dirda: Judith Thurman wrote a wonderful biography of Dinesen. I discuss Out of Africa and her "gothic" tales in Classics for Pleasure. Trollope is an addictive writer--somewhat comparable to Austen. Try The Warden and Barchester Towers, or the Palliser series.

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State College, PA: For long titles: one of my favorite picture books as a child was "The Twenty-Seventh Annual African Hippopotamus Race." Such great meter to that title.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Michael Dirda: Well, folks, there are still more questions, but I've run out of steam, partly because of my drive and partly because of this alien computer. So until next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!

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