Jan 4, 2010

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

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.”

“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.”
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.

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
Have you read any of these? Would you second Dirda's recommendation?

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.

Reviewed at:
Shelf Love

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Someone failed me as a high school and college student, as I've not read many classics. I'm slowly working on it, but evidenced by how many authors and titles on your list I hadn't even heard of, I've got a way to go! Georgette Heyer is one artist I've had on my radar for awhile. This sounds like a wonderful book to have, and refer back to.

  2. I read my first Dirda book, Book by Book, over Christmas break and I did enjoy his contagious enthusiasm for literature! I now have An Open Book on my library pile waiting to be read.

    I am slowly working on reading through the classics that somehow eluded me in high school and college.

  3. Wow - what a list. I shall definitely have a look at those authors. By the way, a little birdy mentioned it was a special day today, so happy birthday Ana.

  4. ... Grimm’s fairy tales (though not all of them yet—must rectify that) ...

    I picked up a complete anthology of Grimm a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised by it. Those little stories are often closer to horror than any other genre.

  5. I definitely need to get my hands on this book~~ sounds like I'll be adding quite a few new books and authors to by reading list.

  6. I have loved many of the books on your wish list. I strongly recommend Isak Dinesen, however.

    I feel pretty good about my classics reading, not that I've read everything.

  7. I've never heard of this author but he sounds wonderful. Let me just second his recommendation of She (if you feel like something very, very silly) and of course, the Frederick Douglass (if you feel like something very serious). Frederick Douglass is my hero. There was a man who knew about the power of words.

  8. I love books about books and I also love lists, so Dirda is an author I've wanted to read for a while. Glad to hear that you were able to find some new gems to add to your TBR... I think I'd better hold off on this one for now since the last thing I need to be doing is coveting more books! ;)

  9. I love that this book made your wish list grow in such a good way!

  10. Lovely review! This sounds like a book for which I am probably the target audience, and happy to be so. I love Nick Hornby as well, but his tastes seem very close to my own (or close enough), so it sounds like Dirda would definitely help me create a wider list of books in other genres, as that's part of my reading resolutions for the year.

  11. I haven't read a single book from that list (though two do sit on my shelf waiting for "someday")...in fact, I've never heard of most of them! It delights me to no end to hear how much you enjoyed this book...to the wish list it goes...

  12. I love this book! I got to see Michael Dirda at the Texas Book Festival a few years ago and I can't imagine anyone walking out of that talk without wanting to read more of the classics. Glad you enjoyed the book and hope you get to discover more classics!

  13. I haven't read ANY of the books on your list, except for those by Georgette Heyer. Oh, dear. I really need to expand my reading horizons! I did just sign up for a PG Wodehouse book subscription via DailyLit. Also one that should work for Women Unbound. So- here I go, adding MORE books to my overwhelmed schedule :-)

  14. The Man in the High Castle is really really good! It's really super weird too, but in an amazing way. The whole time you are reading it you are trying to figure out what is going on and why the narrator is so dang racist and then everything dawns on you are the result is OMG worthy.

  15. You know, I really liked all the suggestions in Classics for Pleasure, but I still find Dirda's writing style pompous. :p lol I'm glad I have this one on my shelves so I can reference it whenever I want! :)

  16. I'm not at all familiar with Dirda, but you've convinced me that I should be. This sounds like a valuable book. I've always loved reading the classics, even when they were required in school. And even though I don't read a lot of them now, I still read a few and it's rare I meet one I try that I don't like (I'm sure there are plenty I would like out there--I just choose wisely).

    I'll have to look for this book. Thanks for the recommendation, Nymeth.

  17. Thanks for reviewing this, it's going on my list!

    When I was in my teens someone gave me a copy of A.S. Byatt's essay, "Georgette Heyer: an Honorable Escape." The essay was so good it started me reading Heyer. I still read her when I'm in the mood, and she always (mostly always) delivers. A few books read as though she were distracted or even a little grumpy and contemptuous when she wrote them. But it's more amazing that her writing and world-making are so good, given the pressure of her finances and family, than when it falters. Her most "serious" regency romance is A Civil Contract. That one makes the leap from witty entertainment to a real historical novel without losing anything. Might be a good place to start. Or better yet, start with the Byatt essay.

    As for the others, Dinesen is awesome if a bit bilious, and I'm really surprised to see Doyle on the list, as I tried to read some of his longer fiction and was totally embarrassed by how bad it was. Maybe he was having an off book!

    I'm curious: Did Dirda mention George DuMaurier's "Trilby?"

  18. I was thinking, "this sounds so good, I want to read it" UNTIL I saw your new list of wishlist additions. I think I better stay away from it till I make some dents in my previous wish list and TBR pile!

  19. Sandy: I actually haven't either...I'm slowly catching up :P I'll definitely be referring back to this one!

    Molly: Book by Book was my first of his too...so good!

    Vivienne: Thank you so much :D

    Loren Eaton: I got a complete edition too a few years ago, read about half, and then put it aside for some reason or other...I must pick it up again. But yeah, most are pretty close to horror.

    Amanda: Yep, you will :P

    Beth: I've read a few of Dinesen's short stories and clearly have to read more!

    Jenny: The way you always talk about Frederick Douglass definitely makes me want to read him sooner rather than later. Btw, I'm reading Daddy Long-Legs! And oh, I'm in love <3 Thank you for recommending it!

    Steph: lol, it's best to wait in that case, yes :P

    Kathy: As much as I complain, I love it too :P

    Priscilla: I find Nick Hornby's taste quite close to my own as well, other than the fact that he avoids fantasy :P But he did include some of it in Shakespeare Wrote for Money. Anyway, I think you'd enjoy this for sure!

    Debi: I hadn't either - that's the beauty of it! :P

    Iliana: I remember you posting about that! Hearing him talk must be quite an experience :)

    Aarti: Thank you again for the Heyer recommendations :D

    Lu: Wow...now I want to read it SOON.

    Eva: That is so funny! I find him so approachable. We probably have very different definitions of pompous :P

    Wendy: It's all about choosing wisely! Not all classics out there appeal to me, but I love finding overlooked gems.

    Trapunto: I LOVE Byatt and I had no idea she'd written an essay on Heyer! I will definitely look for it. And I don't think he did...I'd probably remember a mention of a DuMaurier :P As for Doyle, I've just finished The Sign of Four and I can see what you mean about his longer fiction. I did enjoy The Hound of the Baskervilles, though.

  20. Jill: lol, yeah :P It's good, but dangerous that way.

  21. My first thought: oh yay! Fun! Must read that! My second thought: oh no, my TBR list is already out of control, I canNOT add this to the list because the list will then grow exopentially out of control!

    But I think I'll keep an eye out for it anyway... :)

  22. I read Man in the High Castle by Dick, and I gotta warn you, the ending is majorly disappointing. I found out later that this is because Dick originally planned to write a sequel, so he purposefully left *a lot* of loose strings. However, he died without writing it, so you'll never ever get to find out what happens.

  23. She & The Lost World. YES! I loved these but then again I am partial to classic adventure stories ;p I loved She so much that I took my blogging pseudonym from it. I really do hope you read it and enjoy it! :D :D

    I need to search for this book-- I am hoping they have it at the library.

  24. It's been awhile since I read a good book about books. I started Reading Like a Writer awhile ago, but never got into it. This one sounds really good though -- I like a lot of the classics you mentioned in this post.

  25. Ana this book looks absolutely delicious!

  26. I'm so glad you enjoyed this! It did quite a number on my TBR list too. My additions overlapped a bit with yours (Ivy Compton-Burnett, Georgette Heyer, and She all made my list.)

    The only book on your list that I've read was The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It was for a Gothic novel class back in college, long enough ago that I don't remember many details, just that it was a crazy ride--and that I was reading "trashy" novels for a grade.

  27. I saw that video of Michael Dirda somewhere else, but you're right--his enthusiasm is infectious!! Of the works on your list, I have only read Anna Akhmatova (recommend translation by Stanley Kunitz & Max Hayward, but suspect you can't go wrong), who is wonderful. I think I must be Dirda's target audience for this book...is that good or bad???

  28. Well, here is another book to add to my pile!!! I can say happily that I have read Anna Akhmatova (poetry) and some of it is powerful. Lots of interesting books here, so I'm definitely looking forward to reading this book. I think I might have read some of Walter De la mare's ghost stories a long time ago, too. Thanks for this post, Nymeth!

  29. I recently checked this out too. I also enjoyed it. I didn't read it cover to cover because I soon realized what you found out: that he reveals lots oft he plots for the books he recommends. Instead, I flipped around here and there, reading ones that sounded interesting or that I've already read and skimming introductions for others. It was great! I got lots of ideas for the Classics Circuit!

  30. Oh boy, I enjoy reading Dirda's books. :D

  31. Daphne: lol, yep, that would happen :P

    Amanda: Oh no! Thank you for the warning. That's so frustrating :\

    She: I wondered if that was where you got your name! I've really got to read it :)

    Kim, I hope you enjoy it!

    Christina - it is :D

    Teresa: I'm surprised I had never considered reading the James Ogg book before! I love classic Gothic novels, but that had never made it into my radar-

    ds: I don't think it's bad! I think we all need a nudge to be more adventurous readers sometimes, even if in different directions. It's so easy to stay in our own cosy familiar literary worlds.

    Susan: You're most welcome! I'm happy to hear that Anna Akhmatova also has the Susan stamp of approval :D

    Rebecca: I was actually tempted to skim too when he went on for too long about the plot, which never happens to me! But there was plenty to love still.

    Alice: You and me both :D I want to read them all!

  32. I love books about books and this one seems like something I definitely need to get a look at. I am very behind on my classics reading, which is something I hope to address this year, and I think this book would be a perfect way to help that! I am glad that you enjoyed it so much and look forward to diving in myself!


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