Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, August 13, 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 13.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's another sunny day here in Washington, with cool temperatures that give the impression of early autumn. Quite delicious weather, all in all.

Already my visit to Ohio has begun to fade--how quickly we fall back into our routines and patterns. Thoreau notes that it didn't take long before he had worn a path to his cabin's front door.

Still, I'm back and my hiatus from reviewing is just about over, and I don't seem to have done half of what I'd hope to accomplish. Twas ever thus. I've got to start hustling or I'll fall behind before long. Work, work, work, if I may quote Governor William J. LePetomane.

And with that, let's look at this week's questions.


Lenexa, Kan.: Recently "Pittsburgh" mentioned her mother once handing her Jonathan Rhoades's humorous "Over the Fence is Out" (early 1960s). I too was a big fan of it as a young man. I think it a possible influence on Jean Shepherd's "the old man" stories. William Maxwell's "So Long, See You Tomorrow," has some of the same "boys playing" concept as Rhoades's. Of course, Maxwell's personal, beautifully evocative novel is not comedic but a classic of literary ache and heartbreak.

I'm listening to an unabridged version of Chris Bohjalian's "Skeletons at the Feast" -- a spellbinding WWII tale of a Prussian Junker family, with an 18-year-old daughter -- fleeing westward by cart as the rapacious Russian army moves in from the east. QUESTIONS: Have you read or had any dealings with Bohjalian? Also, Maxwell's novel, makes me think of Chris Lehmann (WP Book Club selection). Are you in touch with him? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: I haven't read the Bohjalian, though I was at one time slotted to review one of his books and had to beg off for some reason. I must say Russians threatening Junkers with beautiful daughters does seema bit too tense and emotional for my gentle sensibility. (I speak as the descendant of Cossacks, albeit one whose hardy blood has grown thin and anemic.)

Chris Lehmann is working for one of Washington's foreign policy journals; I've forgotten which one. I see him very occasionally at parties, and he seems much himself.


Lexington, Mass.: Michael, Two recent rereadings that prove the adage that the same book read at different ages is really two different books ( at least for some readers ). Reading "Herzog" again after forty years I'm more sympathetic with Herzog who is reminiscing about his life at middle-age, "...that long convalescence, my life...the illusion of improvement, the poison of hope." Not that Herzog is giving up but he is less sanguine about changing himself or the world-a settlement that he has come to, a melancholic appreciation of the world and his place in it-maybe.

"Beyond the Bedroom Wall" which I read originally thirty years ago and thought a masterpiece then also is still a masterpiece read in middle-age. It's a multi-generational novel about growing up in the mid-West, how characters respond to the vicissitudes of life and seek consolation, how they learn to define themselves. What Wallace Stevens described as "the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice." A beautiful book of loss of innocence growing into adulthood. Do you know of Woiwode's writings? There is a sequel of BTBW, "Born Brothers" also worth seeking out and reading, and two memoirs, most recently "A Step From Death". You may remember his Faulkner Award winning first novel, "What I'm Going To Do, I Think". I guess this says something about books being different read at different ages and the worth of rereading favorite books and getting something different from them.

Michael Dirda: Woiwode presents an interesting case. The books you mention were much acclaimed, especially What I'm Going and Bedroom Wall, but somehow the later books grew -- if I recall the reviews correctly -- rather religious and heavy-handedly so. As you can tell, I've never actually read his novels, though your enthusiasm for Bedroom Wall makes me feel I've missed the boat yet again. But issues of middle age and the passage of time have never been far from my mind -- I proably started thinking about them at the age of 7 or so -- and I may yet read him.

Thanks for a wonderful post. I do love that Herzog riff on Pope's "This long disease, my life."


Freising, Germany: Regarding books bought because of their titles, a couple of decades ago, I bought, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" together with "Rich Man, Poor Man". I read "Rich Man, Poor Man" right away, but it would take me about 25 years to get to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy". Although someone vaguely mentioned it earlier, it was only recently that I discovered that the two titles were from the same nursery rhyme. Perhaps I had the rhyme on my brain when I bought the books. I alway thought that the word, "Tinker" to be strange.

Michael Dirda: You don't say if you liked Tinker Tailor -- one of my favorite spy novels, and spy movies, too for that matter. I remember reading about tinkers in Appalachia when I was in elementary school. I think Shaw wrote a sequel to Rich Man, Poor Man and called it Beggarman, Thief.


Arlington, Va.: Question: A relative recently recommended Julian Fellowes' book SNOBS to me -- knowing how much I loved his screenplay in Gosford Park.

Is the book worth the time to read? I ask only because I have precious few days left before my graduate courses begin again: I am trying to read as many good novels as I can in the remaining time I have left. (After Aug. 25 it's back to public policy texts and articles....)

Gratefully, An Arlington "fan"

Michael Dirda: Can't say, but if you liked his screenplay, I'd give it a whirl. Fellowes wrote a couple of early novels that were very intricate, Nabokovian jeux, and I think he worked on some of the Inspector Morse tv shows.


Washington, D.C.: I have the opportunity to take one of two college courses: 1. The writings of Shusaku Endo; or 2. James Joyce's Ulysses. I need some advice!

Michael Dirda: Let me alert everyone that my internet connection is very slow today for some reason -- I blame my sons and their computer games.

Well, my view is always take the earlier writer over the later one. Besides Joyce has been far more central to world literature than Endo, who is a wonderful writer. I even have a signed -- in Japanese -- copy of Silence. I remember buying it 20 years ago from riverrun bookstore in Hastings on Hudson. Ah, those were the days.


Washington, D.C.: Just picked up a copy of the Count of Monte Cristo (Barnes and Noble Classics). Nowhere on the book cover does it say "abridged". Now I read the translator's note and it says "This...is felt to be sufficient apology for the present abridgement of one of the world's masterpieces". Has anyone read this version? I don't want to miss out and I am irked that it is not advertised as abridged.

Michael Dirda: I know how you feel about abridgments, and I would generally steer clear of them. But this is a swashbuckling and humorous romp of a book, written with a certain sloppy gusto, so I don't think you will miss much by reading a fat abridgment. There is, however, a new translation out there and there are paperback versions that are complete and I would urge reading one of them instead.


San Francisco: Michael, I have enjoyed your books very much and this chat although I have to read it later since I am still a corporate slave. I do have a question, I am reading A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell and read a bit about the author. This was all sparked by Any Human Heart by William Boyd. This novel is written in a diary form with footnotes and was so real I started checking out the footnotes. I think it was there I picked up that Powell and C. P. Snow didn't like each other. In checking out Powell's memoirs, the index doesn't mention Snow although they were exactly the same age and at Oxford at the same time and both writers in roughly the same genre (Strangers and Brothers.) Do you know anything about this? Just curious... Thanks.

Michael Dirda: I've read Powell's memoirs, but don't remember any comments about Snow. I imagine that Powell looked down on Snow, who was a far more middle-class kind of writer than the rather aristocratic Powell. He might also have felt in competition with the Strangers and Brothers sequence. Does anyone know for sure about the Powell/Snow relationship?


Michael Dirda: Sorry about this delay. I got timed out of the system, and have changed computers. Don't quite know what's happening. I hope the last post about the bunnies and chicks went through. Anyway, back to questions with the hope that all will be well now.


Carrboro, N.C.:'Allo M. Dirda,

Just wondered, as you're quite a fan of that humble Xtian, Augustus Carp, whether you've ever read/glanced through/sneered in disgust at another, similar volume, Squire Haggard's Journal. Both are featured in the "Prion Humour Series" (which also includes Saki and "Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog"). Squire Haggard himself is wonderful and consists mostly of gout, poxes, and Madeira wine. Each entry in his journal begins with a note of some horrible village death, along with a grim note involving the weather.

Sample entry, Sept 28th:"Hail. Jas. Weevil whipped at the tail of the hangman's cart for statg. that The Archbishop of York was an old Sodomite. The Coroner has sat on Wm. Turnover but fell asleep before he could return verdict....Ate a dish of lung with some chitterlings and a plum puddg. for dinner; also a pie but I know not what was in it except it had a beak."

Sample entry, October 15th: "Rain. Jeremiah Barnwood died from the black Eruptions. Still no pheasants so in a.m. the party went out and shot anything in sight, returning with a bag of three crows, one wood-pigeon, a rat and Blind Billy, who strayed across the line of fire and received some pellets in this back."

Also, thought you might want to know that the entire Georgette Heyer library is being reprinted (save her wonderful mysteries, which are like aristocratic versions of Agatha Christie with better characterization). I mention this because they're being reprinted not as small, airport-bookstore paperbacks, but rather as large soft-covers with that sort of matted cover that conveys so much culture to the fingertips. They're still no 1st edition hardcovers (Heyer's are sadly pricey) but still...

ALSO, was recently in used bookstore and came across a Balzac book entitled "Droll Stories Collected in the Monasteries of Touraine and Given Light"...it's a Folio Society book and has illustrations by none other than "Gormenghast" Mervyn Peake, Himself. Thought you might want to keep an eye peeled!

Michael Dirda: No, I don't know this volume about the Squire but it sounds worth looking for. I do collect books illustrated by Peake, and didn't realize that he'd done that Balzac -- I know of his Alice and Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll.

Sorry again about these internet stoppages.


Same book at different ages: The one that really leaped out at me was the difference between reading Lost Horizon at 20 and at 40-ish. At 20 I couldn't see how the choice of whether to return to the world or stay in Shangi-La was a choice at all - of course you wanted to be out in the world! At 40 the timeless tranquillity has a LOT more appeal.

Michael Dirda: Yes, plus there was the beautiful girl. That ending struck me as unbearably sad -- "she was old, most old as anyone I have ever seen" or something like that. I wonder if he ever made it back.


Washington, D.C.: Have you done or has there been a study done of people's autobiographies and how they mirror their personalities? I was struck by how Rosie O'Donnell's memoir was unreadable in its use of no structure whereas Barbara Walters' was controlled, even in its spontaneity and calculated even in its use of scandal. Also, Goldie Hawn's went on and on and said absolutely nothing about her as a person. Just wondered.

Michael Dirda: There are lots of studies of autobiography around, starting with Georg Misch's classic A HIstory of Autobiography in Antiquity. There are particularly good books by Wayne Shumaker and Philippe LeJeune. That said, an autobiography in the past seemed to create the person it was about. Now, with television, it merely confirms a personality we already know.


Indianapolis, Ind.: I've been interested in the process of learning to read recently as I watch the seven year old daughter of a friend learn. She's enthusiastic, but has some troubles. I've always been a reader, but I've never been able to help people who ask me how I learned. I don't remember learning to read -- it just came to me like breathing. I don't write that as a boast. It's just what it was and is. Is this the experience of other people who love to read? And is there something strange about thinking how you're reading when you're reading?

Just needing a check on my mental health.

washingtonpost.com: I am like you -- according to my parents, I started reading before age 2. They credit Sesame Street (and a healthy dose of being read to). I can't remember not being able to read! -- Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: I answered this earlier but apparently it got lost in the computer glithes.

Basically I learned to read at about 4, when my mother sat me in her lap in the evenings and would ooh and ahh over the pretty little bunnies and cute chicks. (I still like cute chicks and some bunnies.) I think reading is a toggle -- suddenly something clicks and you can read. There must be books out there on the subject, but I don't know about them. Any help from other posters?


Rockville, Md.: Any advice on how to find a literary agent? I know someone that is writing a book that some non-trade publishers thought was worthwhile, but the author is looking to get a trade publisher to publish it and it appears you need an agent to do this? Do you have any advice on how to get a book published by a major publisher?

Michael Dirda: Check out the Writers Center in Bethesda -- they offer this kind of advice and service to aspiring writers. Also, some writers conferences attract agents who come primarily to discover new talent. Look in Poets and Writers magazine.


Alexandria, Va.: Vladimir Nabokov's son is going to publish "The Original Laura" this September. Do you expect something on par with his best works, or something less because it is published posthumously?

Michael Dirda: Well, I suspect it will be pretty smooth, since Nabokov was such a perfectionist even in his rough drafts. But I don't think there are more than 50 or 60 pages.


Indianapolis: Re. LOST HORIZON: We know that in the film version at least, Ronald Colman did get back.

A book and a film that I love, although I must confess the film made a greater impression on me.

How is James Hilton regarded these days?

Michael Dirda: I guess he's remembered as the author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but that's about all. I've read both these, but other books like Random Harvest were big best sellers of the time, but I think he's thought to be slick and commerical and sentimental--all kisses of death once a writer is dead. During his lifetime of course these same qualities make you a best seller.


Books of a theme: Hello and thanks for the chats. Here's question for you and the learned assembly (LA). I've read Sabatini, O'Brian, Forester, Pope, Kent and Stevenson. Loved them all, sometimes against my own better judgment. I am now however a sail obsessed reader and am wondering what other books you all could suggest that would keep my reading sails full. I've recently picked up Two Years Before the Mast (haven't started it yet) am reading Jack London's account of sailing the Snark with his wife, and have fond memories of John Barth's "Tidewater Tales". So I'm not so much needing more of the Napoleonic era Naval Fiction, although that would be nice, but any books about sailing would be of interest. Oh, I did also read and love Joshua Slocum's "Sailing Alone Around the World", a must read for anyone interested in adventure sailing.

Michael Dirda: The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst exists in a paperback series called The Sailor's Library, with other titles of nautical interest. Do you know Eric Newby, the travel writer, whose first book is about one of the last of the sailing ships? It's called The Great Grain Race, or something like that. You might enjoy Kon Tiki if you've never read that great raft-adventure account of crossing the Pacific. Peter Earle has written some good books about pirates and Renaissance sea dogs.


Favorite autobiographic title: Here Lies Eric Ambler

Michael Dirda: Yes, a great title.


Fairfax County, Va.: I just re-read Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book and was moved all over again by this sci-fi classic re time travel, the Black Death, and related topics. I also enjoyed her amazing comic sequel to it, To Say Nothing of the Dog, with time travel to the Victorian era, and her strange but gripping novel Passages, about near-death experience research. I've heard she has another one in the Doomsday/Dog universe in the works, but she is one author who takes several years per book, so I guess we have to be patient. Do you like her work, and are there other authors you'd suggest to a Willis admirer?

Michael Dirda: This year Subterranean Press brought out The Winds of Marble Arch, which collects nearly all her short fiction -- you might look for that.

If you like Time Travel stories, there are several collections of these around -- you just need to search a bit.They have titles like The Time Travelers. Robert Heinlein wrote a couple of classics, including "By His Bootstraps" that you shouldn't miss.


James Hilton: James Hilton also wrote quite a good mystery novel, Was It Murder?, set at a boys' school, under the pseudonym Glen Trevor. He also published some mystery stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I think, folks, that I'd better end this week's chat a bit early -- I continue to have a very slow and erratic internet connection, and I fear that at least two or three of my replies were lost. I trust that by next week things will be back to normal. I do apologize. But until next Wednesday at 2 -- keep reading!


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