Think of what follows as a guide to good reading, a collection of love letters to favorite books, and an expansion of the canon to include more genre titles, a kind of “Beyond the Lifetime Reading Plan.”As the above excerpt from the introduction indicates, Classics for Pleasure is a collection of brief essays in which Michael Dirda recommends somewhat overlooked classics that he loves. The essays are loosely grouped by genre or theme, and the ground covered includes adventure books, mysteries, fantasy, epics, love stories, humour, philosophy, biographies, horror, traveller’s tales, etc.
Michael Dirda is, after Nick Hornby, my favourite writer of books about books. The reason for this is that regardless of being noticeably erudite and well-read (and a Pulitzer-winning critic) he always sounds simply like an enthusiastic reader addressing another. He comes across like someone I’d love to have coffee with and talk about books for hours. His passion for literature is infectious, and he’s always unpretentious, unsnobbish (why, yes, that is a word), and willing to embrace good books regardless of their genre or supposed respectability. About science fiction, he says: “Science fiction, after all, is a literature that presses hard against all the boundaries, not only those of time and space.” And about two other much-maligned genres:
“Fairy tales describe the main currents of existence; they reveal our secret desires and give us ways to understand the world and our place in it.”Of course, this isn’t always true of mysteries, but he doesn’t mean it dogmatically at all, I don’t think. The only downside of the fact that Classics for Pleasure includes so much genre literature is that for a reader like me, most of these classics were not as obscure as all that. I did add a long list of books to my wishlist (which you can see at the end of this post), but there was a surprising number of them I was already familiar with. I think Dirda’s target audience was more readers who are reluctant to venture outside of the traditional canon at all; readers who, as a result, miss out on some great books. Classics for Pleasure is in many way a plea for those who think that all genre literature is shallow, badly written and a waste of time to leave aside their book snobbery and try it. And in my case, he was preaching to the choir.
“In our lives we often feel ourselves the playthings of fate or the gods, but in the mystery we are comforted by entering a universe where everything, no matter how bizarre or improbably, can be shown to make sense.”
But even if I’ve already read and loved Dracula, Frankenstein, Rebecca, Grimm’s fairy tales (though not all of them yet—must rectify that), Italo Calvino, Edward Gorey, E. Nesbit, Lovecraft, or M.R. James, there were still plenty of books included I hadn’t considered reading before. And plus, reading what Dirda had to say about books I already love was in itself a pleasure.
If Classics for Pleasure has a flaw, it’s the fact that at times Dirda discusses the plots of the books he’s recommending a little more than I’m generally happy with. He always stops short of major spoilers—he’s obviously not one of those critics who look down on people who (gasp!) read for the story—but still. I like going into books knowing as little as possible, and it usually only takes me a sentence or two to decide whether or not the premise appeals to me. After that, I’d rather read the story first-hand. But this is really a minor complaint. And like I said, he’s always careful not to spoil the books for those who haven’t read them before.
Books, short stories and authors added to my wishlist:
- Ivy Compton-Burnett
- “Audun and the Bear” (fairy tale-ish Icelandic saga)
- Steven Millhauser
- “The Venus of Ille” by Prosper Mérimée (which, I now realise, inspired The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers)
- The Box of Delights by John Masefield (I should have listened to Jeanne and read it this Christmas.)
- Walter de la Mare’s ghost stories
- The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Ogg
- Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu
- The Nebuly Coat by John Meade’s Falkner
- “The Eternal Adam” by Jules Verne (and the rest of his stuff too.)
- Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen (more of a reminder, really)
- Georgette Heyer (reminder too)
- Modern Love by George Meredith
- Anna Akhmatova (poetry)
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (again, a much needed reminder).
- Cane by Jean Toomer
- A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
- The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty
- She by H. Rider Haggard
- The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- ”Without Benefit of Clergy” by Rudyard Kipking
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
I’ll leave you with a video of Michael Dirda’s lecture at the Library of Congress last February. Yes, it’s an hour long, but I thought it was very much worth my time. Michael Dirda’s enthusiasm truly is contagious, and he’s as much of a joy to listen to as he is to read.
(Did I miss yours?)