Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, August 27, 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 27.

A transcript follows.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's a coolish day here in Washington, overcast, with the possibility of rain. More importantly, I believe my youngest son has solved the various internet glitches and lockouts that have plagued this machine for the past two weeks. Here's hoping. Next, I'll have to have him figure out when and why the TV stopped receiving TV signals about two or three weeks ago. No one in the household seems to have bothered to mention this till recently--the boys didn't care, the parents never watch tv.

Anyway, let's look at this week's questions. I hope there are a few and that people didn't grow discouraged from last week's stop and go session.

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Lenexa, Kan.: I just read Barbara Sleigh's "Carbonel: The King of the Cats"--another NYBR children's title. (Clute/Grant had a nice entry for Sleigh.) I enjoyed it so much, and having just turned a year older, I hope it's not a portent that someday I'll only be able "to read E. Nesbit." Graham Greene, wasn't it? Ever read any of the Carbonel books or other Sleigh?

I recently saw the new movie of "Brideshead Revisited." (I had earlier read the novel and seen the PBS series.) I've always liked works that look wistfully back on that "once was but will not be again" ardor of youth.

In my mind, I've always linked the coevals Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. In a similar linking, I once asked you whether Conrad or Hardy had given you the more reading pleasure. You said both had provided an enormous amount, but if forced to choose, you'd go with Hardy because he was also a wonderful poet. In a similar vein, which writer has given you more pleasure, Waugh or Greene? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: I've never read any Sleigh, alas. Something to look forward to. I wouldn't be surprised if Greene thought that he might only be able to read Nesbit before too long. Noel Coward did only read Nesbit on his deathbed--reminded him of the lost England of his childhood.

You know, I might pick Conrad if asked to choose today. Happily, one doesn't.

In the same spirit, Waugh has long been a favorite of mine, because he is funny and cruel and writes so beautifully. Greene has never meant so much to me, but I'm going to be reading a bit more of him this fall, and may change my mind. Certainly the two admired each other's work immensely. At least for most of their careers.

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Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, I have just returned from the California Rare Book School. I was surprised that both Acres of Books in Long Beach and the Heritage Bookstore are closed. I believe that every bookseller over sixty is writing a memoir and closing up. I suppose that I face a future of occasional book fairs and online shopping. Any thoughts?

Michael Dirda: Yes, this is a sad time for those who love used bookshops. Peter Howard at Serendipity, in Berkeley, wrote recently--about a piece I did on Larry McMurtry's memoir about being a bookseller--and noted that he'd been trying to sell his shop. Here in Washington there are a few neighborhood used bookshops hanging on, but even the huge Second Story Books now makes most of its money from the internet. I guess I should be grateful to have been part of the twilight of a wonderful era, just as I'm grateful to have started working for a newspaper when we still had linotype machines and typewriters. One does start to feel valedictory, but as some abbe said, You have no idea how sweet life was before the Revolution.

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San Jose CA: I recently read Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley". It's a good book, but I found myself hoping that Ripley---the amoral, homicidal psychopath---gets away from the police. My daughter says she felt the same way about the hitman in "Day of the Jackal". I gather this is a fairly common reaction---what causes it? Do you think it is because the story is told from the murderer's point of view? Normally,I can't imagine feeling any sympathy for these characters.

Michael Dirda: Hmmmmm. My recollection is that Ripley does get away with it, though I read the book a long time ago. How else does one explain the three or four subsequent Ripley novels, in which he lives in baronial splendor and has to deal with little problems about his past? As it happens, I'll be reading some Highsmith this fall, too.

Yes, the whole trick of both books is to make us sympathize with the villain: Ripley becomes a better, more cultivated interesting man because of his murder; in Jackal we admire the cool professionalism of the assassin.

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Stone Harbor, N.J.: Where is the outrage in the media regarding Random House canceling a book fictionalizing a wife of Mohammed? "The Da Vinci Code" was offensive to many Catholics. "The 29th Wife" will surely upset some Mormons. How about the old "Elmer Gantry"? Yet the publishing world is terrified by a small group of Muslim fanatics! The little country of my grandparents, Denmark, had more guts when the cartoon was published. (and remember, under Nazi occupation they managed to save most of the Danish Jews.) Shame on Random House.

washingtonpost.com: A Book Too Hot Off The Presses: Random House Feared Radical Muslim Backlash (The Washington Post, Aug, 21)

Michael Dirda: I sympathize, but Random House is in the business of making money, and perhaps sometimes basking in the associated glamour if one of its authors wins a major prize. Books get cancelled for all kinds of reasons, not only out for political reasons.

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Washington, DC: I'm taking my vacation late this year, so I am still contemplating what books to bring along. I think I'll do an evolution theme, so Beak of the Finch and Wonderful Life will make the trip. What about novels? Are there any novels out there with an evolution theme? Has anyone fictionalized Darwin?

washingtonpost.com: Emma Darwin, a great-great-granddaughter of Charles, had a novel out last year called "The Mathematics of Love."

Michael Dirda: Not fiction, but you might add Alan Morehead's book Darwin and the Beagle to your list, and you should certainly take Darwin's own Voyage of the Beagle.

Wasn't there a novel a few years back called Mr. Darwin's Shooter? It had very fine reviews. Told by the young man who shot the specimens that Darwin studied.

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Houston, TX: Just back from Papua New Guinea. I missed reading the blog (although it was nice being in a country where one can still get a bride for 30 pigs plus one extra for the bride's mother). While there and in transit I read The Man Who Was Thursday (loved it), Randall Jarrell's Book of Stories (nice collection), Roberto Bolano's Amulet and Wodehouse's Leave it to PSmith. Now I'm looking for a "project" - a multi-volume ambitious novel. I thinking perhaps The Story of the Stone or maybe The Man Without Qualities. Any thoughts? (I've already read Proust, my favorite novel of all time, as well as Powell.)

Michael Dirda: You could try my old favorite The Tale of Genji, especially since you love Proust. The Bloomsbury crowd compared Waley's translation to a Japanese Proust.

I have nice hardbacks of The Story of the Stone (five volumes) and the Musil (two fat ones), but have never read either. Hangs head in shame. Just never had the right occasion. And I am such a slow reader. In truth, I probably wouldn't have got round to Genji if I hadn't gone down to Duke for two and a half weeks on a Post Fellowship and suddenly had lots of time to myself. A wonderful time (see my essay Heian Holiday in Readings).

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Pittsburgh: In honor of the political conventions these two weeks, could you and the chatters recommend any books about or set in Denver or the Twin Cities? I seem to recall that Jay Gatsby may have been from St. Paul (like his author) or at least someplace like it.

Michael Dirda: Any help? I know that several writers--James Salter, among them-- live in Aspen and that Garrison Keillor is from Minnesota, but I'm otherwise drawing a blank. Isn't there a detective series set in Minneapolis St. Paul?

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Currently in Paris: Alas, with the time difference I'm never able to participate in these chats "live" (which makes me a lurker, I gather), but I nonetheless enjoy coming into contact with such a large community of fellow-readers. Most recently I've been devouring the stack of German books I picked up on a recent trip to Tuebingen (Grass, Wolf, more Aitmatov translations) and looking over the latest crop of indispensable French novels coming out in time for the "rentree." So my question would be, what is the ONE not-to-be-missed book published in the States this fall? (Bearing in mind, of course, that I have ridiculously eclectic tastes, ranging from classic science fiction to mysteries to the latest Gasche tome.) Many thanks.

Michael Dirda: Well, obviously the paperback edition of Classics for Pleasure.

As it happens, I've just finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has been a huge best seller in France and Europe, so I can't mention that. And Julian Barnes's book on death is by a Brit. And, thinking ahead to my own reviewing, most of the books are somewhat specialized nonfiction.

These are the sort of questions that always drive me crazy.

All right: how about The Elizabeth Bishop/Robert Lowell letters? The correspondence between the two best poets of their time, good friends, brilliant people.

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Long Beach: Certainly there were some excellent articles and writing done during the Scopes trial?

Michael Dirda: Mencken covered it, and does appear--somewhat fictionalized--in the great drama Inherit the Wind.

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Watership Down: I was at a garage sale many years ago and bought a pre-press edition of Watership Down for about 50 cents. I think it's actually the bound galley pages. The woman who sold it to me told me that her father had been in publishing and had had many boxes of such books, which he'd sold over the years. This is one of my favorite books so I'm not selling it, but I've always wondered if it's worth any money. Any thoughts? (Of course, it's only worth what someone's willing to pay for it!)

Michael Dirda: It's certainly worth more than 50 cents, but its value is hard to determine. There was a time when collectors were hungry for proofs and galleys, but that seems to have diminished in recent years. What's more, I presume you picked up the galleys of the American edition, and most serious collectors are going to be more interested in the English firsts and galley. It's the old dictum: Follow the Flag. Still, your best bet is to query a modern first dealer or to do some searching around the used booksites to see if anyone has anything like it for sale.

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Minnesota lit: Gore Vidal wrote one on Duluth I keep meaning to pick up.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes. It's supposed to be funny. (Note inherent ambiguity of that sentence.)

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Multivolume novel: How about The Forsyte Saga?

Michael Dirda: How about it? I know that people watched the BBC series, but does anyone actually read the books? It has always charmed me that Conrad dedicated Lord Jim to Galsworthy. At least he didn't say Il Miglior Fabbro.

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Edith Wharton: Hi Michael, I'm trying to read all of Edith Wharton's novels, and I've gotten through most of the usual suspects (Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, Summer, Ethan Frome), but I am stuck on The Customs of the Country. I just really, really loathe the heroine, so much so that I can't get past it and enjoy the book itself. Have you read the book? Does it get better as it goes on? (I'm just past the wedding) Should I persevere?

Michael Dirda: I haven't read it, but I can this: If you want to read all of Wharton you'll have to persevere. Think of the pleasure you'll feel in just knowing you've read all her books. On the other hand, if you're not that married to completeness, I'd put it aside, go on to another book, and maybe come back to it later, if at all. I do believe in reading for pleasure--unless there are supervening reasons. (Is supervening the word I want? I believe my mind is going, like the body parts of M. Valdemar.)

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College Park, MD: The controversy with Random House brings to mind "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X." The late African-American leader and Alex Haley originally contracted with Doubleday for this book in early 1964. After Malcolm was assassinated the following year, Doubleday dropped the project for fear that its employees - both in the publishing house, and in the bookstores it owned at the time - would be under threat. Grove Press stepped in and picked up the contract, and thus was published a book taught in countless high schools and colleges over the last 40 years, which Barack Obama has often cited as an important influence. You have to wonder where today's Barney Rossets are going to come from.

Michael Dirda: Barnet Rosset bought Grove Press from my late friend and mentor Robert Phelps, who started it, published three books, tired of publishing and sold it to Rosset. What three books you ask? The Religious verse of Richard Crashaw, selections from the writings of Mrs. Aphra Behn, and Melville's The Confidence Man. Not what we think of today as normal Grove Press items.

But in fact this is a great age for small publishers: It's easier than ever to bring out a book. It's finding the readers for it that is the problem.

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Speaking of Genji...: There are so many abridged versions out there, and I don't know which to pick! I am fascinated by the work's history and legacy, and I want to get a taste, as opposed to reading the whole darn thing. Any recommendations for which edition is best?

Michael Dirda: I can't imagine reading an abridgment. Just pick up volume 1 of the Waley and see if you like the book.

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washingtonpost.com: According to Merriam-Webster online, "supervene" means "to follow or result as an additional, adventitious, or unlooked-for development."

Michael Dirda: Right. Whatever that means. As I said, my mind is--and I'm sure this is the word I want--deliquescing.

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Herndon, Va: Mr. D: for the detective series set in Minnesota - the author is John Sandord - all the titles have the word "Prey" in the title - one of the more recent is "Mortal Prey."

Michael Dirda: Right you are. Many thanks.

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Albuquerque, NM: What're your thoughts on abridgements? Is there any work where you'd recommend an abridgement -rather- than an unabridged edition? Recently I asked a used bookstore owner if he had an unabridged Boswell's Life of Johnson, and he said 'no' and that a good abridgement was better. I found an unabridged edition for my kindle and am a fifth of the way through it.

The idea of somebody else editing a work for me just sticks in my throat. My dad used to use two VCRs to edit movies for my sisters and me. I refused to watch them even though I was pre-pubescent and couldn't have cared less about seeing the naughty bits he was censoring. He could never understand my cold fury at the censorship when all he was doing was getting rid of the sex stuff and I was only 10 or 11.

Should I learn to lighten up about abridgements?

Michael Dirda: Wow, your dad was serious. But then I still close my eyes during the sex stuff in movies. Yucky kissing and all that. What I want is to see lean men with fast draws.

Somerset Maugham once abridged War and Peace, but I don't know anyone who would want to read that rather than the real thing.

Abridgments. I think the compromise is to pick up the unabridged version and just skim or skip when you come to any section that seems uninteresting. That way you do your own abridging.

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Falls Church, Va.: WEIRD! I just started reading the first Forsyte Saga novel, and I was coming here to ask your opinion. So far, I'll say that Galworthy was OK, but no Trollope. His characters lean much more toward caricature, and if he were writing today, I'd call his work made-for-TV. It's engaging, though, and there's now a window-on-a-departed-world quality to it.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Let us know if your opinions improve.

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Moab, UT: From last week - "Yes, I'm with you. I think that serious nonfiction needs to be . . . as true and factual as possible."

The one thing that really bothers me is when writers reproduce conversations on the page. Can some people really do that? I know that most people can't repeat back a conversation from earlier in the day, let alone from last week or longer than that. How can writers reproduce a conversation if they weren't even there?

I just finished reading Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman. Kaufman (played Latka on the old TV series Taxi and was universally hated for challenging women to wrestle him) had most incredible life that I have ever read about. There are many passages where Zehme wrote in a run-on stream-of-consciousness style that many reading this will NOT like. His life was just fascinating to read about because he extraordinarily unique. (I found it most effective if I just read those rambling passages as if someone was speaking and tried not to absorb the information.)

The book that I bought simply for the title was The Great Brain Robbery - not the children's book but the sci-fi novel.

Michael Dirda: I do think that people in memoirs tend to make up conversations. I've written a memoir and really worked hard to avoid this--but one wants dialogue, confrontation, etc etc. But, as good as my memory is, I could only recall snatches of what my father or mother said over the course of my life. Sustained conversation--impossible.

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Aiea, Hi: Aloha Michael. Mahalo for your chats. I just read 'Home of the Brave' by Katherine Applegate. My daughter is teaching this book to her 4th and 5th graders. This is a wonderful story about a young Sudanese boy who immigrants to the US and overcomes adversity with the help of a cow. I think this will be a crossover book, it is so well written.

Michael Dirda: I wish it luck. I do think that books with cows in them have added an extra obstacle to success. Horses and dogs and cats work in novels, but cows--I have my doubts.

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Lenexa, Kan.: One possibility: Jon Hassler's Staggerford, Minnesota, is somewhere north of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, and isn't far from Sinclair Lewis's Gopher Prairie...The cast of characters Jon Hassler has created over the years is the reason his novels have a quiet legion of devoted readers."--Chicago Tribune

From the cover of "The Staggerford Flood"--the one of the series I read (really enjoyed).

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Herndon, Va: SORRY! The "Minnesota mystery" author's last name is SANDFORD - I missed a letter.

Michael Dirda: Close enough for government work.

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Forsythia: I loved the books, never saw the TV series, but they're echt Victorian. If you like SciFi, Frank Herbert's son is coming out with more Dune books.

I think if you got a Lolita on one bicep and a D'Arcy on the other, you would be one unique individual. Kind of like a literary "Night of the Hunter".

Michael Dirda: Don't give me ideas. I love Night of the Hunter. Pity that Laughton wasn't allowed to direct more pictures.

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For evolutionary reader: Try "The Voyage of the Narwhal" by Andrea Barrett. Not about Darwin specifically, but the story is about a naturalist in the 1800s on board a ship headed to the Artic. Very influenced by Darwin and lots of talk about such matters. Also good would be her other book, "Servants of the Map." Andrea Barrett is a wonderful writer and her historic fiction is very compelling.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Anonymous: After reading up on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, (which you deny even exists, in your mind) I was struck by the astute observations of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, who rejected the Stratford myth, and expressed reservations about the 19th century candidate, Sir Francis Bacon. Do you consider these gents astute, or delusional? The "snob" card, played by Statfordians, seems odd when applied to the "champion of the common man", Whitman, don't you think? By taking your position, can we simply assume that Twain and Whitman suffered from senile dementia?

Michael Dirda: Huh? Lots of smart people believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. But something there is that loves the idea of a conspiracy of silence. Have you read S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives? Do.

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washingtonpost.com: Washington Post review of "Mr. Darwin's Shooter" from 2/28/99

MR. DARWIN'S SHOOTER By Roger McDonald

Reviewed by Andrew O'Hehir

Syms Covington was born into a butcher's family in Bedfordshire around 1816, and into a world that believed unquestioningly that God had created the plants and animals of the earth in perfection, and all at the same time. He grew into a man who has been described by one of Charles Darwin's biographers as "the unacknowledged shadow behind [Darwin's] every triumph." During the historic South American voyage of HMS Beagle in the 1830s, Covington became Darwin's servant, helping the young naturalist collect and catalogue thousands of plant and animal specimens. He remained in Darwin's household for several years after their return to England, while Darwin developed the theory of natural selection that gave birth to modern biological science. Some scholars now believe that Covington's tenacious thoroughness as a collector was crucial to his master's work, that, for example, Darwin's famous account of species divergence among the finches of the Galapagos would not have been possible without the exhaustive notes Covington took on his own initiative.

From this puzzling shadow of a man, this historical question mark, the Australian writer Roger McDonald has fashioned a full-blooded novel of 19th-century adventure and mystery whose characters and settings are startlingly alive. McDonald, the author of five previous novels and a memoir, emulates the style and tone of Darwin and Covington's time, but there is nothing of the dry postmodern exercise about Mr. Darwin's Shooter. As a book of seafaring and exploration, shot through with an undercurrent of philosophical inquiry, it recalls Melville; as an account of an English country boy's coming of age and success in the wider world, it suggests Dickens; as a euphonious hymn to the beauty and fecundity of creation, it has almost the poetic intensity of William Blake. On all counts, it's an enthralling read, the kind of book that sweeps you into its world and absorbs you entirely.

Mr. Darwin's Shooter is told in two interwoven narrative strands. The first begins in 1828, when the 12-year-old Covington, a devout Congregationalist inspired by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and full of passion for adventure, meets the charismatic evangelist and sailor John Phipps and follows him to sea. McDonald's imagined history of Covington's early life is in itself a grippingly detailed nautical yarn, rich with color and incident: The Bedford lad sees Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego, narrowly escapes murder in Brazil, watches a beloved friend drown, falls in love with a barely glimpsed Patagonian girl, and is flogged with a cat o' nine tails, all before turning 15. Increasingly ambitious and blessed with unusually fine handwriting, Covington outgrows Phipps, his spiritual master, hoping to cultivate the company of officers and gentlemen. "May he never lose his soul to advancement," Phipps prays, knowing that once Covington's eagerness and skill with animals capture the eye of the diffident, awkward Derbyshire "gent" aboard the Beagle, he will go his own way.

The author picks up the story 30 years later, when Covington, although only middle-aged, is broken in body if not in spirit. The onetime butcher's boy, now an affluent Australian landowner, is near death when he comes under the care of David MacCracken, a young American surgeon with intellectual pretensions (and by far the novel's weakest link). But Covington, as Phipps had predicted, is more concerned with the injuries he may have done his soul. Darwin has written to tell him that after 20 years of work, he is finally publishing a book called The Origin of Species. Deafened and maimed by all the shots he fired to gather the raw material for Darwin's magisterial study, Covington knows what this will loose on the world:

"Well, it was sad to think of it, that it might come around to a misery of doubt and anxiety regarding God; that a man might have only himself on this earth as a guide whatever his heart told him, and that such a loneliness might be proved, and that the man to prove it had a servant, an accomplice in the affair, and his name was Covington."

Like any good novelist -- and on the strength of Mr. Darwin's Shooter he is an extraordinary one -- McDonald refuses to take sides between God and science, for the fiction writer's art requires a little of both. As the end of his life draws near, Covington, with the almost accidental aid of MacCracken, struggles to conceive of a universe where the warm-hearted Phipps, whom he still loves, and the cold-hearted Darwin, whom he grudgingly admires, might both have an honored place. Perhaps such things are not possible in our world, where the war between faith and reason rages on with unimpaired bitterness to this day. But in the pages of this novel, so vibrant with the wonders of nature and language, even Charles Darwin can be reconciled with God.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Elizabeth.

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Freising, Germany: I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.

I thought that this poem by W.H. Auden was a great start to "The Honourable Schoolboy".

Looking back, it was perhaps unfortunate to have started the Smiley series with "Smiley's People" and end on the downbeat and downtrodden note of "The Honourable Schoolboy". But however downbeat it was, "The Honourable Schoolboy" introduced me to some incredibly exotic locations, such as Vientiane, Battambang, Phnom Penh and, of course, Hong Kong. It was also a good look at the evil aspects of espionage, when Jerry Westerby blackmails the banker, Frost, for information, which leads to the torture and murder of Frost, and how Lizzie Worthington is blackmailed into cooperating with the Circus and then left to face drug smuggling charges and prison.

Strangely enough, before I'd started "Smiley's People" about 5 years ago, I'd been led to believe that Smiley had retired from the secret service and started up a sailing school. I must have confused Smiley with some other spy character. Is this perhaps another spy from another LeCarre novel?

Michael Dirda: If I recall correctly, n Tinker, Tailor he has retired, but is brought back into the game to discover the mole.

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Chantilly VA: Michael: I'm just about finished with David Michaelis's biography of Charles Schulz. Sad to say, even though most of the main characters, themes, plots, etc in Peanuts come from "Sparky's" life, he's just not that interesting a person (which he would be the first to tell you, apparently).

In other words, his life as filtered through Peanuts is much more interesting than his unfiltered life.

But the tidbits of info in the book are fantastic. For example, Snoopy's name came from snupi, a Norwegian term of endearment his mother loved to use.

Michael Dirda: In his dreams Snoopy no doubt sees himself as a Norwegian Elkhound.

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Lexington: Michael, The recent elevation of poet Kay Ryan to US Poet Laureate brings up the subject of 'does poetry matter anymore'? I reread John Berryman's wonderful poem "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" and found these wonderful lines,

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue, Who says my hand a needle better fits; A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong; For such despite they cast on female wits: If what I do prove well, it won't advance, They'll say it's stolen, or else it was by chance.

She was a wife, homemaker and mother of eight in a harsh time, yet the compulsion to express herself in poetry must have been fierce as she become the first great poet of these shores.

I wonder who your favorite poets are that you reread? An excellent all purpose anthology is "The Norton Anthology of Poetry" (over two thousand pages, one of whose editors is Mary Jo Salter-another favorite). Just a few more favorites of mine are Hecht, Yeats, Keats, Hardy, Marvell, Donne, many more. Do you have favorite narrative poems?

washingtonpost.com: My favorite female poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson (of course). -- Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Oh, I have lots of poets I love, not all of whom can be mentioned here: Sappho, Chaucer, Donne, Herbert, Dryden, Pope, and more of the usual suspects. Among the moderns Hecht was a friend as well as a wonderful poet. Probably my favorite poets are Baudelaire, Yeats, Eliot, Cavafy, and Stevens.

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Fullerton, Cal.: Hello Michael! In the latest (August 25) Weekly Standard someone called Barton Swaim reviews two recent books about Arthur Conan Doyle, under the heading "One Hit Wonder." Mr. Swaim claims that the Sherlock work is wonderful but that the other Doyle novels, "are always well-crafted and often gripping, but he [Doyle] explains too much, too often." Also, that Doyle's non-Holmes fiction suffers from a "frequently cloying and preachy narrative style." Mr. Swaim states that "(a)part from those [the sixty Holmes stories], not a single one of Conan Doyle's works is now read by anybody but academics and specialists."

What about Brigadier Gerard and Professor Challenger and the numerous stand-alone short stories? Is the man Swaim a buffoon or merely a snob (or, possibly, neither)? I can't tell because while I have read the Holmes short stories three or four times over forty years, and the Holmes novels once, I haven't read any other Doyle; but I refuse to believe that Mr. Barton Swaim is right about Our Conan!

washingtonpost.com: One Hit Wonder (The Weekly Standard, Aug. 25)

Michael Dirda: Conan Doyle was, in fact, an extremely fine all round short-story writer: Try The Captain of the Polestar, if you don't believe me, then go on to his other stories such as The Horror of the Heights and Lot 29 or whatever the number is.

The Lost World is a terrific adventure novel.

That said, Conan Doyle did write a lot that not many people read any more. But Mr. Swaim's blanket assertions go too far.

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Ashcroft, BC (BR): Multi-volume sagas: Trollope's "Barchester Chronicles" springs to mind. For something less overwhelmingly Victorian but still with the flavour, try R. F. Delderfield's "God is an Englishman" trilogy (Victorian) or "Horseman Riding By" trilogy (Boer War to WW II). Delderfield was an excellent storyteller, and both series are recommended, although my own preference is for the "Horseman" books.

Agree about Laughton: a shame he only directed the one film. But what a film.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft.

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Maryland: Ashcroft, I read Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barrens as well as The Dog Who Would Not Be. Lost in the Barrens was exciting and the perfect antidote to August's hot and humid weather here. When the boys' fawn ate the moss that chinked up the logs in the house, and the arctic air blew through, I felt a little cooler. I read a paperback copy, and the tiny writing on the two maps is too small. I'm going to try to get a hardcover of this book so I can read the maps.

I loved The Dog Who Would Not Be. Even a person who doesn't like dogs or stories of boys growing up would love the beautiful prose. I found myself wondering if James Herriot knew Farley Mowat's books.

I don't plan to read The Englishman's Boy because it is said to be violent. I am still trying to locate a copy of The Golden Pine Cone.

Michael Dirda: See, Ashcroft. People take your advice--and are wise to do so.

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Baltimore MD: Last week's discussion re tinker: A poster said that he/she had found "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" to be a strange name for LeCarre's book. I presume the title derives from the childhood chants about what a kid will grow up to be: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggarman Thief." (The title of the highly popular 1970s novel by Irwin Shaw obviously derived from the same source.)

And in Ireland, tinker was the popular name for what were also called "the traveling people," the Celtic gypsies who, in the words of folksinger Liam Clancy, "Made their living mending pots...and stealing chickens."

Michael Dirda: Yes, and there's the old expression about not giving a tinker's damn.

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evolution vacationer: I respect the people who have to fight for the teaching of evolution in this country, but I do not want to read about creationists on this trip. I want to marvel at nature and the process that creates it, not cringe at the people that find that process a threat to all morality.

OK, I admit it. I actually read all the comments to the recent NYT article about the Florida biology teacher. It was a little depressing.

Michael Dirda: Okay.

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Michael Dirda: Well, friends, it may be that I've actually managed to get through all this week's posts. And now must face the rest of the day. I hope everyone has a good afternoon ahead, and until next Wednesday at 2, will keep reading.

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