Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, September 24, 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 24.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! I've just rushed over from an occasional lunch I have downtown with fellow local members of the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlock Holmes society. Hence, my being a tad late.

I figure that there will be questions about DOB and the new format that we will succeed it, so I won't go into those now. Whatever we don't cover in today's talk, I'll mention at the end of the show. My presumption is that next week will be the last Dirda on Books in the live online format.

But let's look at this week's questions.


Bethesda, MD: Your online bio. tells of your feeling at times like your 12-year-old self. Pls. say how you function productively as an adult.

Michael Dirda: Who says I function productively as an adult? There are those who would call me childish, narcissistic, dreamy, and out of touch with reality. I wouldn't necessarily dismiss any of these descriptions.

But insofar as I do function it's because I'm able to channel a certain obsessive-compulsive nature into my work. Whatever I do I like to do well. Things don't always work out, but it's my nature to try to do my best, given the constraints of time, energy, etc.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, I sure hope that Dirda on Books continues. I just read Silas Marner by George Eliot and really enjoyed it. As an 8th grader I thought it was the worst book I had ever been forced to read. What happened? Am I now so slow moving that the action seen faster? Perhaps any assigned reading is going to meet resistance but I did a 180. Any thoughts?

Michael Dirda: Well, I"d say offhand that you've probably read worse books in the intervening years, so Silas Marner's qualities now appear far superior to what they seemed when you'd only read a few dozen books. Is that sentence clear? Probably not.

But you're right: Any book assigned as homework is bound to become . . . homework. I heard my son, who was taking a college course on the history of the novel, complain about having to work his way through Fanny Hill.


Brookland, DC: You've mentioned James Crumley a number of times through the years. Care to say anything after his passing last week?

Michael Dirda: Well, I was shocked that he was only 68. I met him a dozen years ago and he looked 68 then. I would only add that in my view the two most influential crime novels of the past 40 years have been Crumley's The Last Good Kiss and George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Oh yes, and I hate it when writers die. I really do.


Albuquerque, NM: Speaking of Holmes, I'm sure you've covered this in the past. Maybe you even wrote a review, but what's your opinion on the recent annotated Holmes by Klinger vs. the earlier Baring-Gould annotated edition? I picked up the three handsome slipcase volumes of the Klinger edition, but have yet to delving into it.

Michael Dirda: You'll find a blurb by me on the Klinger set, and an extremely kind mention of my importance to the book in his acknowledgment. Basically, I helped midwife the book by putting together the editor, Bob Weil, with the right man for the job of a new Annotated SH.

Klinger's book doesn't wholly supersede Baring-Gould's and if you are passionate about Holmes and "the game" of Sherlockian scholarship, you will want both volumes. Indeed, you will want the individual volumes that Klinger has published as well.


Memphis, Tennessee: Michael, I read somewhere that Saul Bellow's work has, like Hemingway's, fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years. If so, why? Whose work do you believe is more likely to endure, Bellow's or (Philip) Roth's?

Michael Dirda: All writers go into a kind of limbo following their deaths. During that time literary history sorts out those who seem important from those who seem less so. If a writer has enough support from readers and admirers to get through this period in the wilderness, he or she will generally pass into a kind of canonical state, at least for a while. As for Bellow or Roth: A hard call, and one I won't even try to make. I suspect they will both last, but that neither will be quite as highly regarded as they have been during their lifetimes.


Anonymous: Michael, I recently returned from a vacation in New England, traveling from Rhode Island to Maine, stopping in Mass., NH and Vermont en route. I read 'The Knitting Circle' by Ann Hood while in RI, as it was set in that state. I also read 'The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories' by Sarah Orne Jewett. I loved 'The Country of the Pointed Firs' and reading the book about Maine and its people around 1890 was delightful as the countryside and coastal towns seemed so little changed. Any thoughts on Sarah Orne Jewett? Also, do you or your posters have any suggestions on books and authors that embody a particular locale? While in Concord, Mass., we visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and saw the graves of Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott - a wonderful experience for history and book addicts. I am so disappointed that the Wednesday chat is to end and have already sent in my e-mail in protest.

Susan, Arizona (formerly England)

Michael Dirda: Last things first. I hope to be able to give links or some solid information next week--the final live online program--that will explain a little more about Dirda on Books in the Discussion Group format. So don't despair.

Jewett is a wonderful writer. I read Pointed Firs a year or so back and was, like you, delighted. Don't you love that ghostly tale told by the old sea captain? Jewett was also the mentor of an even greater "regional" writer, Willa Cather.

There are books that discuss writers and their homes and the regions with which they are associated. For England, for instance, there's The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles or something like that.


Rockville, MD: Michael,

I'd like to comment on some of last week's comments:

For the person asking about the Divine Comedy, I've enjoyed Anthony Esolen's translations. You have the original Italian with the English translation on the facing page, the notes are almost always illuminating, and the translation itself is very accessible (unlike the Longfellow translation, in my opinion). I believe they're published by Modern Library.

The Count of Monte Cristo: I recommend the Robin Buss translation -- unabridged, modern, and again with many helpful notes.

The Iliad: Ennis Rees' translation is excellent. It's currently part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series -- the paperback editions with the introductions and foot- and/or endnotes, to be specific. When I read Rees' translation, I was quite surprised in feeling that it was superior to Fagles'.

Les Miserables: If "Mesquite, Nevada" from last week is here today, I'd love to get his or her impressions of Julie Rose's new translation of Les Miserables. I thought about picking it up, but the book is too physically unwieldy for my commute. Perhaps in paperback.


Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the useful comments. I might add that the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Homer, which uses the old but very engaging translations by Samuel Butler, carries a longish introduction by the host of this chat.


Richmond, VA: Thank you so much for suggesting the work of George Pelecanos. I've read through about half of his works this past month and am really enjoying them.

Michael Dirda: You're welcome. At the end of October--Saturday, October 25--Montgomery College will be hosting the annual Scott Fitzgerald Awards. This year's recipient is Elmore Leonard. I'll be moderating a panel on Saturday with Leonard, George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman on modern crime fiction.


Twinbrook, MD: What James Morrow book would you recommend for someone new to his work?

Michael Dirda: Towing Jehovah.


Rockville, MD: Do you, or one of the other chatters, have a book you'd recommend that gives a history of the novel? I know about the Terry Eagleton book. Are there others that you would recommend? Or resources?

Michael Dirda: Well, I would say the book you want is written, but last I heard still waiting to be published. Steven Moore--who knows more about fiction than anyone alive--has been working on a long history of the novel, and has finished the first of two volumes. Can you wait a while? If not, there's a lively history of English literature by Peter Conrad, and many more focused histories. I myself--showing my age--enjoy George Saintsburgy's histories of English and French fiction: very discursive, full of writers that no one has even heard of, let alone read.


Lenexa, Kan.: Francine Prose has a cerebral and moving new novel, "Goldengrove," built around Gerard Manley Hopkins' marvelous angst poem: "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child"--with the famous opening lines: "Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?". I really enjoyed it.

I'd like to share a way to keep au courant with all the exciting new ideas out there. It's available on www.TED.com. For those who don't know, TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design." TED has made available over three hundred of its filmed talks--most under twenty minutes--featuring the world's best minds: Venter, Watson, Hawking, Dawkins, Wilson, Kurzweil, de Grey, et al. The Entertainment part includes music, art, and writers like Amy Tan and Isabel Allende. I, for one, am going through them all--filling notebooks in the process.

Valedictory: Dr. Dirda (Guy Davenport had you pegged: thank you) and this forum (all you bright, readers of books) have made my retirement richer. After a lifetime of cheering from the bleachers, it was fun to make a shot or two from the court.--Larry "Lenexa, Kan." Heffel

washingtonpost.com: Here's an article on Francine Prose from today's Style section: A Guide To Prose, Fully Punctuated (Washington Post, Sept. 24)

Michael Dirda: Do not give up on me entirely, please. Do check out the Discussion Group when it's up and running.

Guy Davenport was the soul of kindness and courtesy, as well as the most widely read man I've ever known.


Pittsburgh:"...complain about having to work his way through Fanny Hill"

OMG, in my sorority house days some of us would gather in one girl's room late at night (after homework) to take turns reading it aloud, giggling till we nearly wept from the euphemisms.

Michael Dirda: What, Girls were reading that filth! I am shocked, positively, shocked. Next you'll be telling me there's gambling going on at Rick's place.


Alexandria: Baring-Gould - didn't know he did an annotated version of SH. Just finished "The Moor," by Laurie R. King, in which Holmes and his wife Russell solve a mystery involving Baskerville Hall while staying in Baring-Gould's home. A good read. Now it's even more interesting.

Michael Dirda: Laurie King was the BSI's distinguished speaker a few years back. Several of her novels build on Conan Doyle originals. In The Game she takes Holmes and Mary to India.


Schenevus, NY: I need another opinion on Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. My book club members all had a difficult time with the book. Many didn't finish it as they were extremely frustrated. Did we miss something? It got good reviews.

washingtonpost.com: Dirda review of Arthur and George (Book World, Jan. 15, 2006)

Michael Dirda: The irreplaceable Elizabeth has kindly attached a link to my review of the book. Perhaps that will help. If you were looking for a fast read, or something in the style of Sherlock Holmes, you're bound to be disappointed. But it's still a very fine novel.


It's like an early Birthday present...:"I suspect they will both last, but that neither will be quite as highly regarded as they have been during their lifetimes."

Now if we can just get readers to take the next step and not highly regard them -now-. We get it: you write about sex. Can we -go- now?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Do you want to add Updike to your list? Certainly all three might argue that sex is the most perennially interesting aspect of life. In Updike's case, with the exception of golf.


Albuquerque, NM: Having read some of your recommendations in the field of Intellectual History (i.e. Lunar Men, The Victorians, The Pleasures of the Imagination) I was wondering if you've read Peter Watson's two books on intellectual history? I read The Modern Mind and I'm reading Ideas now.

Michael Dirda: No, I haven't. Is this the same Watson who's written a couple of books about the Renaissance art theft and things like that?

The Peter I'd recommend is Peter Conrad, whose books on modernism are fantastic treasure troves of odd facts and juxtapositions.


Chicago, IL: Didn't Martin Amis opine that Bellow was the greatest American writer? I don't know if I'd go that far, but I'd definitely put Bellow above Roth.

Michael Dirda: Is Martin Amis your critical guide? You might also argue that Bellow got a Nobel but Roth hasn't so far. Bellow is older too, and so has had a little more time to build up his reputation. Till recently, Roth was closing on him fast, but the mixed receptions of Exit Ghost, Everyman and Indignation may have dropped him down a bit.


Washington DC: Hello,

I've been reading a lot about the Great Depression lately (seems our own economic woes have led me this way), and just finished the non-fiction "The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan, and Paulette Jiles' fiction work "Stormy Weather".

Have you any suggestions on further works on the Great Depression?


Michael Dirda: Do you know the books on the 20s and 30s by Frederick Lewis Allen? Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday. My colleague Jon Yardley wrote about Allen in one of his Second Readings essays--a very fine series that should be a book one of these days.


Lexington: Michael, So sad that this is our last 'live' discussion. It has generated enthusiasm for many worthwhile books like John Williams 'Stoner' and many more. It's great to have a place to go to for an always interesting discussion of books, recommendations, and the literary life. Make that a free-roaming discussion!

Perhaps you already know about the death of James Crumley earlier this week at 68. Wrote one of the best PI books of the last 50 years, 'The Last Good Kiss', a writer in the tradition of Chandler. He didn't write much but they were all excellent, with that one masterpiece.

Re translations, an interesting letter came to light from Horace Holley, president of Transylvania University in the time of Jefferson Davis, 1820s, visited Thomas Jefferson and was told by the Sage of Monticello "that a letter of his to Mazzei was first translated into Italian in Rome, then sent to France and translated into French, and from the French translated into English and the English copy the one that was published here. Jefferson said the English copy is quite unlike the original in many respects, and particularly in regard to the facts which give most offence in this country." ( He also complained about the publication of correspondence without the consent of the parties. )

Lastly, for fans of Alexander McCall Smith, who will be at the National Book Festival, he has only recently begun an on-line novel at www.telegraph.co.uk, called 'Corduroy Mansions', free to read on-line or download to your iPod. A chapter every weekday through Feb. 13; in the tradition of the 44 Scotland St. books.

Adieu, Michael

washingtonpost.com: This is the penultimate discussion (in this format).

And re Alexander McCall Smith, if you missed his chat the other day, please check out the chat transcript- he was totally charming. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Thanks, Lexington--and thanks Elizabeth. We'll be doing one more chat next week when people will learn a little more about the Discussion Group format.


Silver Spring MD: I'll never forget when, as a young teen, I discovered a copy of The Carpetbaggers buried underneath socks in my father's underwear drawer. Such a revelation. And then, the volcanic explosion when my mother discovered her husband's secret life.

Michael Dirda: Secret life? Reading best sellers of the early 1960s is a secret life. Hmmmm. Perhaps there's more that we don't need to know.

I too read The Carpetbaggers at a young age, and remember that there was steamy sex, but it actually made much less impact on me than the novella embedded within the novel: The wonderful, if violent western about Nevada Smith.


Sex:"Certainly all three might argue that sex is the most perennially interesting aspect of life."

But it's not. It halts a plot dead in its tracks. It doesn't develop characters at all. It's generally embarrassing to read (and also embarrassingly written) and the fact is: unless I'm having it myself, I don't care about others having it.

This is why I love the Victorian novel. Victorians knew sex was happening; they just didn't feel the need to dwell on it. They knew what was interesting: Lady Audley's husband in the well -- -that's- interesting.

Michael Dirda: I think that we're talking about two different things. I agree that generally extended treatment of sexual activity is all that you say. But I took the poster to mean that these novelists were all obsessed with Sex in general, with thinking about women in certain ways, etc etc.

In truth, sex drives fiction and poetry, which is why the young read so much of them; older people, wanting to figure out the meaning of it all and the sense of their lives and deal with the whole issue of mortality, turn to nonfiction, especially biography, history and philosophy.


Dement, IA: Who's a better writer (or will last longer in the canon): Herman Melville or Toni Morrison?

Michael Dirda: Is this a serious question? Melville is arguably the author of the greatest American novel. Toni Morrison is a gifted novelist who has understood her time.


WpgManCDA: Greetings, Mr. Dirda et al.:

First of all, I'd like to invite you all to Winnipeg between Oct. 16 and Nov. 8 to attend the Manitoba Theatre Centre presentation of Pride and Prejudice. Have any of you ever seen it presented as a play? We're rather curious about how that will work, and my sister and niece are specifically concerned about the "wet shirt scene"!

Secondly, I'd like to ask about Elsa Morante. I finally got my hands on an Italian copy of "La Storia", and I intend to get to it when I finally finish "Das Glasperlenspiel" (I've made a dent in it, and it's quite readable once one gets past the rather dry first section). I'm getting the impression that "La Storia" is not as well-known as I thought it was and that some of her other novels which I'd never heard of until recently (e.g., "Arturo's Island") may be better known and/or more popular. One of the two most literate people I know had never heard of it, and she's read almost everything. What are people's thoughts on Morante and her individual works?

Finally, I'd like to turn to the most pressing issue of the day, namely, the conversion of our chat into a "discussion group". My only experience with these groups is occasionally checking out Gene Weingarten's "Gene Pool" (MUCH more lowbrow than this refined forum), and I've never posted anything, so others may know more about this format. Nevertheless, I have some thoughts on how we can make the best of things. I find one of the problems with the groups is that there are multiple threads and you have to access each one separately to look at new posts (and then you have to find the spot where you left off last time). I think we would be better off to have only one active thread at a time, although this is only practical if threads can be closed to new posts but still available for reading.

My main concern with the change is that, while I enjoy and appreciate the input from other chat participants, I like the fact that we get our Mr. Dirda's response to each post. My one thought as to how to maximize the discussion group's "Dirda ratio" is that there is presumably nothing stopping us from all logging on at the same agreed-upon time and doing most of our discussing live and in real-time. I hope others who are more familiar with the discussion group format will expand on or improve my suggestions.

P.S.: Just in case any of you think Winnipeg might be a cultural backwater, let me tell you that our library has "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" in French. I've only dipped into it a bit, but it looks very promising. (Of course I'm cheating a bit here: Winnipeg has a significant French-speaking minority.)

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for your feedback on the discussion groups. I don't know exactly when the new books group will launch, but stay tuned for developments (or send me an e-mail at elizabeth.terry AT wpni.com with "Book Discussion Group" in the subject line and I'll send out a note when it starts). In the meantime, you can always get your Dirda fix in Book World every week. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Thank you for the interesting post. Do get back with me once the Discussion Group starts, and we'll see what's possible to give the new show something of the flavor of this one.

Yes, let me reiterate that questions or comments about Dirda on Books should be addressed to Elizabeth Terry, my producer. Her email, as she says below is elizabeth.terry AT wpni.com


Lansdale, PA: For the great depression questioner, I would also recommend reading some novels published during the 30s: Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, Vein of Iron by Ellen Glasgow, Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara, Tobacco Road by Taylor Caldwell, USA by John Dos Passos, and for the ultimate economic meltdown When Worlds Collide by Phillip Wylie.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I remember going to see a double feature with my father as a boy: When Worlds Collide followed by War of the Worlds.


Michigan City, IN: Greatest American Novel?

That would be (and is) an interesting argument, but I find it hard to believe there are many better than Huck Finn.

Michael Dirda: There are many candidates for Greatest American novel, but Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and possibly The Great Gatsby are leading contenders.


Chicago, IL:"In truth, sex drives fiction and poetry, which is why the young read so much of them; older people, wanting to figure out the meaning of it all and the sense of their lives and deal with the whole issue of mortality, turn to nonfiction, especially biography, history and philosophy."

I must be going against the grain, then. Since my late teens, I've preferred nonfiction. Only now, at 42, depressed by current events, do I want to hide my head in the sand and read tons of fiction. I never thought it had much to do with sex, and I haven't read for the sex since I stopped reading Judy Blume at age 14.

Michael Dirda: Sex has come a long way since you read Judy Blume at 14.


Anathem: Even though I disagreed with your verdict on Anathem, it's still my favorite review of the book. Largely, I disagreed because I thought that despite the clunkiness of the philosophy, one could engage with the details superficially while keeping engaged with the story, while coming back and playing with the minutiae later. It worked for me...

Michael Dirda: I"m glad to hear it did work for you. I wish I'd liked it more, as I tried to indicate. Perhaps I failed the book: It is the besetting fault of the critic.


Celebritology lizard: Jude Law has been announced to play Watson to Robert Downey, Jr's., Holmes.

Michael Dirda: Okay. I can't imagine this duo but okay.


New Lenox, Ill.: I spent the latter part of the summer in a wonderful and worthwhile endeavor, that of reading the masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust (translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright). I own it in a Folio Society edition in six volumes in two slipcases (first thus, F/F). In Swann in Love he writes, "the quest for the pleasures we enjoyed in his or her company is suddenly replaced by an anxious, torturing need, whose object is the person alone, an absurd, irrational need which the laws of this world make it impossible to satisfy and difficult to assuage - the insensate, agonizing need to possess exclusively."

Nabokov lectured, "The whole is a treasure hunt where the treasure is time and the hiding place the past: this is the inner meaning of the title 'In Search of Lost Time.' The transmutation of sensation into sentiment, the ebb and tide of memory, waves of emotions such as desire, jealousy, and artistic euphoria - this is the material of the enormous and yet singularly light and translucid work."

Any comments or opinions on this work?

Michael Dirda: Comments on Proust? I would add that, apart from its harrowing depiction of jealousy as the basis of "love," it is also a great comic novel.


Greatest American Novel: The Grapes of Wrath. No question.

washingtonpost.com: And a Depression-themed one, to boot!

Michael Dirda: A good suggestion, but I think you'll get a lot of argument.


Pride and Prejudice: The wet shirt scene is only in the BBC TV miniseries production - not in the novel or in any other of the films.

Still, I must say it is one of the most inspiring moments of the miniseries.

Michael Dirda: Wet shirt? Don't you mean wet pinafore? Or wimple? Or something like that?

My son's high school--Blair--is putting on Pride and Prejudice as this year's play.


Michigan City, IN: To "Chicago": I came to fiction in my fifties, and find that it actually does a better job of getting me involved in the "real" world than my prior obsession with non-fiction.

Got to watch that "head in the sand" approach - you may find it exploding.

Michael Dirda: Ah, the old exploding head in the sand trick!


re: Sex: Hmmm -- "Sex drives fiction and poetry, which is why the young read so much of them; older people, wanting to figure out the meaning of it all and the sense of their lives and deal with the whole issue of mortality, turn to nonfiction" Speak for yourself, please. Not all of us turn to nonfiction in our mature years. I for one won't start my day or end my evening without poetry (or sex, for that matter). But I suspect your own reading habits are in fact wider-ranging than the sentence I quoted.

Michael Dirda: Well, it was a Generalization, not an Absolute Statement of Papal Truth.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Jewett's "Country of the Pointed Firs" is a delight, and the Captain's ghost story - set in the Arctic - is chilling. Jewett wrote several other standalone ghost stories, one of several New England women writers of the time to do so.

Read "Fanny Hill" when I was in my late teens - because it was supposed to be a classic of 18th century literature, she added hastily, not because it was supposed to be naughty. Just as well I went into it with this mindset, because while the contemporary history and Fanny's background are interesting - sort of Defoe-lite - the sex scenes were about as spontaneous, joyful, and passionate as a Royal Visit. Erica Jong's pastiche, "Fanny" is much more fun.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I spent an evening with Erica when she was on tour for Fanny, and I have her garter as a souvenir. Of course, so do lots of other people: Her publisher had dozens of garters made up for her to give out as advertising gimmicks.


Silver Spring MD: Carpetbaggers follow-up. No, I actually didn't get to read it. After discovering it my dad's bureau, there was only time to scan a few pages. A bookmark indicated he'd got up to about 50 pages from the end, and I was fearful of taking it. I checked the underwear drawer a few days later, but the book was gone. I suspect that's when my mom discovered it... Should I read it now?

Michael Dirda: No.


Boston, MA: I'm so sorry to here your chats are ending. There something I look forward to each week. Carl Sandburg, in his somewhat windy way, wrote a wonderful description of the appeal of bad books, in his introduction to his children's poem collection, Early Moon. "And any kindly philosopher could write a thick book on why the shrewd, tolerant reader enjoys even a stupid, vain, hypocritical book because the writer of the book is etching his own portrait on every page, stepping forth and talking off lines like one of the fools, clowns or pretenders in a Russian play" Indeed, sometimes I persist through a bad book, or bad movie, just to get the sense of what kind of person could produce such a mess.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Ah Sandburg! The People, Yes: Doesn't he say there "what if they gave a war and nobody came?" And "Expect the worst and you won't be disappointed."


Baltimore MD: Michael: First, I am very sad to hear that these live discussions are ending. I have learned much and, at the risk of flattery, have been deeply impressed with the breadth and depth of your reading. You seem to scorn no genre as being beneath your dignity. (The romances of Barbara Cartland possibly excepted.)

Second, I know you share my sadness at the death of James Crumley, whose great mystery novel The Last Good Kiss was mentioned here several weeks back. He died in Missoula MT about a week ago, aged 68, of kidney and pulmonary ailments. He was evidently a great barroom companion and, as one Montana obit had it, a man who was proud that he always paid child support to his four ex-wives. His fifth wife survives him, as do numerous kids and grandkids.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I have written a piece on Harlequin romances, a much maligned genre. My lede sentence was "This is where I lose all credibility as a critic."


Book Group reader: Mr. Dirda, Our book group is considering a book entitled GRIEF by Andrew Holleran. Haven't heard of him before, other than he writes mostly gay novels, essays, etc. Are you familiar with his body of work and/or this particular book? Thank you.

Michael Dirda: I don't know this book, but I reviewed a collection of his stories and they were quite wonderful--campy, funny, touching, a real pleasure. He's best known for Dancer from the Dance.


Denver, CO: I've developed a strange habit. I buy the same books over and over again. Whenever I visit a used bookstore, I find myself compulsively buying a copy of The Great Gatsby or A Hero of Our Time or one of a few books that I count among my favorites. For every new (to me), unread title I purchase, I typically buy 3 old favorites. I now have so many copies of Gatsby that I could outfit an entire class of 10th graders. My question is whether I'm the only one with OCD when it comes to books, or if you (or other posters) have a book or two that you keep buying, over and over (and over) again.

washingtonpost.com: I have bought many used copies of Laurie Colwin's short stories because I like to give them to people. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Yes, I buy multiples too, for the same reason that Elizabeth does: to give them to people. But, strangely, it often takes years before I find the right person for a certain book. I also buy pretty copies of books I like.

Colwin. A wonderful writer. I love that story "My Mistress" about a guy who complains that other men have elegant mistresses but his mopes around in an old tee shirt and sweat pants.


Currently in Paris: Thank you for providing this forum and for introducing us to items that we might not otherwise have found (and there are many such gems in your chats, even for those of us who also happen to be polyglot Comp Lit PhDs). For the chatters who asked about translations of Akhmatova -- she (along with Tvetayeva) and her works are reasons enough to learn Russian; I'll very much miss dropping in on the chats each week.

Michael Dirda: Hey, once again: Check out the Discussion Group format of Dirda on Books. Don't leave me in the lurch, people! Next week during this hour--the last DOB--I'll give directions on how to find me online in the future.


National Book Festival: Will you be introducing Neil Gaiman again this year at the National Book Festival?

I'll be at the fest in the afternoon and will try to hear Richard Price. Anyone else you might recommend?

Michael Dirda: Yes, I'll be introducing Neil. As for other writers; Follow your instincts.


Mechanicsville: Thank you for all the wonderful books you've recommended in this chat--Mortal Love with its stunning cover, Cold Comfort Farm, Little, Big, Love in a Cold Climate, Diary of a Nobody, A Way of Life Like Any Other, Classic Crimes, My Dog Tulip, Augustus Carp, Esq., Five Children and It, Love on the Branch Line, Blue Heaven, Hugh Walpole by Hart-Davis, The Bride Wore Black, and the incomparable Mapp and Lucia. When the black dogs start to lurk about, Mr. Dirda, please remember all the delightful hours of reading that you have brought to others.

Michael Dirda: Thank you. It's very kind of you to say all that. And with that I think we should bring this session to a close. Do stop back next week for a last show, and directions to the Discussion Group. If you want to write for information or make a comment, please email elizabeth.terry AT wpni.com

And till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!


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