Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, September 3, 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, September 3.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books. The past few days here in Washington have been absolutely glorious--soft sunshine, cool air, a slight tinge of autumn to the foliage and trees. I've been taking a couple of walks a day, in lieu of any serious exercise. These are the sort of days that remind me of a wonderful Samuel Beckett anecdote. Beckett and a friend were on their way to watch a cricket game on an afternoon like those we've been having here in DC. The friend said: "Sam, a day like today makes you glad to be alive." To which, Beckett replied: "I wouldn't go that far."

I suspect he said it with a smile.

Anyway, let's look at this weeks queries and brickbats. We will, as so often, be assistanted by my wonderful producer Elizabeth.


Wellington, KY: Last week Fullerton, CA noted: "Mr. Swaim [a reviewer] 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."

I'm a completely ordinary person, a generalist, far from an academic, not even a big A.C. Doyle reader, and I read Brigadier Gerard a few years ago. I enjoyed it. Parts of it were quite funny. I would call it well-written slapstick.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I'd say that after the Holmes stories, those about the Brigadier and the dozen or so great supernatural stories and The Lost World are the ACD to read next. I do have a slightly vested interest here, having written the introduction to The Captain of the Polestar, and Other Stories, by ACD (published by Ash-Tree Press--a wonderful volume, if I do say so myself).


Arlington, VA: You often mention how much you like Dumas. Have you read The Corsican Brothers? Is it even in the same ballpark as his more popular books?

Michael Dirda: I'm not sure I mention Dumas all that much, aside from The Count of Monte Cristo, which had a great influence on me when I was young. I've also read The Three Musketeers and the recently rediscovered The Last Cavalier, as well as a hefty biography of all three generations of Dumas men: the father who was a general, the swashbuckling novelist, and his son, the author of the novel that provided the plot for La Traviata.

My guess, though, is that almost any Dumas is bound to be fun to read, if you cut it a bit of slack. The man was a pro.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, I have just returned from the BSI Expedition to Salt Lake City. I am happy to report that there are still two very good bookstores still in business, Ken Sanders and Sam Weller's. Mormon books alongside Edward Abbey (Monkey Wrench Gang) and Wallace Stegner. Apparently Wallace Stegner has been rediscovered and several new books about him are out. What are your thoughts about Stegner?

Michael Dirda: My thoughts are few. I got him to review a book for Book World just a few weeks before he died in that, I think, automobile accident. He was very winning on the phone, and I was sorry that I'd never read any of his books. And still haven't. I know that many people are great admirers of Angle of Repose. Is that the one to start with?


New Lenox, Ill: Thanks to Lexington for the reading list of "in season" books, of which I read "The Summer Book" by Tove Jansson (a book and author of whom I was not familiar with), which described the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter, Sophia, during the course of a summer on an island where they lived; and "Le Grand Meaulnes" by Alain-Fournier, which was a haunting story partly based on the author's own love as a youth for Yvonne de Quievrecourt.

Question: Have you read "Le Grand Meaulnes?" Any comments on it? Thank you.

Another book I read was "Stoner" by John Williams. Here he is talking about his being a teacher: "he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom...he now and then found himself so lost in his subject that he became forgetful of his inadequacy, of himself, and even of the students before him...he became so caught by his enthusiasm...he was encouraged to do what he had never been taught to do. The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest coldest print-the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly." Thank you to Lenexa and Ashcroft for their mentioning that they had both recently read this book, as this was another title and writer of whom I knew nothing.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I read Le Grand Meaulnes in French, but long, long ago, when my French was still fairly primitive. I remember liking it, but that it made nothing like the impression on me that it seems to have done on most readers. I need to try it again. It seems to me that Penguin or NYRB or someone has recently brought out a new edition.

Did you know that T.S. Eliot knew Fournier in Paris before WWI? Either Eliot tutored Fournier or the other way round.


Indianapolis, In: Hurricanes have been in the news a great deal lately. I can think of several films where giant storms are major factors--even characters--but what about books?


washingtonpost.com: It was a dark and stormy night...

Michael Dirda: Yes, Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy.

Well, there is The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger.

Perhaps one might include The Wind from Nowhere, by J.G. Ballard. Certainly books set in deserts and polar regions often have deadly storms.

Any other ideas for our poster?


Wharton update: Hi Michael, Just wanted to let you know that I did indeed persevere and finish "The Customs of the Country." Once I realized that I was just going to hate the main character it became easier to read the novel as an observer watching her actions, as opposed to sympathizing with them. Thanks for the encouragement to finish.

Michael Dirda: You're welcome.


Lexington: addendum: And Stephen Maturin of the O'Brien novels certainly seems modeled after a young Darwin, and even visits Galapagos.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I can see that.


Lexington: Michael, Just a few observations. Enjoyed your review of Julian Barnes' new book "Nothing to Be Frightened Of", his candid look human mortality from the view of an agnostic. Another wonderful book on the same subject came out almost simultaneous to Barnes' in the UK, J. G. Ballard's "Miracles of Life". Ballard is suffering from prostate cancer and this may be his last book. It's a looking back at the experiences of his life in and what he has learned from it, including the early death of his wife in her thirties. Interesting early chapters on his life in China during the War that became the basis for the autobiographical novel "Empire of the Sun".

Since readers are looking for fiction that is about Darwin-appropriate since the bicentennial of his birth is coming up and the 150th anniversary of "Origin of the Species" is also coming up soon:

"Mr Darwin's Shooter" has already been mentioned.

"This Thing of Darkness" by Harry Thompson ( who died soon after publication, death does seem omnipresent in this note, but life evolves! ). This is a long novel about the friendship between Darwin and Capt. Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle, who believed in the literal truth of the Bible, the voyage itself and its aftermath.

Don't forget Vonnegut's novel "Galapagos" which is at least partly about Darwin and more so about the evolution of life. Maybe his last great novel.

"Darwinia" by Robert Charles Wilson, Europe is suddenly replaced by Darwinia, an antediluvian world of prehistoric monsters. The hero leaves an America ruled by religious fundamentalists to explore this new world. It's an exciting adventure story and a provocative novel of ideas.

And, then there is David Quammen's recent short bio of Darwin, "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin" which is also a look at the world Darwin was born into and how it was changing and his battle with the truth that would change it even more.

Andrea Barrett has already been mentioned, but don't forget her first collection of stories about the scientific spirit, some of which evoke Darwin and the Beagle.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Lexington. Sorry to hear about Ballard's ill health. These days prostate cancer isn't generally so deadly, at least if treated early on.

Good list of Darwiniana, too.


Moab, UT: Is poetry still relevant? Of course it is. It is more relevant than it has ever been in history because more people today are literate than ever.

But an additional twist is that the majority of people who would have been creating poetry in the past are now lyricists. Today, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people are putting their energies as musicians and songwriters, famous and not famous.

The difference is that now instead of concentrating on the rhythm of the words, a lyricist needs to fit the rhythm of the words to the music, so it is often necessary to take more liberties to make the words fit the music rather than the previous line.

Michael Dirda: Well, I don't disagree, but I do think that people have been writing lyrics to music a long time before now--and sometimes it approaches poetry. At the same, poetry and music have gone together since early times; indeed, many poems up to the Renaissance were intended to be accompanied by music of some sort.


washingtonpost.com: Wuthering Heights is stormy. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Stormy and wuthering, too.


Chicago, IL: I just finished Everyman by Philip Roth, the tale of a much-philandering and homewrecking Jewish male whose life, from a childhood hernia, is portrayed as a series of illnesses and hospitalizations leading up to death. (The book begins with his funeral.) It made me think of a very different book about Jewish males, Ravelstein by Saul Bellow, a fictionalized portrait of Bellow's friendship with the University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom (which also touches on philandering, physical deterioration, illness). Roth's book left me feeling queasy about a man who was able to acknowledge that his actions had damaged his children but noted that his two adult sons "continued to act as if what had happened to them had never happened before or since to anyone else."

Everyman is content to live small, but as his ailments begin to consume him and he reaches the end of the road, he regrets that his life hasn't been larger. As an old man, he finds his deepest pleasure at the cemetery where his parents are buried. "I'm seventy-one. Your boy is seventy-one," he tells them. His mother's bones reply, "Good. You lived." His father's bones tell him to "look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left." Ravelstein, in contrast, lives large: his exorbitant laughter, his expansive friendships, his love of knowledge and conversation all testify to a hunger for life and living and a desire to leave his mark on the world. Everyman takes comfort, at every stage of life, in the love and support of his parents (or the memories thereof). Ravelstein had a father who beat him and, even after Ravelstein's book becomes a huge bestseller, belittles him for not achieving Phi Beta Kappa. Bellow writes, "even when he was dozing you could learn a lot about him by watching his peculiar Jewish face. You couldn't imagine an odder container for his odd intellect. Somehow his singular, total, almost geological baldness implied that there was nothing hidden about him."

I think it's kind of interesting that a book with such an all-enveloping title would fail to draw me in, whereas Bellow's book was utterly engaging.

Michael Dirda: An interesting comparison of the two books. I once met Allan Bloom, when he stopped off in Washington and he owed me a review. We met at his hotel and talked briefly and I quite liked him. The review, though, caused a lot of ruckus: It was a critical piece on I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates.


West Coast: I took your suggestion, and read "Shakespeare Lives" over the weekend, and if accurate, the book substantiates my statement that Freud and Twain were both mentally ill. You can read about it in PART VI, entitled "DEVIATIONS". Schoenbaum agrees with the claim that Freud was suffering from "the "rescue fantasy", or "family romance fantasy", and that Twain suffered from a "cloudy sense of having been a prince", as evidenced by "The Prince and the Pauper". Twain never claimed himself as a prince, instead he claimed that Shakespeare was. (He didn't, by the way). Schoenbaum does not mention Whitman as a crazy anti-Stratfordian, even though he was. I suppose it becomes too daunting of a task to paint too many literary giants as "dilettantes almost to the man". Why Schoenbaum does not mention that de Vere's son in law is one of the two dedicatees and backers of the First Folio, one can only guess. Ditto with de Vere's uncle translating Ovid. It should also be noted that the Earl of Southampton, repeatedly referred to as Shakespeare's patron, has NEVER had a single shred of evidence linking him as patron to Shakespeare. In closing, I suggest that you either take the position that Twain, Freud and Whitman suffered from mental illness, or disassociate yourself from rabid and self-absorbed diatribes against honest doubters of the Stratford myth. cheers!

Michael Dirda: Well, I knew and liked Sam Schoenbaum, and even wrote a brief foreword to a recent reissue of Shakespeare's Lives. But I don't think Freud, Twain and Whitman were crazy, though all of them did have their hobbyhorses. This, in my view, is one of them. But, in truth, I've never seen the fascination of trying to prove or disprove the authorship question. I'm happy to see and read the plays occasionally. If De Vere wrote them, and wanted to be honored as their author, he certainly did all he could to disguise the fact and I think we should abide by his wishes.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. D: A Conan Doyle - don't forget "The White Company" - or is that now placed in the "children's" category?

Michael Dirda: Have never read it myself, though I do think it's mostly read by children--highly literate children.


A classic with a hurricane: A High Wind in Jamaica

Michael Dirda: Excellent.


Hurricanes: There's "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History" by Erik Larson, which is about the Galveston storm that killed thousands in the early 20th century. Overall I didn't like the book that much, but many people did.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: "Le Grand Meaulnes" was just brought out in a Folio Society edition, which was what I read it in.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Shakespeare: Having just finished "Will in the World" I'm interested in re-reading (none since high school) some plays and was wondering who I turn to for analysis, context, etc.

Michael Dirda: I suggest picking a few plays and reading them in one-volume editions, either the New Arden, the Oxford, or the Cambridge. It feels too much like school to read a big one or two volume tome of the complete works. Plus, these one-play editions offer loads of notes and commentary. If you wanted recommendations, I'd suggest Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest as representative.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Books with storms - how about "Typhoon" by Joseph Conrad.

Re: Alain-Fournier - I believe he tutored T.S. Eliot.

Michael Dirda: Yes, and thanks.


Houston, TX: Right in your wheelhouse, M. Dirda: I face a long international flight soon. I've long been meaning to delve into the works starring this Sherlock Holmes person. Is there a compendium or collection of particular quality that you would recommend?

Michael Dirda: There are lots of editions, from disposable paperbacks to multi-volume sets. As you're flying, I'd pick up a paperback of The Adventures of SH, or a Selection from all his cases. A more substantial reading edition is the Heritage, which can be found in used bookstores in three volumes. Nicely printed, classic introductions, but no notes. For historical notes and scholarship, try the multivolume Oxford Sherlock Holmes; for a taste of Baker Street "scholarship" look for the huge three volume New Annotated SH, by Leslie Klinger.


Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky: Stormy Weather books.

I remember enjoying John Barnes "Mother of Storms" a dozen or so years ago.

Michael Dirda: Yes.


Freising, Germany: I've been intrigued by the metaphysical convolutions in "City of Glass" by Paul Auster. When the writer-turned-detective starts discussing Don Quixote with the writer Paul Auster, and Auster says, "The idea was to hold a mirror up to Don Quixote's madness, to record each of his absurd and ludicrous delusions, so when he finally read the book himself, he would see the error of his ways", the reader starts to wonder if someone isn't playing a game with Quinn, especially after the scene where Quinn suddenly has to choose from two Peter Stillman clones to shadow.

I've read that Auster is considered to be the most European of American novelists, because he likes to flesh out philosophical ideas connected with existentialism and literary theory. Is it possibly true that Auster is a "Son of Sartre"?

Also, I'm reminded of a story about a man who visits his son at college and meets a grandson of a former mayor of New York City, the son's roommate. The man soon afterwards starts suffering from symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, saying things like "He's not your roommate by coincidence" and "They're out to get me", and within a couple of months he begins a 5 years battle with madness and institutional insanity before resuming a sane if not taciturn existence as a social outcast. A couple of decades afterwards, it would turn out that the grandson of the former mayor of New York City was an impostor who was actually working to gather evidence against a suspected serial murderer. Perhaps this was another story from Auster or inspired by Auster.

Michael Dirda: Interesting post, especially since I've been thinking about Paul Auster and his work during the past few days. So, if you will allow, I won't comment further at this time.


storm: Swiss Family Robinson has a shipwreck storm. Sea-themed books in general are rich in storms.

washingtonpost.com: Pippi Longstocking!

Michael Dirda: We're on a roll, folks.


Dumas anecdote: Have we had the one yet where Pere, a bestseller for years, has farmed out the daily work to a stable of writers? One day he meets Fils and asks, "Have you read my latest novel?" Fils: "No, have you?"

Michael Dirda: Yes, I"ve read that before--and it's still cute.


Stormy Books: If you're talking nonfiction, "Isaac's Storm" is an obvious choice.

For modern fiction, "The Transit of Venus."

For Shakespeare, "The Tempest" or "King Lear."

Children's literature, "The Dark is Rising" or "The Wizard of Oz."

Michael Dirda: More good titles.


San Jose CA: Your Samuel Beckett quote reminds me of a conclusion reached by Clarence Darrow in his autobiography. After discussing the ups and downs of his long life, he asked himself if it (i.e., living) was worth it. He concluded that it probably was not. It left me depressed.

He did say something that rang true with me: that much of his childhood schooling was worthless. He found math particularly difficult, it made his childhood miserable, and he never used it in his adult life. He didn't think much of grammar lessons either.

Michael Dirda: Well, there's no pleasing some people.


Freising; Germany: After reading a recent article about the British double agent, Kim Philby, who had worked for the Soviets for almost 30 years, I wondered if he hadn't been the role model for LeCarre's Bill Hayden in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy". Both worked in the Middle East, both were the liaisons between MI6 and the CIA and both were involved in the creation of a fake double agent to cover up their own roles as moles (what LeCarre describes as Karla's Knot in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy). It's also interesting that Graham Greene remained a friend of Philby even after Philby fled to Moscow.

Do you think that there was ever any overlapping in style or content between Greene and LeCarre, both former MI6 employees?

Michael Dirda: I'm sure that Philby partly inspired Le Carre's portrait of Hayden. But the whole period of Burgess-Maclean--and later Anthony Blunt--was full of suspicions about double agents. James Jesus Angleton, here at the CIA, was obsessed with the idea of a mole in the agency--and was, paradoxically, a friend of Philby's.


Partly Stormy Books: Both Wind, Sand and Stars and Into Thin Air describe experiences in the thick of storms. Krakauer refers to the storm atop Everest as a hurricane at one point.

Michael Dirda: Yes. I think there's a storm in Saint-Exupery's Night Flight, too. But then flying stories often have storms, don't they? Almost as often as sea tales.


Why should I read a book?: Seriously. It's not that I'm anti-intellectual -- I have degrees in the humanities and social sciences -- it's that I'm just tired of reading. I'd like to get that spark back, but nothing I read really "grabs" me.

I haven't read any fiction I've enjoyed in literally years. I tried the first few pages of "Absurdistan" when a friend lent it to me recently , but I had to put it down in disgust. Books I've picked up lately seem almost like precocious high school students trying to get into Harvard -- very accomplished, but also very calculated and therefore unpleasant to be around.

Does anybody just tell a story anymore? If so, can you recommend one?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. This is a serious problem. Maybe you need to ease into modern fiction. You could start by reading some good biographies of people who interest you--they are bound to have strong narrative lines. Then you might go back to some of the great storytellers of the past, often people associated with genre fiction: ACD's Sherlock Holmes stories, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, H.G. Well's The Time Machine, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, etc etc. You might also ask your friends who belong to book clubs or who read a lot to recommend a couple of titles that they found really exciting, in a purely visceral way.


Re: Paul Auster: You should spend a couple of hours with "City of Glass: The Graphic Novel". I found the ending unsatisfying, though. Maybe if I continued on to the rest of his New York trilogy?

Michael Dirda: I've read the New York Trilogy, though not the graphic novel version of City of Glass.


Windy Books: Was "Key Largo" a book, or just a film? there was a hurricane featured in it, along with quick-talking hoods, neat Florida architecture, mayhem, etc.

Michael Dirda: No doubt it was based on a book.


Speaking of Pippi...: What about "Ronia, the Robber's Daughter"? Full of storms, and a frequently overlooked children's classic by the same author.

Michael Dirda: You know, I might have reviewed that book a long time ago. Or am I imagining this? In one of my children's round-ups?


Maryland: I just finished Fagles' translation of The Odyssey. I was inspired to read it because one of your posters mentioned it a couple of years ago -- but I think he or she read Lattimore. It was so easy to read and understand -- much easier than Shakespeare. And I just re-read Keats's poem On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer. Amazing.

Michael Dirda: Glad you enjoyed Homer, Fagles and Keats. What's not to like?


Not surprisingly (based on the title): There's a hurricane in Hornblower in the West Indies - of course, that's the final book (chronologically) of the series.

Michael Dirda: Thanks.


Pittsburgh: On today's online Post political chat, someone (not I) asked your reporter what books Sarah Palin inquired about getting banned from her town library while she was mayor, since apparently this is being reported in the blogosphere. Could you please look into this and report which titles these were, because I find the idea chilling on general principle, to put it mildly.

Michael Dirda: I'm sure that one of my colleagues at the Post is on this story. So keep reading the papers.


Moab, UT:"...and sometimes it approaches poetry."

Actually, at open mikes, I often read a wonderful set of lyrics as poetry.

Michael Dirda: Back in my youth, I remember a somewhat controversial anthology called The Poetry of Rock, compiled by a guy named Goldstein. It printed rock lyrics as poetry. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Storms in non-fiction: Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" (Everest), or almost any volume on Arctic or Antarctic exploration (particularly in the 19th century) that you care to name

Storms in fiction: Poe's 'MS Found in a Bottle'

Conan Doyle: If ACD hadn't written the Holmes stories, he'd still be well known today in SF circles for "The Lost World" and the other Challenger stories, in supernatural/horror circles for those writings, and in the field of historical fiction for the Gerard stories. So not a bad literary legacy, all things considered.

Maryland: Glad you enjoyed the other Farley Mowat books. Try two more of his classics: "Never Cry Wolf" and "A Whale for the Killing". And do keep trying to find Catherine Clark's "The Golden Pine Cone"; there are a few copies available on ABE, and it's well worth reading.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft.


Darrow : If the great lawyer really thought that grammar lessons had been of no use to him, he was too depressed to judge the matter. Surely he didn't think he could have gotten to be the persuader he was, without such lessons? I'm reminded of Mark Twain's autobio, written in his declining and ever more bitter years, harping on the most minor irritants.

Michael Dirda: Twain was notoriously misanthropic in his old age, as much of his writing demonstrates. See The Great Dark writings. That autobiography was cobbled together by an editor and needs to be taken with some salt.


Fredericksburg, Tex.: Beyond Patricia Highsmith's Ripley trilogy, what would you recommend of her works?

Michael Dirda: Strangers on a Train and her short stories, especially those in The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories.


Lenexa, Kan.: Posting early--attending a funeral (not family) in hometown.

Ruth Scurr writing in a recent TLS: "Byatt taught with Fitzgerald in the 1960s at Westminster Tutors: a sixth-form crammer for candidates taking the old entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge. (It seems unlikely that those lucky students would have found more exciting instruction when they got to university.)" QUESTION: In your studies in Lorain, and at Oberlin and Cornell, which teachers/scholars do you recall as most exciting? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: I used to see Antonia Byatt occasionally when she visited Washington, and at lunch she mentioned how she and Penelope Fitzgerald used to teach together. This was before PF started publishing fiction at the age of 60. Byatt wasn't normally one to hide her own light under a bushel, but she said, "Little did I know that I was working with the finest novelist in England." This was a common view of PF.

I write about my Oberlin teachers in an essay called "The Learning Channels" in Readings and in a chapter or two of An Open Book. I learned to write English in a French stylistics class taught by Mathis Szykowski. Other favorite teachers included Vinio Rossi, Andrew Bongiorno, Barry McGill and Robert Neil. But Oberlin was full of good teachers then--and still is.


The poster who just read The Odyssey: Should try Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad for the other side.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Anonymous: I have always thought of madeira wine as something giving pleasure. In your review of Julian Barnes's "Nothing to Be Frightened of" you quote the author as saying, "...unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown...". Would you comment on this use of the verb madeirize?

washingtonpost.com: From FrenchWinesFood.com: "MADEIRIZED -- Said of a white wine that develops an amber color and oxidized flavor when aged that is reminiscent of Madeira. A madeirized wine is past its prime and considered to be defective."

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Elizabeth. Julian Barnes is known not only as a novelist, but as a cook and oenophile.


Key Largo was a play: by Maxwell Anderson. According to the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb.com).

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


for "Why Should I Read": Might I suggest turning to books in different genres, if mainstream fiction just hasn't been working? Just scan shelves and pull out books randomly, read a few pages, and if the writing grabs you give it a try. What about hunting down authors you enjoyed as a child - if not their work, check out recommendation pages on various bookstore Web sites to see what "people who bought this book also enjoyed" for new ideas. Your local librarian also may be able to help you find books that speak to your interests.

And finally, maybe you're just trying too hard. Skip the fiction and read non-fiction on subjects that interest you. No one said that everyone who reads has to like to read fiction.

Michael Dirda: Good advice.


Silver Spring: Someone (I think it was Christopher Morley but don't quote me) said that "Is life worth living" is a question that should not be asked of a man, but of a fetus.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I don't quite get this, striking as it is.


20006: I've had to travel to Greece several times in the last few months for work. Can you think of any good novels that feature Athens as the setting?

Michael Dirda: Novels in Athens? I should have some ideas, but don't. Zorba the Greek doesn't fit, and that's the only Greek fiction that comes to mind just now. I do think that Edmund Keeley--a novelist as well as Greek translator--may have a novel at least partly set in Athens. And then there's Glenway Wescott's war novel, Apartment in Athens. But that's all I can think of just now.


Alexandria, VA: I'm looking for a quick read. Can you suggest a novella written in the last 20 years?

Michael Dirda: Philip Roth's The Dying Animal.


Annapolis, MD: I find that it's more enjoyable to hear and/or see Shakespeare performed than to read it. Many people have problems "translating" the text to heard poetry and prose.

Also, the movie Key Largo was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, not a novel.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


West Coast: thanks for the polite response to my Shakespeare statement. BTW, having read Shakespeare from Stratfordian and Oxfordian positions, it's infinitely more enjoyable and enlightening from the Oxfordian perspective. Everything makes sense His father-in-law removing him from virtually all the records, his daughter's husband financing the first folio along with his brother, who was engaged to another de Vere daughter at one time, and Southampton being engaged to another of the 3 daughters, prompting the "procreation sonnets", which otherwise make no sense at all. BTW, it wasn't until the 19th century that it was even theorized that those sonnets were addressed to Southampton, as it was impossible for a commoner to address a member of the peerage with such familiarity and equality (or superiority) in rank.

Michael Dirda: You know, I think the Stratford/Oxford one is among those arguments that will never die and never be settled--barring the discovery of some earthshaking document.


Falls Church, Va.: Barnes is an oenophile? Isn't that what they said about Lewis Carroll?

Michael Dirda: Funny. When I first saw the word pedophile, I thought it referred to someone who liked to walk.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Recent novella: J. L. Carr's hauntingly beautiful "A Month in the Country". If it's not quite within the 20 year time frame, it's close.

Michael Dirda: Yes.


Alexandria, VA: Would you please recommend a really good who-dunnit for airplane reading...it's a really long flight (to Australia) and I want to get absorbed into a really good mystery. Thanks.

Michael Dirda: A long flight, eh: Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost--a historical mystery with lots of twists and turns. If you want something slightly shorter, Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night. If you want more action, maybe a John D. MacDonald.


Partly Stormy: I was saddened by the "Why Should I Read" post. Perhaps a future discussion could center on what to recommend the afflicted? I have to agree that a lot of postmodern stuff seems to be "conceptual art" requiring me to complete it. That can get old.

Michael Dirda: Good idea. Let's think about it for later this month.


to the person who is sick of reading: I know what he/she means. I often find myself in the same position, when reading contemporary fiction. At the same time, the state of our current affairs - not to mention the way it drags on and on - leaves me depressed and unwilling to read political nonfiction and political history and biography, which I normally gravitate to. So I have turned to fiction again: all of Austen; Thomas Hardy; The Road by Cormac McCarthy; and the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. Good stories, all of them.

Michael Dirda: I know what you mean. The world has been too much with me lately, as well. But, as Ned Kelly said just before being executed for his crimes, "Such is life."

And that's it for this week, folks. Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company