So many books, so little time, and, worst of all, so little space. It is a privilege to write for The Washington Post every week, particularly given my eclectic — some would say eccentric — tastes. Yet for every title I review, there are a half dozen I would like to cover and cannot. I am allocated roughly 950 words each Thursday, and that is it. As a result, the To Be Read stacks on my nightstand and around my desk resemble Mesopotamian ziggurats.
This spring, for instance, brought at least four excellent books about books. The enviably multilingual Alberto Manguel — author of the sweeping “A History of Reading” — reflects on his peripatetic life in Packing My Library (Yale). Burkhard Spinnen’s The Book: An Homage (Godine) collects 40 charmingly personal mini-essays on such topics as “the favorite book,” “the stolen book” and “the annotated book.” Stuart Kells’s more scholarly The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders (Counterpoint) tracks the history of that greatest of all cultural institutions, and James Raven’s What Is the History of the Book? (Polity) surveys contemporary approaches to the study of books as physical objects.
Friends and acquaintances often mail me packages stamped “printed matter.” Toronto bookseller David Mason hoped I would read Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit (Anansi), a survey of modern Canadian writing: Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood are just the start. Back when I worked as an editor at Book World, I could always count on Linda Barrett Osborne to review anything well. For old time’s sake, Linda sent me American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow (University of Chicago), a study of 20th-century church architecture by her accomplished daughter Catherine R. Osborne, whom I once met when she was a toddler. My former Post colleague Ken Ringle recently gave me his Carl Hiaasen-like comic novel, Squeeze Play (CreateSpace), accurately subtitled “A Sultry Tale of Drugs, Drones, Jello Wrestling and Burmese Pythons in the Greater Everglades.” So, too, Noel Epstein, former managing editor of Outlook, recently dropped off Miracle Child (Academic Studies Press), a memoir by his wife, Anita Epstein, described as “The Journey of a Young Holocaust Survivor.” One small detail: Anita Epstein was seriously auditioned for the starring role in the 1959 film “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
For me, there is considerable nostalgia in Rosemarie Beck: Letters to a Young Painter and Other Writings, edited by Eric Sutphin (Soberscove). A figurative artist with a penchant for mythological themes, Beck was a close friend of writer Bernard Malamud and painter Philip Guston — as well as being the formidable, no-nonsense wife of my literary mentor Robert Phelps. The Hirshhorn now owns her 1959 “Portrait of Robert,” reproduced in this little book. I first got to know this glamorous artistic couple when I was just a dewy-eyed English major at Oberlin College. Visiting my alma mater recently, I met DeSales Harrison , head of the creative writing program, and naturally took away a copy of his new novel The Waters and the Wild (Random House), a literary thriller about a psychoanalyst, elegantly told and layered with multiple twists and deceptions. Just my sort of book.
Phelps treasured all the personalia of the literary life, especially diaries and letters, and so do I. In A Bountiful Harvest (Waywiser) editor Philip Hoy has gathered the decades-long correspondence of poet Anthony Hecht and architectural historian William L. MacDonald. Gossipy and funny, the letter-writers compete in coming up with recondite or punning names for themselves — Fritz of Cappadocia, Mel Kizzadeck, Onopodius of Nicea, Marshall Law, Calypso, Countess von Klattensmund-Hallensmund. Any admirer of Hecht — among the half dozen greatest American poets of the past half century — will want to own this delight-filled book.
Few letters, though, can be more entertaining than Flannery O’Connor’s, many of which are quoted in Patrick Samway’s Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux: A Publishing Partnership (Notre Dame), which offers a close-up history of how this highly original writer’s fiction was discovered, published and promoted. Comparably intimate, and a treat for readers who follow the ongoing soap opera of French intellectual life, is Catherine Millot’s Life With Lacan (Polity). Did you know Jacques Lacan, the most celebrated psychoanalyst of his time, used to carry a set of brass knuckles?
Being half Russian, I have naturally read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, but only because of The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature (Dedalus), edited by Peter Karpinsky, am I now learning a little about the maternal side of my heritage. Just murmuring the names of these authors — Jozef Hronsky, Gejza Vamos, Rudolf Sloboda — makes me feel I am back at a church picnic in Lorain, Ohio. If I were, some slightly drunk uncle might interrupt his card game to tell stories to the little kids about Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan or Rosie the Riveter, all featured in Edward McClellan’s convivial Folktales and Legends of the Middle West (Belt).
Among my chums in the Baker Street Irregulars — the Sherlockian literary society founded in the 1930s — is the actor Curtis Armstrong, whose wry memoir Revenge of the Nerd (St. Martin’s) naturally includes a chapter about playing Tom Cruise’s friend Miles in the film “Risky Business.” That same phrase could easily serve as an alternate title to Gary Hoppenstand’s Perilous Escapades (McFarland). Subtitled “Dimensions of Popular Adventure Fiction,” the book gathers this eminent scholar’s introductions to 13 tales of swashbuckling and derring-do, ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow” to Elizabeth Peters’s “The Last Camel Died at Noon.”
Okay, enough about armchair adventures. It is spring. when yardwork demands the last full measure of devotion. Still, maybe I will gain some inspiration from Barbara Paul Robinson’s excellent Heroes of Horticulture: Americans Who Transformed the Landscape (Godine), a lavishly illustrated set of biographical essays on gardeners, plant explorers and conservationists. My late colleague, Henry Mitchell, who wrote The Post’s gruffly opinionated and endearing “Earthman” column, would have loved it.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.