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Michael Dirda
Michael Dirda
The Washington Post
Dirda on Books
Hosted by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Every Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST, Dirda takes your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.

Michael Dirda's name appears weekly in The Post's Book World section. If he's not reviewing a fat literary biography or an ambitious new novel, he's likely to be writing a lighthearted essay about the joys and burdens of living in a house filled with way too many books. Although he holds a PhD in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda is still smart enough to be an unabashed fan of "The Simpsons," noting that "the show's genius derives from its details." He also loves P.G. Wodehouse, intellectual history, children's books and locked-room mysteries just the sort of range you'd expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished criticism.

These days, Dirda says he spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth and daydreaming ("my only real pastime"). Otherwise he just reads books and writes about them, with occasional visits to secondhand bookstores in search of treasures. He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer working on his reviews and Readings columns. "Do not imagine that I regard my taste for literary artifacts as anything but shameless and vulgar," Dirda says, "I have sunk so low as to covet Edward Gorey coffee mugs. I yearn for a bust of Dante to place on a bookcase."

For those of you interested in keeping the discussion going even when Michael's not around, we've set up our "Books and Reading" message board. Registration is easy, confidential, and most importantly, FREE. You can get there by clicking here.






Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books. Each week on Wednesday at 2, I field questions about books, reviewing, The Washington Post Book World, publishing, and any other matters that might loosily be termed literary or bookish. So let's get on with the show!


St. Petersburg, Russia: Continuing last week's thoughts on translation - is there a best English translation of Montaigne? I have a worn, Penguin paperback of selected essays translated by J.M. Cohen. Certainly Montaigne's humanity comes through in this edition as I suspect it would in any competent work. I can't imagine, after reading the essays "On the power of the imagination" and "On presumption", that Montaigne could ever be placed on some unapproachable pedestal called "The Classics"

Michael Dirda: Well, Montaigne is so archetypally human and humane--he is, as I've said before, certainly among the most admirable people who have ever written. His last essay, "On Experience" is one of the great nonfiction reading experiences of a lifetime, while his thoughts on sex are amazingly insightful and modern. I love the fact that you find them in the coyly titled "On Some Lines of Vergil."
There are lots of translations of Montaigne and nearly all of them can be commended in some fashion. John Florio's Renaissance version was read by Shakespeare (who borrowed from it), and is an established classic. Cohen is a good all around French translator and you won't go wrong with him. But two modern versions demand particular attention, as both were done by the most eminent Montaigne scholars of, respectively, this generation and the previous one: Michael Screech is an extremely learned authority on 16th ce-ntury French thought and his version is used in the most recent Penguins. Donald Frame is the author of a standard life of Montaigne and his translation was commended by my favorite literary critic Cyril Connolly. But M's French isn't too hard, and repays the effort. I once spent a semester in college doing a private reading course on M, with a teacher who had studied with Frame and I've always been grateful that it allowed me to read all the essays over a blissful spring semester.


Elkintown: Hi Mr Dirda,
I noticed in today's Post that Philip Roth and Toni Morrison were nominated for a rich literary prize in Ireland. Three questions: what is you're overall assessment of Roth? What is you opinion of the Roths, Updikes, Oates, and Brookners who produce a novel like clockwork once a year; can the books be as good as they possibly could be if they're produced conveyor belt like? Last, what is your opinion on literary prizes in general and on how they are judged? Thanks

Michael Dirda: Ok, here goes. Roth is, I think, a major American writer, amazingly fertile and inventive, from the touching Goodbye Columbus to the sexy Portnoy's Complain to the serene beauty of the Zuckerman trilogy to the wonderful memoir of his father Patrimony to his recent novels, especially American Pastoral. He can be self-indulgent and overly preoccupied with himself, but at his best--he's funny, serious and a joy to read. 2) In general, serious writers are prolific, and the great novelists of the past wrote at least as much, if not more, than Updike or Oates. To have a gift for narrative means that you need to use it, not save it. 3) In general, I think literary prizes are best reserved for the young or the unknown--an award can bring such a writer needed recognition. The big names, like Morrison, don't need the fame or the money. Having been on the boards of various prizes, I also know how serendipitous the whole process can be. Or even nefarious. Trust your own readerly instincts, not those of a prize committee.


Southern MD: I checked "Ahab's Wife" out of the library awhile ago. It's due. Ok, so it's overdue, and I haven't gotten to it yet. Renew and read or just return?

Michael Dirda: Don't know--haven't read this, though I've heard it's interesting.


Alexandria, VA: Any suggestions on a book to improve one's vocabulary?

Michael Dirda: Now, there's a question after my own heart. When I was a kid I read Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, by Wilfred Funk, and I'll bet you can find a copy in the library or second hand bookstore. Also, Dale Carnegie's book on public speaking has some good advice on diction and vocabulary. But I haven't kept up with the modern books in this field--you should browse your local bookstore or library for more on such sesquipedlian matters.


Crofton,MD: What is your favorite Stendhal red and the black or charterhouse of Parma? I think "The Red& The Black:
Michael Dirda
Michael Dirda
The Washington Post
Dirda on Books
Hosted by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Every Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST, Dirda takes your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.

Michael Dirda's name appears weekly in The Post's Book World section. If he's not reviewing a fat literary biography or an ambitious new novel, he's likely to be writing a lighthearted essay about the joys and burdens of living in a house filled with way too many books. Although he holds a PhD in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda is still smart enough to be an unabashed fan of "The Simpsons," noting that "the show's genius derives from its details." He also loves P.G. Wodehouse, intellectual history, children's books and locked-room mysteries just the sort of range you'd expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished criticism.

These days, Dirda says he spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth and daydreaming ("my only real pastime"). Otherwise he just reads books and writes about them, with occasional visits to secondhand bookstores in search of treasures. He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer working on his reviews and Readings columns. "Do not imagine that I regard my taste for literary artifacts as anything but shameless and vulgar," Dirda says, "I have sunk so low as to covet Edward Gorey coffee mugs. I yearn for a bust of Dante to place on a bookcase."

For those of you interested in keeping the discussion going even when Michael's not around, we've set up our "Books and Reading" message board. Registration is easy, confidential, and most importantly, FREE. You can get there by clicking here.






Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books. Each week on Wednesday at 2, I field questions about books, reviewing, The Washington Post Book World, publishing, and any other matters that might loosily be termed literary or bookish. So let's get on with the show!


St. Petersburg, Russia: Continuing last week's thoughts on translation - is there a best English translation of Montaigne? I have a worn, Penguin paperback of selected essays translated by J.M. Cohen. Certainly Montaigne's humanity comes through in this edition as I suspect it would in any competent work. I can't imagine, after reading the essays "On the power of the imagination" and "On presumption", that Montaigne could ever be placed on some unapproachable pedestal called "The Classics"

Michael Dirda: Well, Montaigne is so archetypally human and humane--he is, as I've said before, certainly among the most admirable people who have ever written. His last essay, "On Experience" is one of the great nonfiction reading experiences of a lifetime, while his thoughts on sex are amazingly insightful and modern. I love the fact that you find them in the coyly titled "On Some Lines of Vergil."
There are lots of translations of Montaigne and nearly all of them can be commended in some fashion. John Florio's Renaissance version was read by Shakespeare (who borrowed from it), and is an established classic. Cohen is a good all around French translator and you won't go wrong with him. But two modern versions demand particular attention, as both were done by the most eminent Montaigne scholars of, respectively, this generation and the previous one: Michael Screech is an extremely learned authority on 16th ce-ntury French thought and his version is used in the most recent Penguins. Donald Frame is the author of a standard life of Montaigne and his translation was commended by my favorite literary critic Cyril Connolly. But M's French isn't too hard, and repays the effort. I once spent a semester in college doing a private reading course on M, with a teacher who had studied with Frame and I've always been grateful that it allowed me to read all the essays over a blissful spring semester.


Elkintown: Hi Mr Dirda,
I noticed in today's Post that Philip Roth and Toni Morrison were nominated for a rich literary prize in Ireland. Three questions: what is you're overall assessment of Roth? What is you opinion of the Roths, Updikes, Oates, and Brookners who produce a novel like clockwork once a year; can the books be as good as they possibly could be if they're produced conveyor belt like? Last, what is your opinion on literary prizes in general and on how they are judged? Thanks

Michael Dirda: Ok, here goes. Roth is, I think, a major American writer, amazingly fertile and inventive, from the touching Goodbye Columbus to the sexy Portnoy's Complain to the serene beauty of the Zuckerman trilogy to the wonderful memoir of his father Patrimony to his recent novels, especially AMerican Pastoral. He can be self-indulgent and overly preoccupied with himself, but at his best--he's funny, serious and a joy to read. 2) In general, serious writers are prolific, and the great novelists of the past wrote at least as much, if not more, than Updike or Oates. To have a gift for narrative means that you need to use it, not save it. 3) In general, I think literary prizes are best reserved for the young or the unknown--an award can bring such a writer needed recognition. The big names, like Morrison, don't need the fame or the money. Having been on the boards of various prizes, I also know how serendipitous the whole process can be. Or even nefarious. Trust your own readerly instincts, not those of a prize committee.


Southern MD: I checked "Ahab's Wife" out of the library awhile ago. It's due. Ok, so it's overdue, and I haven't gotten to it yet. Renew and read or just return?

Michael Dirda: Don't know--haven't read this, though I've heard it's interesting.


Alexandria, VA: Any suggestions on a book to improve one's vocabulary?

Michael Dirda: Now, there's a question after my own heart. When I was a kid I read Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, by Wilfred Funk, and I'll bet you can find a copy in the library or second hand bookstore. Also, Dale Carnegie's book on public speaking has some good advice on diction and vocabulary. But I haven't kept up with the modern books in this field--you should browse your local bookstore or library for more on such sesquipedlian matters.


Crofton,MD: What is your favorite Stendhal "The Red and the Black" or "The Charterhouse of Parma"? I think "The Red& the Black" is absolutely magnificent. I've read it twice and still marvel at Stendhal's power.

Michael Dirda: I'm partial to Red and the Black, since I read it at 14, 21 and 30--each time with renewed pleasure and a shifting sense of where Stendhal's sympathies lie. Clearly, though, Madame de Renal is the great Stendhalian heroine. Still, I recognize that the Charterhouse is the greater novel--Gide named it the greatest in French--and I just love the machinations of Comte Mosca and still yearn for a kiss from Gina Sanseverina.


Columbus, Ohio: For someone just beginning to get interested in U.S. history, what do you recommend?

Michael Dirda: Depends on your age, I suppose. But there's an excellent multi-volume survey of Am history called The History of US. It's intended for middle school or high school, but it's a delight to read--a one-woman effort--and is chockablock with anecdotes and pictures. I'm very fond of it. Alternately, you might pick a period and focus on it, reading a lot about say the Civil War. Here, though, is a top of the head list of some major American historians: Clinton Rossiter, James McPherson, Bernard Bailyn, Allan Nevins, Samuel Eliot Morrison, C. Vann Woodward. And dozens more.


Washington, DC: Michael, What is your view of Don Quixote? I've only read Book 1, but I loved it. Are there scholars who see this as a religious parable. "The knight of The Rhueful figure" is in search "for better bread than is made of wheat" -AKA The host, The Body of Christ-. Much of his adventure is spent proving himself worthy for his lady Dulcinea, whom he has never met. He suffers, he starves himself. Well, he gets drunk allot too, but...

What do you think?

Michael Dirda: It's a rich book, so one might be able to read it as a Christian parable. Not that I would particularly. Oddly, it's a book I should love, but for some reason I find I read it more dutifully than I like. Somehow the digressiveness and the sheer familiarity of many of the episodes have put me off a bit. But I don't mind the rambling in Tristram Shandy and I certainly knew most of Hamlet even before I read it, so there may be more to my lack of enthusiasm than I recognize.


Crofton,MD: Have you read Walter Miller? I'm thinking of Canticle for Leibowitz, which I enjoyed although I like Bradbury and Leguin better.

Michael Dirda: Oops, a few last minute questions came in. A Cantilce is a masterpiece of literature and just happens to be science fiction. It was a particular favorite of Walker Percy, who wrote a fine appreciation of the novel. I prefer Miller to Bradbury, and it's a tie with Le Guin.


New York, NY: Hi -- Just wanted to thank you for steering me toward some classic mystery-crime authors. I recently bought Richard Stark's "Backflash" on the strength of your blurb -- something like "Buy this book... you'd be a chump not to."
Thanks again -- reading your columns in the Sunday paper is one of the things I miss about Washington!

Michael Dirda: Glad you like my work. The best Start novels, though, are the early ones: Look for The Hunter, aka Point-Blank (as in the movie, which was remade recently as Payback). ANd don't neglect the hilarious Dortmunder novels by Donald Westlake (Stark's real name), or his savage satires on the way we live now, The Ax and the recent The Hook.
Bye for now.


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