[Paleopsych] New Criterion: Summer reading by Stefan Beck

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Summer reading by Stefan Beck
The New Criterion Vol. 23, No. 23, December 2004

[Why Summer reading is coming in December, I do not know.]

    The sortes Virgilianae is an old form of do-it-yourself divination:
    you open the Aeneid at random, put a finger on a verse, and therein
    find wisdom or solace tailored to your troubles. For the bored or
    "blocked" man of letters, Michael Dirda's collection Bound to Please
    has a similarly tonic effect. It includes a hundred-odd of Dirda's
    reviews--of books, yes, but also of the minds behind the books. Pick
    one at random. Depending on whether you know the work discussed,
    you'll receive a thoughtful reconsideration or, perhaps more fun, an
    enthusiastic introduction.

    Michael Dirda has reviewed books for The Washington Post Book World
    since 1978. Bound to Please represents, by Dirda's account, 20 percent
    of his output. This is an impressive amount of writing; it is the
    result of a downright alarming amount of reading. (When did he eat,
    sleep, or bathe?) He was spurred not by penury and deadlines but by
    his love of words. His first review, two hundred words on John
    Gardner's In the Suicide Mountains, took him a full day to write. "No
    prose since that on Trajan's column," he writes, "has been so
    carefully chiseled."

    Every reviewer loves to read and write, or says he does, but Dirda's
    joyful monomania goes beyond that, and it is a rare and wonderful
    thing. It's infectious. If literary reading is on the decline, as the
    NEA's recent "Reading at Risk" survey solemnly announced it is, Bound
    to Please ought to be required summer reading for high school
    students. One cannot browse in it without wanting to rush to a used
    bookstore and shell out for a stack. (I, for one, will be reading my
    wages at the Strand come next month. Thank you, Mr. Dirda.)

    Dirda is a great guide, a Virgil leading both novice and experienced
    readers on a tour of his own Reader's Paradise. His collection,
    promising to be a "literary education," moves effortlessly from age to
    age, style to style, genius to genius. Sections like "Romantic
    Dreamers," "Visionaries and Moralists," "Lovers, Poets, and Madmen,"
    and "Writers of Our Time" organize this delightful embarrassment of

    In "Old Masters," the first section, we find Herodotus, Ovid, and the
    Bible. There are surprises, too: an appreciation of the Bible is
    followed by an essay on William Tyndale, "the first translator, into
    English, of the New Testament from the Greek and of about half the Old
    Testament from the Hebrew." We miss Shakespeare, but shake hands with
    Christopher Marlowe, brawler, spy, and playwright-poet--by way of
    Anthony Burgess's Dead Man in Deptford. In a review of Robert Irwin's
    Arabian Nights: A Companion, we are tantalized with the following:

      Most of us, I suspect, know The Arabian Nights only from the
      simplified, bowdlerized versions found in the nursery. So to read
      the unexpurgated tales can be a revelation. First of all, they are
      quite exceptionally gripping. Two illicit lovers try desperately to
      convince a murderous demon that they are strangers to each other.
      The monster turns to the man and says, "`Take this sword and strike
      her head off, and I will believe that you do not know her and let
      you go free.' I replied, `I will do it,' and I took the sword and
      sprang toward her."

    In bits like this one, Dirda seizes upon one of the great rewards of
    reading: the odd scene or detail that lodges itself unshakably in the
    reader's imagination. Bound to Please is filled with such details; it
    whets one's appetite for them. Thus is Pepys's frenzied lechery evoked
    in one delightful, albeit barely intelligible, quotation: "mi mano was
    sobra her pectus, and so did hazer with grand delight." (Next thing
    you know, you're groping your shelves for a copy of his Diaries.) The
    ending of Borges's story "The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths," in
    which a vengeful Arab king leaves his Babylonian enemy to die in the
    vast "labyrinth" of the desert, conjures up in a single paragraph the
    writer's marvelous, byzantine imagination. Dirda is an expert at
    picking out these little reminders of why we love the writers we love
    to read.

    None of this is to say that Dirda focuses narrowly on literature as
    entertainment. His reviews are informed not only by his enjoyment, but
    also by stores of historical and critical knowledge. It is no small
    thing that almost every review of a foreign-language work includes a
    discussion of those translations considered best, and those to be
    avoided. (Dirda's review of Donald Frame's translation of the Complete
    Works of François Rabelais, for instance, dilates on the relative
    merits of four other translations. Can he really have read all of

    A four-page piece on Proust draws on a staggering wealth of materials:
    a biography by Jean-Yves Tadié, a volume of Proust's letters, a "field
    guide" by Roger Shattuck, and an abridgment of A Remembrance of Things
    Past. Dirda, even in a brief essay, manages some sweeping gestures of

      To those who respond to his sinuous prose--and many people
      don't--there is no more powerful hypnotic drug in all literature.
      In Search of Lost Time is no mere novel; it is a world, a universe
      that alternately expands into every layer of society and then
      contracts back into the Narrator's consciousness. Its author once
      compared his masterpiece to The Arabian Nights. But the book might
      also be likened to a modern Metamorphoses, for it depicts both
      public and personal life as restless, uncertain, and disheartening,
      a domain of constant transformation, of unceasing flux and shocking

    This is proof of Dirda's discipline, dedication, and craftsmanship.
    Few reviewers would take in so much to produce such short pieces. For
    Dirda, it's business as usual: he reads to discover, to add to the
    critical tools at his command. And anyone who raises a skeptical
    eyebrow at that abridgment of Proust should be advised: "During that
    gray and rainy fall of [Dirda's] junior year in college, [he] read
    Proust steadily for five, six, eight hours a day." It seems Dirda has
    heeded Balzac's dictum--noted in the introduction to the section
    titled "Professionals at Work"--that "[c]onstant work is the law of
    art as it is of life."

    Dirda's reviews please, as promised, but do they rise to the level of
    a permanent artistic contribution? Bound to Please is intelligent,
    comprehensive, and so indispensable to anyone who craves a real
    literary education. There's just one thing: it doesn't contain a
    single negative review. Not even any faint praise, really. On the
    first page of his introduction, Dirda explains, "By only the loosest
    definition ... can the contents of Bound to Please be regarded as
    criticism. Instead, think of these articles as old-fashioned
    appreciations, a fan's notes, good talk."

    So we have been warned. But simply pointing out a flaw doesn't correct
    it, and the total absence of vitriol from these pages is a flaw. After
    five-hundred-plus pages of loving praise, one yearns for nothing so
    much as Dale Peck's savage, occasionally foul-mouthed hatchet jobs, or
    James Wood's precise dismantlings. One wants to see clay feet in
    pieces. After all, to be educated is to be able to sniff out garbage
    as well as genius. Alas, Bound to Please cannot help one cultivate
    that discriminating nose.

    Hand in hand with this deficiency is Dirda's sometimes somewhat hokey
    literary populism. He writes, "Bound to Please will, I hope, encourage
    its readers to look beyond the boundaries of the fashionable,
    established, or academic. No cultivated person today should be
    hamstrung by unthinking prejudices about fantasy, crime fiction, or
    the literature of other times and places." (It is difficult to see
    where "the literature of other times and places" fits into that
    caveat, but we will let that be.) Preoccupation with low culture is
    fashionable and academic. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote of his distaste
    for professors who feign love for detective fiction. (He himself
    derided the genre as formulaic.) The point is not really whether there
    is good detective fiction, or fantasy, or sci-fi--certainly there is,
    on all counts--but that noisily proclaiming so is just a means of
    looking like a broad-minded literary omnivore, or, worse yet, a "man
    of the people."

    Can a man of Dirda's intellect really desire any of this? Does he
    truly want to write for "the semimythical common reader ... one who is
    sleepily flipping through the newspaper while sipping coffee on a
    Sunday morning"? Anyone who has devoted as much of his life to reading
    and study as Dirda has might reasonably prefer a reader with some of
    the mental equipment to appreciate that learning. Yet he is content to
    dwell in his Joe Paperback persona.

    That persona grates at times. Many of these reviews, no matter how
    deep their critical insight or thorough their research, end with
    embarrassing lines like: "You laugh, you get dizzy, you lose your
    bearings or even your lunch. But what a ride!" or "You gotta love a
    book like that!" or (of a study of the eighteenth-century "Lunar Men")
    "Start reading some night when the moon is full" or "What a love
    story! What a book!" Conclusions like these are lazy; they seem meant
    to distract that "common reader" from the uncommon brilliance of what
    he has just read--so that he scratches his head and says, "Gee, I
    guess he's just a reg'lar sorta feller, like me." There is something
    frightfully self-conscious, and yet un-self-confident, about this

    The problem is: one tends to be suspicious of a critic to whom this
    chipper positivity comes so easily. There are bad or overrated writers
    in what we think of as the "canon." Even the writers we love best
    stumble at times. Coming to grips with this is a necessary step in
    one's development as a reader, but Bound to Please doesn't adequately
    hint at it. It seems to say: Read, enjoy yourself, and you will have
    become a Reader. But Dirda doesn't believe that, does he?

    All told, however, none of these shortcomings ever quite overshadows
    the collection's fine points. It is a thorough and beautifully written
    document of the great pleasure reading can bring. So it makes one want
    to read, and to read a great variety of things--literature, history,
    poetry, commentary, and on and on. This encouragement by example
    should be welcomed by both new and veteran page-turners.

    Stefan Beck is the assistant editor at The New Criterion.


    1. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393057577/thenewcriterio
    2. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/ADD_ISBN_HERE/thenewcriterio

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