In Search of a Good Read?

By McAlpin, Heller | The Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 2007 | Go to article overview

In Search of a Good Read?


McAlpin, Heller, The Christian Science Monitor


Michael Dirda, a longtime book critic for the Washington Post, is such an enthusiastic reader that his column alone cannot contain his literary effusions. Classics for Pleasure is the fifth volume he's produced to catch the spillover, following, among others, "Bound to Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books" and "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments."

Critics are usually so caught up reviewing the next new book that old favorites are read on the sly, like candy bars sneaked in during a diet. Tried-and-true volumes provide not only comfort but also a yardstick against which the constant barrage of contemporary works can be measured. Does a book amuse? Scintillate? Resonate? Break new ground? Does it have staying power?

Recognizing that classics have gotten a bad name from deadly school assignments, Dirda starts out somewhat defensively. He asserts that "Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century." Fearing that if he'd arranged his book chronologically, readers might skip the older stuff, he instead relies on 11 categories, such as "Playful Imagination," "Loves Mysteries," "Traveler's Tales," and "The Dark Side," enabling readers to zero in on the types of books they prefer.

More significantly, Dirda refrains from rounding up the usual suspects (Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy). Instead, there are plenty of unfamiliar names (Jean Toomer, H. Rider Haggard, Sheridan Le Fanu) and some less highbrow surprises (Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Philip K. Dick). Dirda explains, "It seemed more useful - and fun - to point readers to new authors and less familiar classics."

In other words, "Classics for Pleasure" is not a book for people hoping to chart a course toward general literacy. Instead, it's aimed at avid readers looking for substantive recommendations that are neither obvious nor contemporary - readers who might ask, "What have I missed?"

Dirda conveys his passion for some 90 authors in brief essays filled with alluring quotations, juicy minibiographies, and sharp assessments. His tantalizing plot summaries deliberately leave us dangling. (After reading his encapsulation of the 14th-century medieval romance, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," I had to unearth my copy, untouched since high school, to find out what happens. …

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