Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, October 1, 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, October 1.

A transcript follows.


washingtonpost.com: Hello all - Elizabeth here. We don't know yet exactly when the book discussion group will launch, but if you would like to be one of the first to know, e-mail me at elizabeth.terry AT wpni.com with "Book Discussion Group" as the subject and I'll put you on my list. Thanks!


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! And talk about the pathetic fallacy--the weather outside is gloomy, gray, threatening a thunderstorm. Which, if it happens, might knock out the power here, so--who knows?--I may be making a more abrupt departure from Dirda on Books than originally anticipated.

As most of you know, this is the Last Chat--hmmm, could I get a best seller out of that?--or at least the last chat in the liveonline format. I had hoped to be able to tell everyone how to access the Discussion Group version of Dirda on Books, but alas everything is still in the planning stage. I do hope we'll start up soon, but for the moment you'll have to rely on rereading the past nine years or so of DOB archives or finally cracking open one of those books of mine. Oh yes, and you shouldn't overlook the weekly review in The Washington Post Book World, which also hosts wonderful features by my colleagues there.

Okay enough of this. Let's go through the drill one last time, and see what questions and comments await us this Wednesday afternoon.


Edmonton, Canada: Hi Michael, First, I look forward to the continuation of this chat, via the discussion group! Second, thanks to you and all the participants for a great run. I have read many books as a result of the discussion - in fact, I have become a passionate reader again. Just in time to offer some salvation from the winter of our discontent. So, my question is: what would you or participants recommend as the very best book to read to take a reader away from the harsh realities of the world?

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. Reading for escape, are you? Well, there are several approaches: You could lose yourself in some long, enthralling masterwork, such as Proust or Gibbon; you could flee to the snug warm chambers of 221B Baker Street, home to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson; or you could return to a favorite childhood classic, like The Wind in the Willows or Alice in Wonderland. Those are my suggestions. Good luck.


Lenexa, Kan.: I read in "Skeptical Inquirer" that they had given their annual critical thinking award to Natalie Angier for her 2007 "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science." She's one of the New York Times fine science writers. Just the chapter on chemistry is worth the price. Over the years, we've shared some helpful mnemonics (Medical school, Roman numerals, et al.). She has one for taxonomy: "Kings pour coffee on fairy god-sisters" for kingdom/phylum/class/order/family/genus/species.

Also, if I recall correctly, when you've been asked if you might someday write more autobiography--perhaps picking up where "An Open Book" leaves off--you've said something like writing the memoir had pretty much cured you of any interest in the writing aspects of the genre. Still, if your readership continues to grow through the years, do you think you might reconsider that decision? If not, don't you think you might be tempted in your more august years to do a cerebral, partly nostalgic, knowledge-reflection, summing-up kind of work? I, for one, assuming I'm still in the land of the living, would be interested. Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: Actually, Lenexa, I'm thinking of writing such a book right now. A kind of Twilight of the Print Era memoir. At the moment, I'm trying to refine my thoughts. So keep watching the bookstores! Or, rather, start watching them in a year or two. Unless, of course, you're planning to pick up the paperback of Classics for Pleasure, due out in a month or so.


Moab, UT: Michael,

I have always looked forward to these chats and we will dearly miss you on Wednesdays. It's such a shame for this to end.

I would like to give a shout out to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Not only were they funny but Douglas Adams surprisingly often hit to the core of human behavior in that series. Did you ever read the books?

Finally, I work in the used bookstore (ABC and Beyond) here in Moab which is located next to Arches National Park, a popular tourist stop. If any of your readers happen to pass by, I would love to have them stop in and say hello. We have great selection of used books for such a small town. We sell the classics in paperback for usually about $3.50 which is the minimal price that people have to pay for shipping from Amazon, Abe Books, etc.

Even though it doesn't pay much, working in a used bookstore has been my favorite job. I wish I had done it a long time ago.

Happy reading!


Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Charlie. Long ago, in a galaxy far far away---no, wait, that's a different science fiction series--anyway, long ago, when the first Hitchhiker book came out in America, I introduced Douglas Adams to a packed auditorium at the University of Maryland. The audience was full of kids with waving towels. I greatly enjoyed the first three books, and for many years kept my Don't Panic button right at eye level next to my Post computer.


Bethesda, Md.: At least some of my happiest hours are spent reading and writing. Often, I contemplate seriously working as a writer or editor. Pls. give me a tip on what makes a good writer or editor, if you care to comment. Thanks, beforehand.

Michael Dirda: I don't recommend either as a career, but if you want to look into editing or writing, you need to read a lot, possess a good ear for sentence rhythms and a sound knowledge of grammar. And then you must be very, very persistent or very, very lucky.


Chapel Hill, NC: Mr. Dirda,

Do you know the work of Jane Gardam? I didn't (don't) but came across the superlative OLD FILTH recently. Not to be missed for all those who love fiction in an English setting and other exotic locales. If today is to indeed be the last discussion from MD, I am truly in the slough of despond. Thank you for these Wednesdays - not to mention your wit, style, and learning.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I only know Gardam as a children's author, though I know that Old Filth was well received in England. Didn't it win a prize?


Glencoe, IL: A few months ago, I picked up ENGLAND HAVE MY BONES by T.H. White- almost by accident. I'm not interested in hunting, or fishing, or any of the other subjects of the book, but I was soon captivated by White's enthusiasm and quirky prose. Reading it reminded me what I love about reading: the discovery of a work that can take your breath away.

This is my round about way of thanking you for creating a community for readers, who feel the same way and admire good writing wherever they find it. Thanks to these chats, I have discovered writers and books that have meant a great deal to me- Terry Pratchett, John Dickson Carr, and THE NEBULY COAT; and I probably have the names of a hundred books that I plan to read some day. I hope that some mention that I've made of V.S Pritchett, Robertson Davies, Wallace Stegner, Paul Halter, or P.D. James has caused others to read them.

Thanks, my final question for this format: Have you read anything by Henry Kuttner? I just read the short story MIMSY WERE THE BOROGOVES and thought it was amazing.

Michael Dirda: Kuttner is one of the great sf writers of the golden age. Mimsy is one of his best stories. Since you like Kuttner, you might want to look at the work of C.L Moore and Cyril Kornbluth and Fredric Brown.


Fairfax, VA: Could you please recommend some collections of correspondence and/or diaries of interesting and colorful characters? British and American, especially 19th century, would be of particular interest, but a list of your favorites from any time and place are appreciated. Your sensibilities show a wonderful appreciation for the quirky, comic, smart, and beautifully written, yet not intimidating. Just right, in other words.

Michael Dirda: Oooh, I love those compliments. Almost makes this being the last chat worth it. Almost.

Diaries-Pepys, The Goncourt Brothers (much gossip about Flaubert, Maupassant, Turgenev at al), Virginia Woolf

Letters--Flaubert, Chekhov, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis.

These are all literary, of course. You might also like the fine letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Madame de Sevigne.


Moab, UT: What? Have you not read the fourth and fifth books of the Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy? Shame.

Anyway, the Complete Hitchhikers Guide book would be a great escape for Edmonton.

Michael Dirda: Nope, I stopped after the first three for some reason.


Washington, DC: A judge for the Nobel Prizes in literature said American literature is insular and too concerned with American pop culture, and that European literature is simply better. Do you think that's true?

Michael Dirda: I just spoke to a reporter for The Guardian about this. I think the Nobel judge was being provincial in dismissing all of American literature, but I do think that Americans don't read enough, don't engage enough, with the literatures of other countries. I also like the fact that the Nobel often goes to little known figures: It reminds us that there are good writers we've never heard of.


Decatur, IL: Why/how are Jane Austen's works better than just excellently written romance novels? I understand why they've stood the test of time (they're timeless, they're great stories with wonderful character development), but why do they deserve to be considered among the greatest novels?

Michael Dirda: Deep understanding of the human heart. Not to overlook Austen's sly wit.


washingtonpost.com: If you missed the chat with Terry Pratchett earlier today, do check out the transcript.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Elizabeth. Some of you know that I reviewed Nation this past Sunday, and that I'm a longtime Pratchett admirer. Do take a look.

Also, Elizabeth has posted her email address as a clearing place for future information about the Discussion Group version of Dirda on Books. Drop her a line and she'll keep you posted. It's Elizabeth.Terry AT wpni.com, if I remember correctly. Tell me if I'm wrong, Elizabeth.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

I look forward to continuing to consult you on matters literary in the new forum, but since today is the last opportunity to do so in this one I'd like to tackle one of the "biggies": Shakespeare. I haven't read any of his work since high school (over forty years ago), but I used to like some of his sonnets and the more famous soliloquies. However, I wasn't that impressed by the plots of the plays I studied (Macbeth, Hamlet, and As You Like It are the ones I remember). I would now like to go back to Shakespeare. Is there one of his plays that stands out in terms of being a "good story"? Based on what I know of their plots and subject matter, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice sound promising, but I'd very much welcome your recommendation. Also, do you (or anybody else out there in chatspace) have any thoughts on using "Asimov on Shakespeare" as a guide? I'm thinking that his would be a down-to-earth common-sense approach that would suit me.

I'm glad that you will continue to be available in some form, because I still have lots of questions left to ask. Thanks for everything.

washingtonpost.com: King Lear, A Winter's Tale, Henry IV and V, Richard III - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: To me, the most generally engaging Shakespeare play remains Hamlet. It's spooky, full of wonderful lines and speeches, the hero is endlessly fascinating, etc etc.

Read it in a one-volume edition, like the Arden edited by Harold Jenkins.

After that, I tend to favor Macbeth--fast and brutal--and Antony and Cleopatra--languorous and wide-ranging.


Indianapolis, IN: I'll miss these discussion. Thank you for having them.

I'd like to remind everyone that this is Banned Book Weeks, sponsored by the American Library Association to create an awareness of the dangers of censorship. The list of books banned for various reasons is a long and troubling one. Even Sherlock Holmes has been banned at various times for various reasons.

Michael Dirda: Banned Books Week--how providential.


Pittsburgh: I've already sent Elizabeth an email re joining the discussion group. I hope you'll be joining us there as much as your schedule permits.

Well, it happened again yesterday! I came across a translation that the author of the book on which I'm working had translated from its original English, this time of a paragraph from an obscure book published in 1874. With pessimism, I searched for the book title on OCLC at http://www.worldcat.org

To my amazement, the nearest holding of the book was listed as being at my nearby university library. I clicked on the link for further information, where I discovered that their holding was electronic, so all I had to do was go to the page in question and -- voila! -- copy out the original quote into my translation. And of course the book, being 134 years old, is in the public domain, so no copyright worries ensue (although I suspect the fair-use doctrine would apply to the quote even if it were still copyrighted, since it's a scholarly work I'm translating).

Mr. Dirda, will you have the various translators of your work insert the original-language literary quotes, where applicable, into their translations (e.g., original Proust into the French edition of your book, the original German quotes in the German translation, etc.)?

Michael Dirda: What a lovely story! So far, I haven't had any contact with anyone who's actually translated or is translating my books. But then I don't know Japanese, Korean, Portuguese or Spanish--the only relevant languages at this time--so don't know what I could do to help.


Anonymous: Blind activists in Baltimore are protesting the new film of Saramago's "Blindness" as adversely depicting visually impaired people. I never read the novel, but wonder what you think.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I don't know the nature of the protest. Did they feel similarly about John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids? In the book, at least, most of the population is struck blind. The prospect of blindness is frightening to anyone, but especially to readers. I do think it might be a difficult subject to deal with in a film.


University Park, MD: Dear Mr. Dirda: Today, I'm seeking help in identifying a book of which I read the first few pages but can't remember title or author. Recent historic fiction: two men are clearly watching the burning of Savonarola. One goes home to be revealed as a female, dressing as male and an apprentice of The Master--Leonardo Da Vinci. I can't find the slip of paper I wrote the citation down on and am mad to find the book. All help gratefully accepted. Laura

Michael Dirda: Anyone?


Silver Spring, MD: Over the years, I've cut and pasted many exchanges from this chat when the books Michael recommended seemed like they might appeal to me.

I'd be happy to share that list with anyone interested -- alangreenblatt AT yahoo com

Michael, many thanks for such recommendations and this truly companionable chat.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks back, Alan.


Jane: On top of what Dirda said - an understanding of society.

Beautifully drawn characters - some deep, some archetypal

Don't just dismiss her style - it's delicious.

Miss Austen gives us leaves with a deeper understanding of individuals themselves and the world at large.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. And of course you're exactly right.


Gardam: A friend just put me on to Old Filth (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) which inspired me to read all the rest of Jane Gardam. She's great. For still more culture clash of various kinds (and in the UK this always means a certain amount of class clash), read "Faith Fox."

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


I haven't read any of his work since high school: Hey, Wpg., Shakespeare's plays weren't meant to be read! They were meant to be seen performed onstage.

Michael Dirda: Yes, and no. I like reading the plays, since you can pause, reread a line that's confusing or pleasing, check out a critical note, etc etc.


Rexburg, ID: My 12 yr. old son, a voracious reader, has a new reading teacher who is introducing his students to the classics. (i.e. Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island and others) Prior to his classics exposure he read all the Harry Potters, The Hobbit, Anthony Horowitz's novels, and many Newbery award winners. Where do we go from here?

Michael Dirda: You go onward and upward! Take your son to the local bookstore or library and tell him to browse the shelves for an hour and come back with three books that look appealing. Guidance is great, but there's no substitute for following your own nose.

That said, I think he should read the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Daniel Pinkwater's novels, such as Alan Mendelsohn, the boy from Mars.


Negative film portrayals: I don't understand; are the activists saying that all blind people are good?

Michael Dirda: We clearly need more information on this.


LostInThe, USA: Where will I find new books to read? I've depended on your recommendations for years! Heck, even your -mentions- have been worth reading, usually (never finished Proust, though, perhaps the French works better...)

washingtonpost.com: The book discussion group, when it starts! It will allow Michael and everyone else a chance to recommend books to each other.

Michael Dirda: I expect to blog a lot on the Discussion Group. Who knows? Perhaps one day I'll even start my own website and blog. Everyone else seems to be doing this.


Slough of Despond, USA: A previous poster wrote: "Thank you for these Wednesdays - not to mention your wit, style, and learning."

Please add to that your unique ability to communicate with a sense of literary grace as well as humanity, without self-promotion (except for, and rightly so, your lovely books!) or snarkiness, which these days often substitutes for true wit. Alas, there are many of us already awash in angst ahead of the waves of future Wednesdays sans this two o'clock rendezvous.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. But you did fail to mention my dazzling good looks, Einsteinian intelligence, and . . . oh, enough: Just thank you.


About that Nobel judge: He not only dismissed all American literature, but implied that the only other choice was -European-! He repeated that point a couple of times. So I'd say he dismissed the rest of the world, too, and deserves all the hate mail he'll get for it.

Michael Dirda: Well, he was being, as I said, provincial. But, in many ways, I'm a European at heart, so don't feel quite as irate as I probably should.


Also about reading Shakespeare: Performances are very often edited to shorten them (Kenneth Branagh's film of "Hamlet" was famous for being the entire play), so reading the plays can give you even more Shakespeare than you would get on stage or screen.

Michael Dirda: Good point.


Hearing Shakespeare: Mum and Dad had records - yes, albums - of Shakespeare. I heard them a lot when I was growing up. Music, sheer music. I know when I was six or so I didn't understand it but the rhythm of the the blank verse was wonderful as it undulated across the room.

Michael Dirda: In An Open Book I talk about listening to John Gielgud in Richard III--"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this duke of York . . ." "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" As you say, music.


Wilmington DE: for the person who read the book about Savonarola: try the LibraryThing website. Someone there might help.

Michael Dirda: There you go. I did review a good book about Savonarola by Lauro Martines. But it was nonfiction.


washingtonpost.com: Blind activists plan protest of movie 'Blindness' (Associated Press): "The movie portrays blind people as monsters, and I believe it to be a lie," said Maurer, president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. "Blindness doesn't turn decent people into monsters."

Michael Dirda: Thank you, Elizabeth.


Silver Spring: The letters of Kingsley Amis are pretty good too.

Michael Dirda: Better than very good. Very funny.


washingtonpost.com: When I was about 14 I went to a "nerd camp" (summer writing program) and there was a big Hitchhiker's fan club, as you can well imagine. It made me really scared to read the books because I got the sense that they drew you inexorably into that scene and sitting on a towel talking about weird-sounding books didn't seem like fun to me. I did read them a few years later and thought they were kind of funny but somehow managed to resist getting converted. - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Nerd camp. Now maybe there's a career I should look into. Instead of some ex-Marine running a camp that'll make a man of your son, I would take rough delinquents and turn them into myopic Milquetoasts. . . Hmmmm. Maybe this wouldn't fly after all.


Dissenting view on Angier: I read Angier's book a couple of years ago.

I read lots of science stuff. She may be clear, but the dumb jokes ruined it for me. I think she was talking down to her audience.

Michael Dirda: Humor--you have to take it seriously if you're going to do it well. And even then it's a delicate thing.


Ballston, VA: Olsson's is gone, and I'm really, really sad, Michael. I bought more music than books there over the years, but just last week I picked up a copy of "The Food Snob's Dictionary," which pushed my total purchases to a level that earned me another frequent-buyer coupon. I earned several of those over the years, and redeemed all but one, I think. The coupons expired within three months of issue. For a while, the coupon was simply a $10 gift certificate, and I would put those toward the purchase of various classic jazz reissues in the Blue Note Rudy Van Gelder series, or 32Jazz titles, which left me covering a balance of just $2 or $3 per title. Eventually the chain switched to a 20% off coupon. The reasoning was that if I spent more than $50, the 20% off coupon became more valuable. True, although my budget-conscious CD buying rarely allowed for $50-plus purchases. Over the years, however, I'd go on present-buying sprees, using the discount coupons for larger purchases.

A year ago, I finally gave in and handed over my e-mail to Borders, which promptly started sending my 20%, 30% and 40%-off coupons on a regular basis. Those coupons were only good for one item each, but I've certainly used a few. I still supported Olsson's when I could, and always felt better about it.

Now I no longer have a choice. It's a sad day.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I agree. I remember when Olsson's was still Discount Books and Records. Sigh. End of an era.


University Park, MD: To Rexburg ID: try Pat O'Shea's Hounds of the Morrigan, an absolutely wonderful tale of a boy and his younger sister's semi-magical hair-raising adventures in northwestern Ireland involving many Celtic myths. It was both my boys' (now 23 and 29 respectively) favorite book -- simply can't put it down. I've stashed away several copies for when they have children It's now been reprinted twice (1999, 2003).

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I remember assigning the book--I think to my friend Brian Jacomb--who loved it, but I never read it myself. You make me want to.


Nobel kerfuffle: American readers get the best of both worlds, domestic authors in our bookstores, and accidental (in the birding sense) laureates. It's the Europeans I feel sorry for, they never hear about our talent.

Michael Dirda: Oh, they do: Many American writers are translated into European languages. People like James Salter and Steven Millhauser are arguably more honored there than here.


Chicago, IL: I will really miss these Wednesday chats. I've gotten many good book recommendations, from you and from the other chatters. I've only been insulted once, by another chatter (but I enjoyed it). And on top of all the other compliments people are leveling at you, you are a very fast typist. (Those of us who have sat through other, painfully slow Post chats truly appreciate this.) And you are always willing to go a few minutes over. Thank you!

Michael Dirda: Ah, yes: That summer of personal typing class has paid off. My father always maintained it was the best course I ever took in my entire academic career. Something to that.


Blogs: I wish you would indeed start a blog. Terry Teachout, at terryteachout.com, has a great one, called "About Last Night." It's hosted by, and linked to, www.artsjournal.com, which also hosts a number of other good arts-related blogs.

Michael Dirda: I'd do a blog in a flash, if I could figure out how to make some money off it. As my regulars know, I do have bills to pay and need to think about such crass matters. In theory, I realize, a blog will bring one's books more readers. Still, the time may come. . . .


Palookaville/Swim-two Birds: So this is it. I was planning to write a stirring farewell but have neither the time nor the talent. I'll check out the new format but will miss the real-time interaction. Best of luck, Michael, and thanks for all the fish, er, comments and stuff.

Michael Dirda: Don't panic. Many thanks.


Anchorage, Alaska: I once passed through Ashcroft, B.C. while on the AlCan Highway. I wanted to know how someone so well read lives in a place more isolated than Anchorage. Mr. Dirda, Thanks for the chats. They have been a high point all these many weeks.

Michael Dirda: You're welcome. Perhaps Ashcroft can answer that question directly. Books, music and movies are all pretty readily accessible to anyone these days.


Chapel Hill, NC (Audio Book Girl): Hi, Michael. Well, I'm sure I speak for many in saying this is a fine time to be losing this chat! I want to underscore the pleasure it's given me since discovering it a few years ago and to thank you for taking the time to share your seemingly bottomless knowledge. I hope, if all of us stick together, we can make the new format work. O.K. In our discussion about translation, I neglected to mention Bruce Allen. (He writes for Kirkus.) Back when the book pages of the Raleigh News and Observer were worth reading, he had a regular column called Fiction in Translation. It was completely marvelous. A couple of days ago I stumbled on a book by an old boss of mine, J. Revell Carr, the former director of Mystic Seaport. It's called All Brave Sailors, and it's about the sinking of the British freighter Anglo-Saxon in 1940. I'm enjoying it -- despite the sad subject. (It's gratifying to discover bosses who can write!)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, ABG. Yes, I know Bruce Allen's fine work. I once thought of doing such a column myself.


WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

Thanks for defending me against "I haven't read any of his work since high school", although I didn't take it as a personal attack. In fact, I laughed out loud when I read it. I'm not much of a playgoer, though as I mentioned last week I will be going to see "Pride and Prejudice" as a play at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. I actually saw Hamlet performed outdoors a couple of years ago by a theatre company called "Shakespeare in the Ruins", but the mosquitoes rather spoiled it for me. If the poster wants to come to Winnipeg in November, they're putting on Romeo and Juliet "in the stunning gallery of the Manitoba Costume Museum" with a "traditional all-male cast". Check it out at http://www.shakespeareintheruins.com/.

washingtonpost.com: Right now in D.C. we have an all-male production of Romeo and Juliet AND an all-female one! I have seen the former but not the latter, yet! - ET

Michael Dirda: Who says Washington is stodgy?


Bethesda: I recently finished Written on the Body and was wondering if you reviewed it for The Post, as the jacket had a glowing recommendation from the paper.

I enjoyed much of the book--there were some brilliant passages--but found the protagonist's self-pity at the end too protracted and too much to take seriously.

washingtonpost.com: Reviewed in Book World 2/14/93 by Leigh Allison Wilson

JEANETTE WINTERSON's first three novels proved her to be a wildly original writer, one whose impatience with conventional narrative has led her down surprising fictional avenues. Winterson takes risks and her fourth book, Written on the Body, is no exception.

Oddly, the plot is conventional, as old as the hills -- this is a love story. The lovers meet, impediments are placed in the path of their love, they surmount them, or seem to, until as last they have to face what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle, one that threatens to explode everything they have come to hope for. So far this is familiar territory, but this is a Winterson novel and she is a novelist who eschews the familiar, the cliched. "It's the cliches that cause the trouble," says the narrator of Written on the Body.

From the beginning the novel defies our expectations as readers. The sex of the first-person narrator remains undisclosed throughout the book, for the meanings in the novel go beyond the cultural definitions and constraints of gender into a realm where sexuality and love are invented and reinvented, where what is written on the body begins in a language of limitless possibility. A married woman named Louise is the object of the narrator's love -- although over the course of the novel Louise becomes less of an "object" and more of a sort of corporeal universe. The narrator has had a checkered love life, to say the least. There have been other married women, single women, a fellow named Crazy Frank who "had been brought up by midgets although he himself was over six feet tall . . . and used to carry them one on each shoulder." Confusing lust with love and fearing the numbing effects of "settling down," the narrator has roamed the landscape of sex without love. Enter Louise.

Louise is married to Elgin, a cancer researcher who plays medical video games (and likes his sex while "sunk in a bath of porridge") He is a fairly nasty piece of business and, as the narrator remarks, "marriage is the flimsiest weapon against desire. You may as well take a pop-gun to a python." Louise's searing desire for the narrator is like a hurricane, hurling her away from her husband while pulling the narrator deeper into her center. In fact the narrator resorts to the language of meteorology, biology, anatomy, chronobiology, physics, astrophysics and zoology in order to explain the phenomenon that is Louise in love and loved.

And language is at the heart of the beauty and originality of this novel. Winterson's meditations on the body -- particularly in the sections entitled "The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body," "The Skin," "The Skeleton," and "The Special Senses" -- become erotic paeans to the physicality of the beloved and the meaning of love:

" 'Explore me,' you said and I collected my ropes, flasks and maps, expecting to be back home soon. I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I'm free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon's wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know."

Written on the Body is a contemplative novel, but it is not without wit and humor. At one point the narrator gets trapped in the halls of a hospital, looking for the Venereal Disease Clinic, and its "labyrinthian cunning means that the user will have to ask at least five times how to get there." At another point the narrator handcuffs one hand to a chair at the British Library in order to concentrate on a deadline that has to be met; in order to ward off thinking about Louise. But the hand begins to swell and the key has been given to someone who's disappeared: "I signalled to a guard and whispered my problem. He returned with a fellow guard and together they picked up my chair and carried me sedan style down the British Library Reading Room. It is a tribute to the scholarly temperament that nobody looked up."

This is an original novel. It is not, however, without its problems, most of them the result of the novel's ambitiousness. At times Louise disappears into abstraction, her personality more on the order of a nebula than an individual. One feels startled to learn, for instance, that Louise can teach art history, or that she has a life beyond her husband and the narrator. The ferocious prism of the narrator's love often obscures the mundane details about Louise -- we end up with essences and oblique essentials when we long for the kind of quirky detail that so distinguishes and marks the narrator and other characters.

Again, the problems may be inherent in the very fabric of Winterson's ambitiousness in inventing a new topography for love. And what it does in fact achieve far outweighs what it does not. Written on the Body is a very, very special book. The vision of love it offers is revolutionary, and it is sorely needed.

Michael Dirda: As you can see, I didn't review that Winterson, though I did write about Art Objects and one or two of her earlier novels. In general, I admire her brilliant prose and art for art's sake esthetic. Plus she can be very funny, if you know Oranges are not the Only Fruit.


New Lenox, Ill.: Have you read in its entirety "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night?" What is the best way to go about reading it - do you read all of the volumes consecutively as one work until you are finished? Do you have any opinions on this work?

Michael Dirda: Hussaid Huddawy has done the best recent translation of the major Nights--it's in two volumes, one devoted to the canonical tales and one to the non-canonical (but often famous ones, like Aladdin). Your best bet is to read Robert Irwin's Arabian Nights Companion, then plunge into Huddawy. I own a broken set of the Richard Burton translation, which I value for Burton's quirky and sex-obsessed notes.


Denver, CO: Mr. Dirda,

My best friend's heart wrenches with pain over the loss of this center of culture in a world filled with nothingness. She truly loves you, and Alan Greenspan.

What words of solace can you offer to her as you depart? How should she go on to continue her growth as a young bibliophile? Will you be doing other work? Is there any other who can hold a candle to you and your ineffable glory?

Much respect.

Michael Dirda: Well, the answer to your candle question is obviously "No."

Tell your friend that, in the words of Douglas MacArthur, I shall return. In the meantime, she should spend her time in good works and learn to play the harpsichord.

Oh yes, and she could read some books, even some of mine.


Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio and Mercutio:...and the actors playing Mercutio in the two productions are married.

Michael Dirda: Well, growing too intricate for my little brain.


Annapolis, MD: Asimov's Shakespeare guide is a good explanation for the general reader of references that may be obscure -- for example, which figures in the history plays would be seen as parallels to contemporary characters and why. He also raises some of the questions and controversies (e.g. why is it that Hamlet seems so much older in Act V?), but it's definitely not for scholars. Because he's Asimov he also talks about language as well as common ideas and expressions that we get from Shakespeare.

Another good general guide to Shakespeare is Harold Bloom's enormous "Shakespeare," which is ebullient in its affection and admiration for the Bard. And it's good for picking and choosing.

I'd personally start with Lear, Hamlet, Henry IV and V, and As You Like It. But you never know what will work; Measure for Measure was the first play that made me say Wow, this Shakespeare cat is good!, but I wouldn't dream of recommending that anyone should start there. It's all good, as they used to say.

Finally, this kind of exchange is exactly what I have valued most about these chats -- exchanges of ideas, and quick recommendations for nonspecialists who adore books eclectically. Many thanks to Michael, and Elizabeth, and all the regular (and irregular) chatters who have made it work over the years. See you in the discussion group!

Michael Dirda: For secondary texts about Shakespeare, I recommend Mark Van Doren's Shakespeare; an old fashioned but shrewd set of commentaries by Harold Godwin (in Dover editions at one point), and the essays of Maynard Mack. For the life, anything by Samuel Schoenbaum.

And, please, let's not go into the authorship question again.


Columbia MD: Thanks to you and all the chatters for a wonderful literary ride across the wide world of literature! It's been great

Michael Dirda: You're welcome.


Alexandria, VA: Parting is such sorrowed sweets.

Michael Dirda: Today's chat, then, is a sorrow suite.


Albuquerque, NM: I was browsing the fiction section of Borders recently, and my eyes fell on I Am Charlotte Simmons. I started flipping through it looking for the naughty bits, I confess. I had read the mixed reviews, including yours. Anyway, the back of the book has a blurb from you which strongly insinuates a purely glowing review. If I remember correctly your review, while positive was certainly not glowing. Do you get no say so on blurbs?

washingtonpost.com: Dirda review of I Am Charlotte Simmons

Michael Dirda: Publishers don't run blurbs by reviewers. I praised Wolfe's command of language and energy, but otherwise blasted his views and attitudes toward young people, education, the world, etc etc. The publishers naturally chose to quote the good not the bad, even if this was false to the tenor of the review a s whole.


PA: I'm dodging work right now so I'll make this short: many thanks for the chats (I've mostly lurked) and please do consider a website and blog.

Completely unrelated, has anyone checked out the State by State lists on Ominvarious.com? They are fun and a decent review of general and classic American writing.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Thanks for the compliment, Anchorage. I live in Ashcroft because it's quiet, close enough to Vancouver to get there easily but far enough away that we don't have to worry about big-city problems. Besides, the fact that a town is small doesn't necessarily mean that the people who live in it are likewise restricted in their interests and activities. As long as my books are with me, I'm surrounded by friends and the hustle and bustle of hundreds and hundreds of possible worlds.

On which note, thank you to everyone here for providing such a delightful haven and recommending so many wondrous books. Special thanks, of course, to our gracious, erudite, and witty host; I'll spare his blushes and not mention his rugged (yet sensitive) good looks. Imagine Bob Hope singing 'Thanks For the Memories' as the light fades and the curtain falls.

Barbara Roden, Ashcroft, B.C.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Barbara. Now her true identity can be revealed. . . .


Lexington: Michael, Now Olssons is closing all of their stores. Shrinking book review pages, closing of independent book stores, even college students reading less, candidates that can't remember what they've read. Some of this is partly due to the economy as small independent stores skirt close to the margin and credit for them is shrinking. But, doesn't it seem as if the book culture is disappearing faster than we thought possible? And, since we're close to an election what is your opinion of presidential memoirs? TR left a few good books behind, Lincoln and Grant have been enshrined in the Library of America. More recent presidential memoirs seem to be written exclusively for the huge advances. Which ones would you recommend?

Michael Dirda: I can't imagine reading any presidential memoirs since those of Teddy R. Such books are merely campaign material. Do you think these guys are telling the truth? They're just shaping how they want the world and history to see them.

Yes, your opening litany reminds me of this book idea of mine.


PA: Correction: that's omnivoracious.com for the state by state lists.

Michael Dirda: Thanks.


Moab, UT: Speaking of Shakespeare -

You must see a hilarious rendition of Peter Sellers reciting the Beatles "A Hard Day's Night" as Richard III.


Michael Dirda: Many thanks. And don't miss "The Skinhead Hamlet."


Silver Spring: The stock indexes are volatile; Post stock is down 20 percent ytd; and Olsson's has closed down, claiming to be bankrupt without the guiding force Dirda on Books has provided all these years. Ok, Olsson's claims they're a million in debt and losing money daily, but I suspect they just don't want to make the Post feel guilty for ending this chat... unless that has changed, has it? Eh?

I'll miss this chat, Mr. D, and I'll miss ET's contributions too. Don't worry, I'll visit the discussion group and I hope that Lenexa and New Lexington and Ashcroft and Audio Book Girl and the other regulars will post there too. I guess if there is any good news it is this: I'll finally be able to tell the many Arlingtons and Silver Springs apart.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for your kind words. I think I speak for Elizabeth and the others too. Let's stick together at the Discussion Group, whenever it starts up.


Chicago, IL: I can't believe we meet here for the last time... I have a comment and a question. My comment is about translations. I found some older translations superior to the much-praised new ones. One of the things done with the old translations is correction of mistakes, as the copyright has already expired. I found the edited Maude and Garnett translations of War and Peace in some respects better than the new translation, especially stylistically. It is hard for me imagine Natasha saying "something stupid" (Pevear/Volokhonsky translation) in the first epilogue instead on "nonsense" (Maude translation). The Russian words "gluposti" and "pustyaki" are a little old-fashioned for a modern Russian reader, but imply something insignificant rather than something stupid.

My question has to do with fairy tales. I would like to read some books to learn how fairy tales "work", what is there origin, life cycle, etc. I do have Vladimir Propp books. Also, could you please recommend good collections of tales with lots of comments and footnotes for adults. Thanks so much for being with us all these years.

Michael Dirda: Check out Marina Warner's From the Blonde to the Beast, a study of fairy tales. She's got a good bibliography, too, as I recall. Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar are probably our two leading fairy-tale scholars; he's got a couple of Norton critical editions and she has a couple of Annotated Grimm and Classic fairy tale collections. Then, of course, there are the works of Ioana and Peter Opie.


Reinbeck, IA: For last week's poster from Washington, DC who was looking for fiction or nonfiction about the Great Depression, may I please suggest Studs Terkel's "Hard Times," an oral history of this period in our history.

Michael Dirda: Yes, good choice.


Maryland: Thanks for all the very interesting book chats. I will really miss them. I have read many books because you or your posters mentioned them: The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell The Moving Toyshop, Edmund Crispin Memento Mori, Muriel Spark The Nebuly Coat, John Meade Falkner Love on a Branch Line, John Hadfield all of the Dido Twite books, Joan Aiken Mapp and Lucia, E.F. Benson The Small Bachelor, P.G. Wodehouse The Box of Delights, John Masefield Little, Big, John Crowley A Legacy, Sybille Bedford Bullivant and the Lambs, Ivy Compton-Burnett The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope Diary of a Nobody, George Grossmith Miss Nelson is Missing, James Marshall A Day with Wilbur Robinson, William Joyce A Glass of Blessings, Barbara Pym An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House, Emily Eden The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett Owls in the Family, Lost in the Barrens, and The Dog Who Would Not Be, Farley Mowat Who Has Seen the Wind, W.O. Mitchell The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett Darconville's Cat, Alexander Theroux The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley The Marzipan Pig, Russell Hoban Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, Mordecai Richler Blandings Castle, P.G. Wodehouse The Cut-Ups, James Marshall Homer Price, Robert McCloskey Bread and Jam for Frances, Russell Hoban Brave Irene, William Steig The Hat, Tomi Ungerer Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, Daniel Pinkwater The Big Orange Splot, also by Pinkwater The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf Each Peach, Pear, Plum, Janet and Alan Alhberg Oh Were They Ever Happy, Peter Spier The Beast of Monsier Racine, Tomi Ungerer How Tom Beat Capt. Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, Russell Hoban How, Hippo! Marcia Brown Alexander Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday and My Mama Says There Aren't Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins or Things, both by Judith Viorst Boney-Legs, Joanna Cole Rotten Island, William Steig Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton Christmas Holiday, Somerset Maugham The Sea, the Sea, Iris Murdoch Margaret Mauldon's translation of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

I would never have heard of most of these books if it hadn't been this for this on-line discussion. I just want to mention that Masefield's The Box of Delights was abridged in 1984; anyone who wants to read it should try to get a pre-1984 copy.

Michael Dirda: Many, many, many thanks. The Box of Delights was reissued in its original form by New York Review Books--about a year ago, in paperback.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any search term for the Wash. Post site that will allow me to see, say, all the weekday book reviews from whole month or so? A book was reviewed, maybe a month ago, that looked perfect for my sister--and now I've lost the section I'd saved. It was a positive review of a book that had an epic treatment of some royal family--or a period of royal intrigue. (She's a huge fan of historical fiction--sweeping stories set in the times of King Arthur or the Sun King... that sort of thing.)


washingtonpost.com: I don't think there is a one-stop shop for the weekday book reviews... was it Lady Macbeth (Feb. 29) or Toward the Setting Sun (Aug. 26) or Brisingr (Sept. 25) or The Laughter of Dead Kings (Sept. 4)?

Michael Dirda: Note Elizabeth's note.


Mesquite, NV: First of all, thanks to Michael for this forum. I've been primarily a "lurker" for years, but have occasionally come in.

A second thanks for his classy acceptance of the new "change." I'm sure it's not of his doing, but Michael has obviously been in this business a long time and seen how the "economic" Philistines don't appreciate these oases amidst the barren world of commerce for us book lovers. (A little over the top). The main reason for my thanks is I have endured something a bit similar after 14 years in my own area, so Michael's example is very helpful. BY THE WAY, MICHAEL. HOW DO YOU DO IT?? SERIOUSLY???

Third, for Rockville, MD my comments on the Julie Rose Les Miserables. I'm not sophisticated enough to know much of the differences (I don't have time for multiple readings of the classics). All I can say is that it is much better than the last time I read it. It feels more like the modern language. It says the "s-word" instead of the French "M-word". The differences of the translations are minor, however, when compared to the work itself. It would definitely be a great commuting book in paperback (as will be the Pevear/Volokhonsky War and Peace when it's in paperback soon).

Farewell till another forum.

Michael Dirda: A bientot.


Brattleboro, VT: Michael I just wanted to write and say thank you for all the wonderful Wednesday afternoons that you've shared with us. The discussions are always lively and erudite. Your (and the other participants') suggestions have been sound and have led me to many wonderful readings.

With Sincerest Thanks from New England!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I feel quite august being described as sound. "Well, you know, Murgatroy isn't quite sound on Hittite hieroglyphs?" Really, many thanks.


Pittsburgh: Lexington inquires, "doesn't it seem as if the book culture is disappearing faster than we thought possible?"

Dear me, now I'm starting to feel guilty over my exultation at finding that old book online yesterday.

Michael Dirda: And well you should. Though you hardly have any choice these days, what with the disappearance of walk-in used bookstores.


Pittsburgh, again: A postscript re inserting original-language literary quotes into a translation: I'd already translated the paragraph in question back into English just for the meaning, a topic which some of us discussed here a couple of weeks ago with respect to the occasional humor value of potential mistakes. While I got all the meanings totally correct (because the excerpt was quite straightforward), I never could have approximated the 1874 English-language usage, since I perpetually sound like an assortment of people from the late 20th century.

Michael Dirda: Thanks.


Blindness: I -plowed- my way through the book. I'm obviously missing something - I thought it was overstated, overblown, wordy and conceited.

Michael Dirda: Well, the lack of paragraphing doesn't help.


12 year old boy: Most twelve year old boys love good action - along the lines of Stevenson's Treasure Island and my all-time fave The Black Arrow.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I love TI but do find Stevenson's language can be a bit tough for modern kids. Too Scots, and a little precious at times.


Chicago, IL: I'm reading my way through Ishiguro. He seems to be one of those writers who makes it look incredibly easy. You never see any of the gears working (so bothersome with a writer like Ian McEwan, who is all gears and hard work). "A Pale View of Hills" and "Never Let Me Go" are both superficially simple books, and while I very much liked the former and only moderately liked the latter, I found that both haunted me for weeks after I read them. Now I'm reading "The Remains of the Day." I'm curious what you think of him, and which you think is his best book.

Michael Dirda: Probably The Remains of the Day.


Shakespeare in the Ruins: Saw an excellent production of Richard III at their original venue (the burnt out ruins of a monastery south of town - no longer used as bricks started beaning patrons) - truly memorable, with the audience following the cast around from location to location - Adam Beach, late of Law and Order, SUV was Henry Tutor (and others)

Cheers and best in the future.. K

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Yes, my Henry tutor was really good on the Plantagenets. Don't mean to tease. Just my usual high spirits. Hmmm. But now that I think of it, I don't usually have high spirits. Never mind.


Bethesda, Md.: If you know the book "Overachievers," by Alexandra Robbins, set at Walt Whitman H.S., let your readers know what you think of it, will you? Thanks, beforehand.

Michael Dirda: Don't and so can't.


Bennett Point, MD: I read one critic who wrote that he could tell when a writer was hitting the sauce while writing and specifically mentioned Hemingway in one of his novels. Do you find that a credible claim?

Michael Dirda: Depends on how hard his editor worked on the manuscript.


Freising, Germany: Regarding stories of storms, one of the most harrowing that I've ever read was an excerpt in a magazine from Robert Dean Frisbie. I believe that it was from the book, "Island of Desire". Frisbie tied himself and his family to the sturdiest trees on the island, and watched in horror as other similar trees were uprooted and washed away by the huge waves and flood. Apparently the entire island was submerged during the storm. For someone who, in his own words, "was looking for a place beyond the reach of the faintest echo from the noisy clamour of the civilised world", he was probably dreaming of tea and a warm hotel room during the storm.

I recall that James Michener mentioned Frisbie in one of his books. Is Frisbie worth keeping a lookout for?

Michael Dirda: I don't know anything about him--unless, he altered his name slightly and invented the flying disc that seems to be the raison d'etre of my middle son, Captain of the Oberlin College Ultimate team.


Rockville, MD: From AP:

Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: The top member of the award jury believes the United States is too "insular" and "ignorant" to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing...

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular," he said. Its writers "don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining," he added. -


Michael Dirda: None to add to what I said earlier. But Americans are insular. No doubt about that. But then so our many other countries. I hate nationalism, of almost any sort.


Michael Dirda: And, so, friends, we come to the end of the line, and of this final week's comments and questions. No doubt one more will pop up after I sign off, and I apologize to any such poster. It's been great fun for me--after all, I've had a license to show off how much I know! You've all been very forbearing with me, and I hope you'll rejoin the discussion when DOB reappears in Discussion Group format. I hope our wait isn't too long. Do write to Elizabeth to keep au courant about all this: Elizabeth.Terry AT wpni.com.

But, I'd better stop before I go all maudlin. Hmm. I wish I'd gone to Magdalen, now that I think about it. Well enough, silliness. Keep me in mind when you look through Book World. Pick up my books as gifts. Remember our good times together. And, above all, keep reading! Bye for now!


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