Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So Many Books, So Little Time

Classics for Pleasure
by Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda is my literary hero. This guy has to be the most well read person on the planet. Many of you may be familiar with his work as a book reviewer for the Washington Post. I look forward to his reviews every week, and thoroughly enjoyed his memoir An Open Book several years ago. It was his review of the latest translation of War and Peace that inspired me to take on that challenge, and now I have a deep love for Tolstoy's work. So, even though I have never met Michael Dirda, I feel like I owe him a lot for expanding my biblio-horizons.

Classics for Pleasure is a collection of essays about the works of various treasured writers, some more obscure than others. The point of the collection, as Dirda expresses in the brief introduction, is to help the reader to see that there is great joy to be found in reading the classics. Many of us run from them, because our only association with serious literature is a teacher making us read it and cough up a paper on it. It takes us awhile to get it that classics have gained that label for a reason, the reason most often being that it is really good stuff. Dirda's essays give us a foretaste of the works themselves, but also biographical tidbits about the authors, the culture in which the books were written, and each particular author's relationship with and influence on the other literature of the time. It is all really interesting, and Dirda's writing is so beautiful he could write directions for microwaving frozen food and the words would sing. It is impossible to relate all the writers whom Dirda discusses, but they go all the way back to antiquity and reach mid-to-late 20th century. The list includes Sappho, the Bible, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Voltaire, and Willa Cather. There are scores of others who are less well known. Many many of them I want to read on my own and explore further. Others, not so much.

In his introduction, Dirda encourages the reader to pick up Classics for Pleasure and read a couple of essays at a time, and to skip around. I read it straight through, but I think the way he suggests would be better. It is the type of book meant to be enjoyed in small doses, and the reader should take time to reflect on the essays afterward. Otherwise, Dirda's excellent information and inspiring literary canon get all jumbled up in the reader's head. I can see myself going back to this collection over and over again, but just one or two essays at a time, the better to enjoy and retain them.

Reverent Reader


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