Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, August 20, 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 20.

A transcript follows.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! I hope this week's session is less plagued by technical difficulties -- on my end, not the Post's -- than last week. But there's something not right with our internet connection, and I haven't figured out what it is. You'd think that three sons could do this as a matter or course, since all of them are supposed to be "good with computers." But no, they haven't done a thing. I figure it's either bad wiring or some kind of virus that has invaded this machine and spends most of its time using the computer to send out Spam or pornography. But what do I know? I remember when computer programs were run by big trays of cards.

Anyway, let's look at this week's questions. I may even write short, lest I lose whole mini-disquisitions to the vagaries of the internet connection -- as happened last week. Life, as William Petter Blatty once observed, is one goddamn straw after another.

This machine isn't working well. If it keeps freezing up, I may have to go find a neighbor who is home to continue the discussion. But I will keep at it.

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New Lenox, Ill.: I read James Wood's newest book, "How Fiction Works." He writes, "And in our reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry...which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habits house to its foundation..."

I read with pleasure your article, The Treasure Hunter (reviewing Larry McMurtry's "Books: A Memoir") in the summer issue of "The New York Review of Books." Your anecdotes about "Lolita," and your bidding on the volumes at the Weschler Auction House, were interesting.

To Lenexa: I hope you have a wonderful upcoming birthday (Sunday, is it?), and many happy returns.

Michael Dirda:

Hmmm. I had a friend at the Post who used to say "No vivid writing, please." I think he infected me with this spirit of homespun plainness. At any event, I know James Wood and admire his intelligence and critical perspicuity, but do find that sentences like this verge on the precious. But that's my sensibility. Others no doubt feel quite differently.

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It's 2:16...: where are you?

I just read a novel by British author Jane Gardam called "Faith Fox" that deals with the British North-South divide; coincidentally, I had just finished Mrs. Gaskell's "North and South." They didn't have a war between north and south there but the divisions (and stereotypes and mutual contempt) are as intense as if they had.

Michael Dirda: I'm having so much internet trouble here, I'm going to see if I can find a computer at one of my neighbor's houses where I can get back into the rhythm of things. I apologize. I'll be back here as soon as I can.

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Ashcroft, BC part two: More holiday reading:

"Stoner" (1956) by John Williams. If I hadn't just read "Butcher's Crossing" by the same author, I don't think I'd have guessed they were by the same person. Sad, but ultimately triumphant: Stoner exists on his own terms, and his battles, and triumphs, with "tradition" are wonderful to read. Sad to see a man for whom books are everything unable, at the end, to read, but taking comfort from his books nonetheless: "He read little, though the presence of his books comforted him." Williams's words in the introduction, taken from a rare interview with him, were interesting; he complains that literature is now taught "as if a novel or poem is something to be 'studied' and 'understood' rather than 'experienced'." Asked if literature is meant to be entertaining, Williams replies "Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid."

"The Ballad of Peckham Rye" (1960) by Muriel Spark. Does the Devil, or one of his minions, come to the London suburb? That's a matter for debate, but the book is wickedly funny.

"The Bear Went Over the Mountain" (1996) by William Kotzwinkle. Something of a "Candide" for our time, and similar to Jerzy Kozinski's "Being There", but still very fresh and original and above all funny, as a bear finds and reads a manuscript, likes it, passes it off as his own and gets an agent, and finds himself the Next Big Thing in the literary firmament.

"Three Men in a Boat" (1889) by Jerome K. Jerome. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I'd not read this before; it was wonderful from start to finish. The episode with the stuffed trout is worth the price of admission on its own, and is closely followed, in terms of humour, by the attempts to open the tin of pineapple and by the narrator's meditations on the treacherous nature of tow ropes. Also funny to see how some things never change: the narrator becomes convinced, after reading a medical dictionary, that he has every disease going (except housemaid's knee), or his ruminations on "women's work": "Then we cleaned up, and put everything straight (a continual labour, which was beginning to afford me a pretty close insight into a questions that had often posed me; namely, how a woman with the work of only one house on her hands, manages to pass away her time)."

"The Radetzky March" (1932) by Joseph Roth. Beautiful, elegiac, and evocative. One act alters forever the lives of an obscure provincial Austrian family, and as the summer of 1914 draws closer the reader knows there won't be a happy ending. Yet there is still room for humour ("Little Count Sternberg, through whose brain thoughts would shoot one at a time like lone birds through empty clouds, without brethren and leaving no trace"), and shrewd observations about books and writing: "Lieutenant Trotta had no literary taste. He had always felt a dull resentment toward the melancholy gentleness of those booklets and their golden characters. Lieutenant Trotta wasn't experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written."

"Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural" (2008) by Jim Steinmeyer: A fascinating look at a man about whom the jury is still, apparently, undecided: starry-eyed fool or gimlet-eyed (albeit humorous) cynic? His short stories sound fascinating."

"The Girl on the Boat" (1922) by P. G. Wodehouse. A piece of pure fluff to finish off the holiday with. It's obvious from the get-go who will end up with whom, but it's the journey that counts, and Plum's way with words, his sheer insouciance and humour, carry the reader along from start to finish.

"Read with joy." A fine motto indeed.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft. It's impressive -- I don't see how you manage to read so much in a single week's vacation.

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Ashcroft, BC part one: Catching up with last week's poster who asked about Julian Fellowes's novel "Snobs". Well worth reading, containing much of the humour and class observations evident in his Oscar-winning screenplay for "Gosford Park".

Missed last week because we were away on holiday, beyond the range of the Internet. I caught up with a lot of reading during the eight days, taking advantage of an uninterrupted spell of reading.

"Greenmantle" (1916) by John Buchan. A rattling good story, and the references to Islam are as topical now as then.

"The Diary of a Nobody" (1892) by George and Weedon Grossmith. A razor sharp needling of Victorian middle class pretensions and anxieties.

"Chamber Music" (1979) by Doris Grumbach. Picked up an early edition after our host mentioned a forthcoming reprint a few weeks ago, and am glad I did. Beautiful, lyrical, and moving, a story about an unexpected life and an unexpected late love.

"Who Are You, Linda Condrick?" (1962) by Patricia Carlon. An early effort from this Australian writer, as tense and twisty-turny as most of her work, but there's a glaring cheat which made me want to cry foul at the end.

"My Dog Tulip" (1956) by J. R. Ackerley, all of whose books I've enjoyed, and this was no exception, the true life counterpart to his one novel, "We Think the World of You".

"Cast a Cold Eye" (1984) by Alan Ryan. A slow burn of a supernatural novel, atmospheric rather than slam-bang, and very much to be savoured. The main character, a writer, at one point receives a book to be reviewed for the "Post", and given that our host is an acknowledgement in the book I suspect he is the unnamed editor who assigns the book.

"The Dalkey Archive" (1964) by Flann O'Brien. Not quite reaching the heights of either "At Swim-Two-Birds", but a joy nonetheless.

"An Arsonists' Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" (2007) by Brock Clarke, which I picked up because of the title and a couple of good reviews. Alternately funny and moving by turns (and no writers' homes were harmed during the writing of the book).

"The Rain Before it Falls" (2007) by Jonathan Coe. Somewhat akin to "Chamber Music", in that it's about an unexpected love found and then lost. Almost unbearably moving at its climax.

"The Reavers" (2007) by George MacDonald Fraser. Began reading this shortly after Fraser's death in January, and didn't get on with it then, as it seemed too flippant and anachronistic, and I was depressed that it would be my last "new" Fraser. However, a few months on, in bright summer sunshine, it was great fun and a lovely farewell to a wonderful writer. This passage encapsulates what I like so much about Fraser, his faith in, and love for, the rogues and dreamers and forgotten folk of history: "Once again, as so often in its long and perilous story, the old country's fate is on a knife-edge and not for the first time (or the last) its only hope rests with a small band of determined head-cases. Not the kind to win graves in the Abbey or an entry in the D.N.B., but if you look carefully enough in the footnotes of history, you'll find thousands like them, just as unlikely and every bit as eccentric: the crazy English optimist ready to bash on with dauntless enthusiasm and inspired lunacy; the proudly heedless heroine capable of prodigies with her nose in the air and her mind on something else; the Scotch adventurer whose careless bravado masks a skill and craft which makes him a priceless (but unpredictable) ally; and not least, by any means, the uncouth frontier bandits who are only their for fear of losing their licenses, and for the hell of it and anything they can pick up. With luck, they'll always be there." Pair this novel with Fraser's serious novel "The Candlemass Road", also about the border reivers.

To be continued. . . .

Michael Dirda: Here's the first part of Ashcroft's holiday reading report.

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San Francisco: Am a big Paul Auster fan and recently enjoyed his "Brooklyn Follies" (and "Book of Illusions" not long ago). Are you familiar enough to weigh in on other authors I may enjoy too? I really dig the surreal, dreamy quality of Auster, Jose Saramango, Haruki Murakami, etc.

Michael Dirda: I'm still at home, battling this stupid computer connection, which flickers in and out. Ah, technology. Do any of you recall a story by Isaac Asimov called "That Feeling of Power"? It's about a world where everyone totally relies on computers, such that people have forgotten how to do basic math. There's a longterm global war that's been going on as well, basically fought by opposing computers. One day a low level bureaucrat rediscovers how to do arithmetic on his own and the Pentagon realizes that they can use his power to circumvent the hegemony of the computer driven world. It's a great story--I read it in one of Clifton Fadiman's two collections of mathematical stories and articles.

As for the Auster fan: Try Jonathan Carroll.

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Alexandria, Va.: On covers that inspired me to read a book, from my adolescence I can offer up a gun toting Behemoth on the 1967 Signet Classics edition of the "Master and Margarita." If I ever get a tattoo, that's that picture I want. What literary character would you tattoo?

Michael Dirda: What a neat question? A literary character as a tattoo -- hmmm. That takes a little thought. I don't suppose Cthulhu would be an appropriate choice . . . . What would other people choose?

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Logan Circle: Love the chats -- long-time reader, first-time writer. With a new job to which I can commute on Metro, rather than three hours in the car every day, I find myself in an unusual and delightful place: not enough books in the queue! I tend to enjoy satire; Christopher Buckley is my current darling, and Terry Pratchett and Carl Hiaasen are also perennial favorites. With that said, I'll read almost anything done in similar crisp style; subject matter matters not so much as quality of prose. Suggestions?

Michael Dirda: Try the novels of Michael Frayn, the playwright of "Noises Off." Satirical, witty, crisply written, very intelligent. You might also look at those of Kingsley Amis, besides "Lucky Jim." And then there's the old master Peter De Vries.

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: I just re-read "Rebecca." The entire Alfred Hitchcock-directed movie can be seen here without a DVD player. The movie differs from the novel in one important place -- but you still get the creepiness of Mrs. Danvers! In the novel there is a man on the sidewalk playing Roses in Picardy on a barrel organ when Mr. and Mrs. de Winter, Colonel Julyan and Jack Favell emerge from Dr. Baker's office. I had never heard of this tune, so I went to google, clicked on "other choices," and when the drop-down menu appeared I clicked videos, then I typed in Roses in Picardy. I heard a few different versions of Roses of Picardy.

Michael Dirda: The wonder of computers -- when they actually work.

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

To Lenexa: Have a great birthday Sunday. (I know the number, but I won't tell...) To Books of a Theme looking for sailing books: Coasting: A Private Voyage by Jonathan Raban; Gypsy Moth Circles the World by Francis Chichester; Bernard Moitessier's The Long Way; John Caldwell's Desperate Voyage; Joseph E. Garland's portrait of the Glousterman Howard Blackburn: Lone Voyager; and finally, Robert Manry's Tinkerbelle. Enjoy!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the nautical guidance.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Dirda -- given the Post's recent foray into the Jerome Corsi book on Barack Obama, will it be reviewed in Book World? The Post's editors, reporters, and columnists are also regurgitating comments on "Unfit for Command" coauthored by Corsi and John O'Neill, but I believe Post never reviewed the book despite its NYT bestseller status and its impact on Kerry's presidential bid. Why was it not reviewed?

Michael Dirda: I don't work at Book World any more, so I'm not part of the assigning process these days. It may well be that a round up of Obama books is in the works.

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Pittsburgh: Mr. Dirda, would you please recommend some interesting books about the Olympics (summer or winter)? I can't think of any offhand, only the movie "Chariots of Fire."

To Lenexa, from last week: Much as I'd love to take credit, I wasn't the chatter who mentioned the intriguing book title. Must've been someone else.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I can't think of many books about the Olympics either. Any help? Notice, friends, that I'm keeping my answers short because of the diceyness of the computer connection.

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Moab, Utah: It was interesting that only one person on your chat mentioned the passing of Solzhenitsyn. From the first page, "The First Circle" captured me and it was hard to put down. I heard that just before he died, he had approved of a new English translation of the book with the previously not included parts now included. I can't wait for it to be published.

Michael Dirda: You know, I've tended to think of S as essentially a period writer, a kind of prophet of the moment, whose books wouldn't really interest people after the passing of the Soviet Empire. But a good friend of mine, Tom Mann -- author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research -- has been rereading S and thinks very highly of him too. I may have gotten the wrong impression somewhere along the line.

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Ouch: "Michael Dirda: What a neat question? A literary character as a tattoo -- hmmm. What would other people choose?"

If you did Queequeg, you could have a tattooed man in the tattoo itself.

Michael Dirda: There is, of course, "The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury. I've occasionally thought about tattoos, not that I'm likely to ever get one. But how does one choose an emblem that will be with you forever? I can understand why people opt for "Mom," or catch phrases "Born to Ride" (I once thought of having a denim jacket stitched Born to Read, but decided it would be too pretentious.) Then there are some characters one couldn't really tattoo -- I love Lolita, but don't think a nymphet on my bicep would be quite comme il faut.

So this is a hard question.

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Wye River, Md.: Just re-read Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream," 25 years after I originally read it. I found it to be a better novel than I remember, but not quite as good as his best. What is your impression of the novel?

Michael Dirda: Not first rate Hemingway, and often self-parodying, but still: It's Hemingway. In my view, too many people just read the best-known works of favorite writers; I think that if you love a writer you should try to read everything. Not that I've managed to do this for more than a few people: Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Waugh, a number of others.

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Montclair, NJ: Re: How Fiction Works -- the NY Times reviewer Walter Kirns I think -- dismissed it after a nod to Eoods' erudition -- by saying that the question the book really answered was Why Readers Sleep. Ouch.

Michael Dirda: Gee, I don't know what to say to that. Still, James is in the catbird seat at the New Yorker these days, and he's taught at Harvard, and his wife is a successful novelist, so I don't suppose a negative review will mean much to him.

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Indianapolis, IN: Literary tattoos -- A profile of Sherlock Holmes or of Charlotte spinning her web.

And, regarding Charlotte and Wilbur, I attended the State Fair the Sunday before last, and my 7-year-old friend insisted we visit the swine barn to search for literate spiders.

Michael Dirda: Sounds like a fun afternoon. I loved going to fairs and carnivals when my kids were that age. Now, they tend to regard me with a kindly benevolence -- That Dad, so completely out of it.

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Literary tattoo: I'd have to get Fitzwilliam Darcy. The question is, on what part of my body?

Michael Dirda: But what would you have? His name? Or a picture of, was it Colin Farrell?

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Baltimore: Michael: Just want to know if you have any thoughts on the death of L. Rust Hills, the man who made Esquire a bastion of good fiction in the '60s and '70s. Reading his obituaries in the Post and NY Times I was surprised to find out that a man I had reckoned was a true Wasp establishment sort, given his name and occupation, had in fact attended the Merchant Marine Academy and served on merchant ships in WW II.

washingtonpost.com: L. Rust Hills, 83 (Post, August, 17)

Michael Dirda: Didn't Hills write a book, a semi-humorous book, called something like "How to Light a Water Heater"?

Last week someone brought up Willie Morris and now Hills -- both men who were well known as editors. Such people shape magazines, and through them our culture, but their legacy is so evanescent. Only those who remember the magazines under their direction even know who they are. A man like Robert Silvers -- still at the helm of the New York Review of Books -- has for 40 years been a principal shaper of American intellectual thought, and yet he's scarcely written a word on his own and keeps a relatively low profile. He once told me that he was married to the New York Review of Books.

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Lenexa, Kan.: David Maraniss's new book: "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World." Thanks to favorite posters for remembering. I don't deserve this, but we all need love.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes, I should have remembered that, but the early computer glitches got my circuits jangled and it's been hard to achieve that zone like mentality that I like when answering questions.

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Vienna, Va.: What do you make of the style exhibited by Ron Suskind in his book "The Way of the World" (reviewed in the style section yesterday)in which he writes in a novelized style on real world events. I must admit it bothers me when, in a supposed non-fiction book, the author tells you what people are thinking -- people who you KNOW never told him or anyone close to him that level of detail.

washingtonpost.com: Gripping Tales, Unknown Sources (Post, August 19)

Michael Dirda: Yes, I'm with you. I think that serious nonfiction needs to be . . . as true and factual as possible. There have been other attempts at history or biography written with fictionalizing elements, but none has ever really been successful or much admired. At least none that I can think of. Memoirs have tended to breakdown the fiction/nonfiction demarcation, and this hasn't, in my view, been a good thing. In my own case, I even shy away, at least slightly, from historical fiction. I want to know what's true and what's made up. This may be an impossible dream.

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Julian Fellowes reader: Thanks to the poster who endorsed Fellowes' Snobs. I just finished it. Quite an enjoyable weekend summer car-trip read. Next question: My mother-in-law has loaned me a copy of Hills at Home, by Nancy Clark. Any thoughts from the online gallery? My thanks, as always, in advance...I do so love summer (this is the last weekend before classes start up...sigh)

Michael Dirda: Any thoughts? Or rather Any Thoughts?

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Darcy: Colin Firth, not Farrell. (Guffaw. Farrell is absolutely disgusting. I apologize in advance to him.) An image -- maybe of him emerging wet from the lake at Pemberley?

Michael Dirda: All men named Colin kind of blur in my memory. But then I'm not a woman, all of whom swoon over Mr. Firth.

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Pittsburgh: Since I'd never get a tattoo, I guess I'll have to go with the Invisible Man.

Michael Dirda: Nice. You can tell people you have one, and even offer to show it to them.

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Baltimore: Rust Hills' books: He had two books of humorous essays, one called "Memoirs of a Fussy Man" and another called "How To Do Things Right." (I'll bet that has something about water heaters.) He evidently wrote a book on the craft of short fiction that is widely used in college writing courses, but he did not write any such fiction himself.

Michael Dirda: Yes, that's the book -- "How to do Things Right." Which obviously I got wrong -- at least title-wise. (I wonder if I can keep blaming my faulty memory on a faulty computer. One can never have too many scapegoats.)

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Lenexa, Kan.: I've just read Kim Addonizio's "My Dreams Out in the Street" -- a 2007 National Book Award finalist. It's a brutal story of a using, pretty girl with a scarred upbringing now out in the streets of San Francisco -- her hopes of love still alive. Addonizio's also an award-winning poet whom I heard read and play harmonica blues last year in Kansas City.

I also just finished John William's hauntingly moving "Stoner" -- the new NYBR release (intro by the late John McGahern). I had read "Augustus" before and remember you praising his work on several occasions. I just loved "Stoner" -- a great academic novel. When Stoner has his affair with a former student, now teaching while working on her dissertation, she says to him: "Lust and learning. That's really all there is, isn't it?" Have you read any Addonizio? What are you thoughts on "Stoner"? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: You need to chat with Ashcroft, who has also just read Stoner. I wonder if there's a way to do that. Probably. Sometimes I think that if I had a Website or a Facebook page, I could put people like you and Ashcroft into contact.

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Lexington, Mass.: Michael, You've probably heard about Random House dropping Sherry Jones novel "The Jewel of Medina" because of fears of Muslim protests, not apparently because of fear of offending anyone -- that might end publishing entirely (remember Vonnegut's short story "Howard Bergeron"). Of course we all remember the outcry over "The Satanic Verses" and the Danish cartoons, and the death of the Danish director, Van Gogh. But the demonstrations over Rushdie began months after the UK publication of the book and were precipitated by the imminent U.S. publication. The Danish cartoons demonstrate how quickly protests can be inspired by the spread of news through the internet. Are we entering another era in publishing where fear dominates. Literature, which can often be provocative by its nature, is pretty much ignored by popular culture and the media unless it inspires death threats and demonstrations and leads to deaths. Is this really about literature or intimidation? Is this not likely to continue as it proves effective? And, is there anyway to counter it?

washingtonpost.com: Censoring "The Jewel of Medina" (Post, August 11)

Michael Dirda: Interesting Post. Anyone want to chime in?

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Freising, Germany: From last week's, "You don't say if you liked Tinker Tailor -- one of my favorite spy novels, and spy movies, too for that matter":

When I read "Smiley's People", I thought it to be the most realistic and best imaginable spy book possible; and then I read "Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy", and realized that was probably the best imaginable spy novel ever written. These books made me appreciate the concept of tradecraft, and hence there was never any need for a suspension of disbelief that's often required for James Bond, et al.

I'd thought that "Smiley's People" must have been the first in the series because the name of the main character was presumably being introduced. What made all of these books so graspable was perhaps the fact that I had met and known several ardent anti-Communists from the Baltic countries.

But the word Tinker is still strange. I remember my sister picking up the book 25 or 30 years ago, and saying, "Boy, that's a strange title". Back then, we'd use the word "tinkerer" to describe someone who liked to fix things like Bernard Malamud's "Fixer".

Michael Dirda: I've heard Tinkerer as well as Tinker to describe the person. I can't imagine what it was like to read the Quest for Karla series out of order. Did you read the middle volume The Honourable Schoolboy?

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Pittsburgh: Thanks, Lenexa, for the tip on the Maraniss book. I'd read good reviews of it, but it slipped my mind. Also wonder if there's a companion book to Bud Greenspan's "Jesse Owens Returns to Munich" (if that's the title). Wishing you a great book on birthday cakes. Guilt -- and fat -- free!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Freising, Germany: Regarding Solzhenitsyn, I'm of the opinion that much of what he wrote was timeless. What he personally experienced was perhaps beyond the comprehension of most of us, but the way he describes it reminds me of daily life.

When a factory director is arrested for being the first person to stop applauding (after 11 minutes!) after the obligatory tribute to Stalin and is promptly arrested the same evening, Solzhenitsyn writes, "Now that's what Darwin's natural selection is. And that's also how to grind people down with stupidity".

But regardless if he was somehow locked into his moment or not, in terms of literary talent, do you think that he was worthy of being compared to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky?

Michael Dirda: All comparisons are invidious. One wants to be appreciated for oneself alone. I do think that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy possessed the same kind of cultural and iconic stature as S, but not having read S's books I can't say that he's in their company. I rather doubt it. But I could well be wrong.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Vonnegut's story was titled "Harrison Bergeron." Not to be confused with longtime TV host Tom Bergeron.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. That is a great story. For those of you who don't know it, it's about a world where the gifted, talented or beautiful must be,in some way, hobbled so that they are equal to more ordinary people. It's a brilliant parable.

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Westminster, Colo.: I have recently had a wonderful time revisiting some of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. Of course, his classic essays such as "Self-Reliance," "History" and "The American Scholar" are always worth rereading (although I have never been fond of his poetry). I was wondering if you have any suggestions for any modern essayists that are similar to Emerson's quintessential American outlook.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. E.B. White, Edward Hoagland, Edward Abbey--all have the requisite Americanness, but not quite the intellectual-philosophical focus. Have you ever read Santayana? He's not quite modern, but is 20th century. You might even try some of Edmund Wilson's books, especially the journals and travel books--any that get away a bit from straight literary criticism. But the moral essay is a genre not much in evidence these days--I suppose that political and cultural commentary, a la George Will or Michael Kinsley, has usurped its place. Anyone have any other ideas?

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A tinker...:...is a mender of pots and pans.

Michael Dirda: Yes. But there's also tinkerer.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Michael. First, Ashcroft can read so many books in a week because he has no children (or at least he didn't on vacation). Second, Why don't you have a personal web site or Facebook page?! With three sons under 50, you have no excuse. Please remedy this situation immediately for all of our sakes. Last, what did you think of Frank Herbert's "Dune"? I recently saw part of the movie but remember it as a hefty tome. Is it worth reading?

Michael Dirda: Actually, Ashcroft does have a child, and is, in this instance, a woman, though is sometimes a man. (A husband-wife team).

Dune is a wonderful science fiction novel. Just be sure to stop there, or with the first two sequels.

And this is to a poster who suggested Susan Sontag and Philip Lopate as American essayists:

I thought of them, and Lopate might work -- he's certainly an eminent American essayist. But Sontag seems more European somehow -- I doubt that Emerson ever meant much to her.

Well, fans, it's time to say goodbye till next Wednesday. I do hope this computer glitchiness will be repaired by then. So till next time, keep reading! And thanks for stopping by Dirda on Books!

_______________________

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