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Booked Up

A critic's anthology of literary bliss.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By JOHN SIMON
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Classics for Pleasure

by Michael Dirda

Harcourt, 352 pp., $25

Back in 1486, when books were scarce, 23-year-old Pico de la Mirandola could declare himself de omni re scibili magister, master of everything knowable. In those quattrocento days, if you were a prodigy like Pico, it was just barely possible. Almost 400 years later, in 1865, Stephane Mallarme began his lovely poem Brise marine ("Sea Breeze") with, "The flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books," but that surely was poetic hyperbole.

Now comes Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure, brief essays about books Dirda considers essential, or just a tiny bit less essential than those he wrote about in a couple of previous collections. As you read these delightful mini-essays, two-to-five pages long, most of them full of glancing references to other books besides their subjects, you may well conclude that Dirda has indeed read everything worth reading.

To be sure, as a former editor for the Washington Post's Book World, and its subsequent book columnist (excellent in both capacities), he had and has the advantage of making reading both his leisure pursuit and his work, his predilection and his livelihood. Even so, how many people nowadays can lay claim to such productive ambidextrousness? Offhand, only one candidate leaps to mind, John Updike--not a bad fellow to share a bracket with. Extensive reading and lively writing about it are not usually Siamese twins; in Dirda, though, they are. Moreover, in these tightly-packed pieces, Dirda may tell you, if his authors wrote in English, which of various editions is the best; if in other languages, how different translations compare. Reading him you feel as trusting as a backseat rider driven by a master chauffeur.

There are 88 pieces in the book: Eighty-three about individual writers, one about a pair (E. Nesbit and John Masefield), four about groups of writings (Icelandic sagas, Arthurian romances, the English religious tradition, classic fairy tales). And in the pieces about single authors, Dirda usually writes about several of their books, if not indeed their entire oeuvre. Though writers in English preponderate, there are plenty from all ages and in all sorts of languages and genres. His four oldest subjects are Lao-tse, Heraclitus, Sappho, and Lucian; his four most recent, Philip K. Dick, Eudora Welty, Italo Calvino, and Edward Gorey, which should clue you in that every genre, from philosophy to science fiction, from belles letters to whimsy, is grist for this omnivorous mill.

In his brief introduction, Dirda explains that classics are not boring pensums deemed good for you, but books that are a pleasure to read, and have, in many cases, been so for centuries. "Sappho's heartache is that of anyone who has ever been hopelessly in love. Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel starkly reveals both the horror and exhilaration of war. The Book of Common Prayer reliably comforts us in times of sorrow, uplifts us in times of celebration." And further, he writes, "my approach is that of a passionate reader rather than a critic or scholar. I love the Icelandic sagas and Thomas Love Peacock's 'conversation' novels and the poetry of C.P. Cavafy, and I want you to love them, too."

Rather than reiterate the merits of a Shakespeare or Dickens, he takes you along less-traveled but equally scenic and adventurous routes: Rider Haggard's She, Jean Toomer's Cane, G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk. Also the poetry of George Meredith and Anna Akhmatova, the fantastic tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann and H.P. Lovecraft, and the novels of Eca de Queiros, Jules Verne, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. He explains his choices persuasively: his love of great stories, exciting poems, and humanist philosophies. (Among the latter he includes Spinoza, whom I find unreadable.) And he explains why some favorites are not in Classics for Pleasure--Isaac Babel, Ford Madox Ford, and Colette--because they are in his previous collections.

Be it said here that the little essays are equal fun whether you know their subjects or not. If you don't, they will easily entice you into reading the authors discussed; if you do, you will be stimulated by Dirda's fresh outlook into rereading them. As pleasing as the works they promulgate, the essays, thematically grouped, are a true smorgasbord for the mind--or rather, hors d'oeuvres so tasty that you can't wait for the oeuvres.

The writing is always plain yet pungent, sometimes inspired, and wearing its erudition as lightly as a pair of lived-in pajamas:

Cavafy is primarily an elegist, capable of recalling with equal emotion the touch of a hand and the fall of an empire, of memorializing both the carnal favorites of ancient Antioch and the perfect limbs of the dirty young blacksmith down the street. To this Greek living in Egypt among Arabs and British colonials the world appears as a palimpsest: When Cavafy looks at Alexandria, he glimpses, beneath the blandness of a modern urban wasteland, the playground of youthful gods.

Again:

If reading the Victorians may be likened to devouring a rich Christmas feast, reading [Prosper] Merimee is like sipping a dry Martini--cold, bracing, and delicious. Be warned however: His characters may be primitive or exotic people, but that only means that they are stripped of the meretricious veneer of so much polite society. As a result, they reveal our most primal fears and secret desires with heartless and dreadful clarity.

Or this tribute to Switzerland's Jacob Burckhardt:

Even though Burckhardt was to make his name as a historian of the Italian Renaissance, he was an equally notable authority on the culture of ancient Greece and the reign of Byzantium's Constantine the Great. In those days, many scholars refused to confine their efforts to some narrow field of specialization; in fact, they ranged across subjects with the swagger of adventurers, soldiers of fortune, condottieri."

Also:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." With these unforgettable words the reader is launched into one of the most powerful visions of .  .  . what? Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a far more complex work of art than commonly believed, being one of the half dozen greatest romance novels of the century and a subtle undercutting of the whole romance genre. It is simultaneously a devastating examination of the sexual politics of marriage, a haunting study of jealousy and psychological obsession, and a classic of suspense.

For such good offices I am almost willing to forgive Dirda's little lapses: "Disinterest" (for uninterest), "a novel like this" (for this one), "the military tribunal Scipio Africanus" (for tribune), and Ovid's famous "Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor" transmogrified into "Video melora proque deteriora sequor." But I must stop now, and go off in search of Dirda's no-doubt equally pleasurable earlier collections.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.