Take Up and Read
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Michael Dirda is back! Anyone whose reading lives and reading lists have been enriched and expanded by Dirda’s passionate book chats, his elegant reviews and essays in the Washington Post Book World, or by his jaunty excursions into books past and present in his previous books Anyone whose reading lives and reading lists have been enriched and expanded by Dirda’s passionate book chats, his elegant reviews and essays in the Washington Post Book World, or by his jaunty excursions into books past and present in his previous books Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, An Open Book: Chapters From a Reader’s Life, Bound to Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books, and Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life will certainly want to add his newest, Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt; $25) to his or her reading lists.
Classics for Pleasure contains Dirda’s thoughtful, playful, and eloquent meditations on 88 “classics” that will encourage readers to “pick up and read” these books. Like Dante’s Virgil or like the neighborhood raconteur, Dirda leads us on a journey through the golden meadows of writings as diverse as Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, Beowulf, Zola’s Germinal, Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Agee’s film criticism, Anna Akhmatova’s collected poems, Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer, Thomas Love Peacock’s Crochet Castle (when is the last time you saw an essay on this book? Most writers focus on Nightmare Abbey), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Jean Toomer’s Cane, Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and A Lost Lady, and Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
As Dirda observes in his introduction, the classics have often received a bad rap in our society. They are often associated with toil and trouble. Who can forget Mrs. Kelly leading their ninth-grade class solemnly through the forests of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the plight of Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter? Who, having trudged through Moby-Dick with a less than inspiring teacher, wants to return later in life to America’s greatest adventure story? Indeed, reading classics for pleasure is oxymoronic for many people. However, much like his revered Green Lantern, Dirda swoops into save the classics from those villainous men and women who would ruin them by their sinister methods.
Dirda opens Classics for Pleasure with his take on the classics. “Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century. More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feeling and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions. Sappho’s heartache is that of anyone who has been hopelessly in love . . . Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten. We should always be shocked by the rage and bile in Céline’s view of humanity, appalled by the brutality surrounding the young Frederick Douglass . . . Come April or May, we will always awake some Saturday morning, like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, to the wonder and beauty of spring.”
In his book, Dirda wants to encourage us to “try some of the great books of the distant and recent past . . . I’ve written brief essays of introduction or invitation, hoping through summary, tantalizing quotation, and concise biography to convey a writer’s or a book’s particular magic. In general, my approach is that of a passionate reader rather than that of a critic or scholar. I love the Icelandic sagas and Thomas Love Peacock’s ‘conversation’ novels and the poetry of C.V. Cavafy, and I want you to love them, too.” Rather than approaching these classics chronologically from ancient to modern he groups his reflections on tem according to themes such as “playful imaginations,” “heroes of their time,” “love’s mysteries,” “words from the wise,” “the dark side,” and “encyclopedic visions.”
Wearing his learning lightly, Dirda throws off such bon mots as "One might easily view Diderot as the philosophical equivalent of a performance artist"; "Among the great virtues of Crochet Castle is that nothing goes on too long"; "Not enough people read Samuel Johnson." On Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden: “Burnett’s classic remains not only a mythic story with its telling symbolism of walled garden, peaceable kingdom, death, and rebirth but also one of the best of all comfort books, a work to which one can return time and again for solace and renewal.”
Only in Dirda’s book will you find Daphne Du Maurier and Georgette Heyer side by side with Ovid, Petronius, and Henry James. On Du Maurier’s Rebecca: it 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 classic of suspense. Structurally, Rebecca offers a tour de force of narrative control and point of view worthy of Henry James.” In spite of Heyer’s being promoted primarily as a romance novelist, Dirda observes that a “clear-eyed realism lies behind all of [her] works, no matter how giddy the goings-on beforehand . . . No romantic herself, Heyer believed in self-control, order, and discipline. She approached her writing as a professional, worked hard on her Regency novels (and her excellent mysteries), hated the taxman, and lived quietly as the wife of a successful lawyer. Her astute and witty books should be more widely appreciated by men as well as women.”
Dirda observes that Ezra Pound’s literary essays and letters and the “exhilarating ABC of Reading still deliver a real wallop.” Much the same can be said of Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure; Dirda’s jaunty, elegant, and passionate conversation about books encourages us to go to our shelves (or to the local used bookstore) and pull down these books and curl up in our favorite comfy place for an afternoon’s or evening’s excursion into new worlds.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at