All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.
BOUND TO PLEASE: ESSAYS ON GREAT WRITERS AND THEIR BOOKS by Michael Dirda:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/01/2005]
Michael Dirda's BOUND TO PLEASE: ESSAYS ON GREAT WRITERS AND THEIR BOOKS (ISBN 0-393-05757-7) is a collection of some of his book reviews from 1978 to 2003. One of things worth noting is that Dirda does not review only "literary" fiction or non-fiction. He includes an entire section of "Serious Entertainers" (Vernon Lee, Avram Davidson, Terry Pratchett, and a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs), as well as an appendix of a basic reading list of science fiction. Lest you think this is just setting up a "ghetto" for this, I'll point out that Dirda includes Philip Pullman's THE AMBER SPYGLASS in his "Writers of Our Time" section.
One problem from a reader's perspective is that this is not a good book to read from the library. There are probably close to a hundred reviews here, and after many of them you will want to stop, think about it, go out and find the book(s) discussed, and read them before going on to the next review. Given the usual lending periods of most libraries, this will not be possible. (Of course, from the writer's perspective, this just means that people are more likely to buy the book.) Obviously this was less of a problem when the reviews first appeared, one a week, in the Washington Post. (I've already added works by Fernando Pessoa, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Iain Sinclair, as well as Tyndale's translation of the Bible.)
To order Bound to Please from amazon.com, click here.
BROWSINGS by Michael Dirda:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/01/2016]
BROWSINGS by Michael Dirda (ISBN 978-1-60598-844-3) is a delight to read. Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post and other publications, and is an unabashed science fiction fan. Consider that besides all the mentions of science fiction books and authors he makes in general (and not just those few know to the general public), in the essay "Text Mess" he describes consulting E. F. Bleiler's GUIDE TO SUPERNATURAL FICTION, John Clute (whom he calls "our greatest living critic of science fiction and fantasy"), and L. W. Currey ("the leading American dealer in first-edition science fiction, fantasy, and horror").
The icing on the cake, of course, is his essay "Readercon" all about, well, Readercon: what it is, why he attends it every year, who else attends it, and so on. Most "serious" critics would never admit to attending a science fiction convention--Dirda writes a column positively glorying in it. He later also talks about attending Capclave and a Discworld convention, and has a lovely story about "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction".
He also is willing to give "popular fiction" its due, and describes two courses he has taught at the University of Maryland, "The Classic Adventure Novels: 1885-1915" and "The Modern Adventure Novel: 1917-1973". The reading lists are:
(Indeed, he writes in a column towards the end how he wishes he could get an advance to write a book about "The Great Age of Storytelling": "the amazing flowering of popular fiction in England and elsewhere from roughly 1860 to 1930." And in a postscript written for the book, he reveals that he did indeed find a publisher and is hoping the book, under that title, will appear in 2016.)
It's not a book to check out from the library, though, unless you want to copy down dozens and dozens of book titles that you really must look for...
To order Browsings from amazon.com, click here.
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE by Michael Dirda:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/14/2007]
And as I was still reading this, I found CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE by Michael Dirda (ISBN-13 978-0-15-101251-0, ISBN-10 0-151-01251-2). This is Dirda's fifth book of essays about classics, so by this point the classic are not quite as classic as you might expect. On the other hand, Dirda does cover some more "popular" authors, such as Agatha Christie, Philip K. Dick, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The real problem I had is by the time I got to this book, the last thing I needed was more recommendations of books to read.
To order Classics for Pleasure from amazon.com, click here.
ON CONAN DOYLE by Michael Dirda:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/27/2012]
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and columnist, and very much known in mainstream circles. So it is a delightful surprise to discover that ON CONAN DOYLE by Michael Dirda (ISBN 978-0-691-15135-9) begins with the sentence: "Sometime in the mid-1990s I was lucky enough to interview Robert Madle, a dealer in science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines, as well as a member of First Fandom, the now much-diminished group--never large--of those piply teens who attended the inaugural 1939 World Science Fiction Convention." How often does one see a mainstream critic who knows about Robert Madle, First Fandom, or even the World Science Fiction Convention, and is willing to admit it, and write about them?
This is not a biography of Doyle, but rather a series of essays about various aspects of Doyle and his writing. Dirda is a fan, both of Doyle and of "boys'" fiction in general. He talks lovingly of buying books through a school book club in the late 1950s, of discovering G. K. Chesterton in the "Junior Catholic Messenger" and Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu in Hills Department Store.
And every book collector can identify with his early discovery, "Little did I know then that book collecting is less about acquiring books than about finding the shelf space to store them." This is a wonderful book for lovers of Sherlock Holmes, and of books in general.
To order On Conan Doyle from amazon.com, click here.
AN OPEN BOOK by Michael Dirda:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/21/2005]
AN OPEN BOOK by Michael Dirda (ISBN 0-393-05756-9) is an autobiography of sorts, covering his life through college and focusing on his reading. Growing up in a working-class town sometimes made his reading difficult--of trying to write an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he writes, "Because the Lorain [Ohio] libraries didn't carry much Enlightenment philosophy--there wasn't, apparently, a lot of demand for it--I rode my bike to the Elyria Public Library (eight or so miles), . . ." He also talks about convincing his parents to spend $400 for the "Great Books" by telling them he would then win the $500 third prize for the essay contest and they would be ahead $100, and his school would get a free set to boot. They do--and he does! Not only that, but three of his sisters eventually do as well! (The third actually won the second prize of $1000, and got to keep the books donated to the school: "At that point, the school didn't really want any more "Great Books".) I'm not sure that younger readers will remember that there was a time when there was not a book superstore in every town and amazon.com for the places in between, but a boy had to ride his bike to the drugstore that had a wire rack of books, or the fact that the only places for used books were the local thrift shops. (Well, we may be back to the latter.) For those who remember those times, though, it will be wonderfully nostalgic.
To order An Open Book from amazon.com, click here.
READINGS: ESSAYS AND LITERARY ENTERTAINMENTS by Michael Dirda:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/20/2017] As READINGS: ESSAYS AND LITERARY ENTERTAINMENTS by Michael Dirda (ISBN 978-0-393-32489-3) once again proves, Dirda may be a reviewer for a major newspaper (the "Washington Post"), but he is also an unapologetic science fiction fan. He talks about reading TARZAN THE UNTAMED in a department store at age 13 because he could not afford to buy it. He also says things like:
"Some title are so good one hardly need the book: e.g., H. P. Lovecraft"s long poem 'Fungi from Yuggoth', ..."
[After describing how he found a book signed twice by its owner, Paul A. Linebarger] "Interesting, yes, but exciting only when you realize that Linebarger wrote, under the pen name Cordwainer Smith, some of the greatest science fiction stories of all time. Look for 'Scanners Live in Vain,' 'The Game of Rat and Dragon," and "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell."
"Among the best novels of the past twenty years is Russell Hoban's RIDDLEY WALKER. ... One of the funniest, most well-written books of the '80s is John Sladek's satire of robots and modern life, TIK-TOK."
"I once thought it would be fun to construct a horror story about what happens when Miskatonic University, in an effort to save money, decides to deaccession the NECRONOMICON, that handbook to all things foul and eldritch by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred."
And his chapter titles include "Childhood's End", "The October Country", and "Light of Other Days".
Though Helene Hanff (84 CHARING CROSS ROAD) and Michael Dirda would probably have not agreed on too many books (Hanff preferred older English essayists while Dirda seems to favor 20th century novels), one gets the same sense of a love of books and reading from both of them.
To order Readings from amazon.com, click here.