“Michael Dirda is the best-read person in America. But he doesn’t rub it in.” Michael Kinsley
I agree with Kinsley, presuming to suggest that the same can be said of Joseph Epstein and John Sutherland. All three possess exceptional erudition and have much of great value to say about the “classics” and about those who created them throughout literary history. What a delight it would be to join them for an evening that begins with beverages of choice, continues through a delicious seven-course dinner, followed by several hours of lively conversation in a study with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books and a substantial but sedate fire in an immense stone fireplace. Yes, at least in my dreams….
Since childhood, I have cherished books as “magic carpets” by which to visit human experiences that would not have otherwise been accessible to me. The ten-year siege of Troy, for example, and then Odysseus’ ten-year return voyage to Ithaca as well as the Italian Renaissance (and Dante), the Age of Elizabeth (and Shakespeare), and more recently, Hawthorne’s New England, Dickens’ London, Twain’s Mississippi, and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
More often than not, I am reading and/or re-reading three or four books at any one time and that was the situation recently when accompanying Dirda, Epstein, and Sutherlnd, during their explorations of great literature in the several of the books they have written thus far.
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In this volume, Dirda organizes his material within eleven thematic chapters when sharing his thoughts about the work of about 90 authors. Here are the themes and subject(s) of greatest interest to me:
Playful Imaginations (including Jaroslav Hašek and S.J. Perelman)
Heroes of Their Time (Christopher Marlowe)
Love’s Mysteries (Anna Akhmatova)
Words from the Wise (Lao-tse)
Everyday Magic (The Classic Fairy Tales)
Lives of Consequence (Frederick Douglass and W.H. Auden)
The Dark Side (Mary Shelley)
Traveler’s Tales (Thomas More and Isak Dinesen)
The Way We Live Now (Petronius and Anton Chekhov)
Realms of Adventure (Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett)
Encyclopedic Visions (Edward Gibbon and André Malraux)
Please allow a personal digression. I am among those who previously knew nothing about several of the authors and works discussed. This, I think, is a value-added benefit for book lovers because Dirda has identified possible candidates for future consideration. I once took a graduate-level course in 17th century English literature at the University of Chicago and was assigned to read portions of a major work written by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenets, and Commonly Presumed Truths) whose title refers to the prevalence of false beliefs and “vulgar errors.” Browne was someone whose relentless curiosity took him off the proverbial “beaten path” of the given status quo — the road frequently taken, received wisdom — to explore new ideas and new ideas about ideas that comprised what was then characterized by Francis Bacon as “the new learning.”
I thought of Browne as I worked my way through Dirda’s material. Those who read Dirda’s books may not learn anything that is new but much (most?) of what they learn will be new to them because – like Browne – he explored, he observed, and he then shared. He enables others to read classics for greater pleasure. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay to him.
The passport provided by Dirda enabled me to reconnect with some old friends but I was also able to make several new ones. (I read the book cover-to-cover, then hopped around a bit.) It remains for other readers to select their own “journeys” from among the choices offered. I do presume to offer one piece of advice: Do not pass on those who are unfamiliar or at least are assumed to be of little (if any) interest. I experienced a number of pleasant surprises that added even more the value of this book to me. Bon voyage!
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Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book and Classics for Pleasure. He was born in Lorain, Ohio, graduated with highest honors in English from Oberlin College, and received a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. Also, it should be noted that, since 2002, he has been an invested member of the Baker Street Irregulars. I urge you to check out his Amazon page.