Home » belles-lettres, criticism

Catalog Reading

By (January 1, 2008) No Comment

Classics for Pleasure

By Michael Dirda
Harcourt, Inc, 2007

Michael Dirda has come forth with a book called Classics for Pleasure, which can be seen as a companion to his 2005 collection Bound to Please, although where Bound to Please was an assortment of essays and reviews originally run in The Washington Post where Dirda is a senior editor, the many brief entries in Classics for Pleasure are here published for the first time. I use the word “entries”—for Dirda’s formula is to introduce a book or writer and then provide a synopsis of three to five pages in support of each—but my initial impulse was to write “posts,” and it’s as a result of this tension that Classics for Pleasure faces something of an existential dilemma before its contents can even be discussed. As for the fate of the printed word in light of the spread of electronic text, the future can only be guessed; but there is presently no doubt that the expediencies of the Internet have begun to give an obsolete fade to the category of “Books on Reading.”

I’m not talking about the art of criticism, mind you; scholarly analysis clothed in crafted prose will always be at home in whatever forum will have it, whether in newsprint or on a website. I mean books whose central desire is to catalog; books whose tables of contents are read almost as closely as the prose that follows.

The stiff competition such books face is obviously found in the endless warehouse space of the Internet, since the Internet, if it does nothing else, offers the most extraordinary catalog of information the world has ever known (a catalog that, not incidentally, will only grow as the somewhat mystifying Google juggernaut proceeds to scan into digital permanence every single page found in the sub-basements of the Library of Congress). The Web’s ultimate legacy on literature may be dubious at best, but there’s no question of its amenability to lists. Take a five-minute browse through the literature blogosphere and you will find lists containing “Current Reading,” “Reading Queues” (whose titles readers are somewhat charmingly encouraged to buy and send as gifts to the blogger in question), “Favorite Books,” “Books Read in 2007,” “Reading Challenges,” among numerous others. Sites with quaint names like Goodreads and Librarything allow members to catalog and annotate their entire library, which is then cross-referenced with thousands of other virtual libraries, allowing curious visitors to quarry evaluations of millions of books before following any of a million threads to discover a million loosely corresponding titles. Nearly all of these sites, moreover, feature hyperlinks to Amazon or a myriad other shopping catalogs so that any book that piques the interest can be purchased, before you can think better of it. Some of the writing found on these sites is informed and intelligent; most is not. Nevertheless, if what you want is a diverse list of book titles supplemented by perky, encouraging synopses, there is not much reason any longer to pay twenty dollars to get it in printed form.

Due to this trend, or perhaps in anticipation of it, books about the culture of reading have yielded poor returns in recent years, rarely elevating above whatever gimmick their lists are organized around. Indeed, in most cases the reader is better off not venturing beyond the table of contents.

The most well-known in the genre in the last decade is probably Great Books, in which David Denby, suffering from a mid-life crisis, signs on to a Western Civilization course at Columbia University in order to reconnect with the ancient wisdom of Homer and Sophocles. There is little enough of that wisdom on evidence in Great Books—the self-absorption of the average eighteen year old is perhaps equaled only by the average American male in the throes of a mid-life crisis—but readers appear to have responded to the sort of therapeutic self-actualization Denby claims to have found in his course texts and to the easy rendering of classics in chatty, digest form.

Great Books was a bestseller, and many more books have since sprouted in the rut it plowed, with names like Book Lust, The Literary 100, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, and so on, each offering go-get-‘em homilies about Western classics, and each, it more and more appears, aspiring in a ponderous, paginated way to be a blog. We can vainly hope that the low point of this trend was realized in 2005 with Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, in which the author reads 101 randomly chosen books and then, for no special reason, tells you what she thinks is wrong with them. This book is solely predicated on Smiley’s environmentally unsound conviction that whenever she happens to write something, no matter how trivial or self-involved it is, trees should die so that it may see print. One of the unexplored virtues of the blog may be its role in obviating bad or negligible books by acting as a valve for our more egregious writerly chatterers—in any case, if ever anyone needed a benignly ignorable blogspot account, it’s Smiley.

Into this unhappy company appears Classics for Pleasure, and readers, as they would for any of its brethren, either book or blog, will first turn to the table of contents. It is immediately in Michael Dirda’s favor that he knows how to assemble an intriguing list. The typical reader will know Mary Shelley, perhaps vaguely recognize James Hogg, who succeeds her, and be altogether innocent of Sheridan Le Fanu, who comes next. Petronius, author of the bawdy epic The Satyricon, is coyly juxtaposed with the Victorian novelist of manners, Elizabeth Gaskell. Christopher Marlowe and the Icelandic Sagas are pressed into service in the same chapter, hinting at an allusive kinship that has possibly never before been thought of. (Dirda has organized his chapters by theme rather than date so that, he writes, readers won’t reflexively skip over the ancients, an admission that reveals a great deal about what Dirda thinks of his list-besotted audience.)

What also jumps out in the initial perusal is the equal time Dirda devotes to romance, horror, science fiction, and adventure novels. H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jules Verne receive spirited testimonies because Dirda knows he is writing in the face of a rooted bigotry that segregates such authors’ work from the category of “literature.” It is not quite true, as has been suggested, that Dirda is trying to overhaul the canon—Plutarch, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry James, and many others already fixed in the firmament are discussed; rather, Dirda would like to enlarge our expectation of what a classic does for us. Here is what he writes about Jacob Burckhardt’s legendary and little-read history of the Renaissance:

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) reflects such a swashbuckling exuberance, for it is packed with anecdote, scandal, and intrigue—in short, what most people secretly want from history: exciting stories.

Excitement is always what Dirda is searching for in the books he reads, and he will be delighted if it comes from arousal, fright, enchantment, suspense, lyrical virtuosity, or intellectual stimulation. By tacitly averring that the point of literature is to provoke a visceral reaction he can convincingly champion Frances Hodgson Burnett and Daphne du Maurier, but he can also bring an invigorating perspective to already received giants. Of the Icelandic Sagas, he encourages us to “think of [them] as Mafia crime dramas, or spaghetti westerns on ice.” He labels Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” an “exceptionally campy work, an epic in drag.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he writes, has an “air of make-believe and festivity, tinged with real darkness” that makes it a “perfect adult Christmas story.” He even calls Italo Calvino’s writing “sexy,” which may be a vulnerable judgment (“sedentary” seems to me more like it), but still demonstrates the bent of Dirda’s interests. You will not find another critic living who uses the word “delicious” so frequently in songs of praise.

Not surprisingly, Dirda is at his best when he falls under the spell of the excitement he’s trying to evoke. Here he is enthusing about Émile Zola:

No writer—not even Tolstoy or Victor Hugo—can better Zola at portraying masses of people in celebration, panic, or revolt. Because his books focus on men and women driven to the point of breakdown, they often seem melodramatic—but thrillingly so. In Germinal, Zola gives us a pitiful madman who strangles an innocent girl, a little boy who murders a soldier, an enraged striker who publicly bares her huge bottom in obscene defiance, and, not least, a broken-down draft horse that spends nearly its entire life underground but, as it dies, remembers grass and sunshine. In these pages, starving women turn, in ritualistic maenad-like frenzy, on their oppressor; an honorable mine owner discovers his wife’s treachery; an anarchist plots and strikes; a flood traps major characters deep in the bowels of the earth; and a mining engineer works tirelessly to rescue the man he hates. Finally, in a kind of industrial-age Liebestod, two people—long kept apart by fate and circumstances—finally consummate their love while surrounded by the dead and dying.

On these occasions when, carried away in an exhorter’s exuberance, his syntax grows long and lavish and loose (notice the artless repetition of “finally” in the last sentence), Dirda is at his most endearing—and, not coincidentally, his most persuasive. Few people could in good conscience skip Germinal after reading this impromptu aria on its greatness.

The majority of Dirda’s writing, however, is far more controlled, dedicated as much to explanation as to celebration. Consider, for instance, this expert diagnosis of the literary mastery of, of all people, Agatha Christie:

Where Christie excels is in her plotting, the most essential of the elements of fiction. (As E.M. Forster emphatically insisted, “Oh yes, the novel tells a story.”) Like a poet who writes only sonnets or a composer working out a set of variations, Christies accepts the conventions of the mystery and then seeks to surprise us with her originality. A creative-writing student could usefully study her novels just to learn the art of narrative construction. Take apart And Then There Were None…and you will see how she deftly controls the reader’s understanding throughout, tantalizing and diverting and manipulating his attention at every turn.

The passage gives us a fair characterization of our author. Where Jane Smiley presents herself as a supercilious book-club leader uttering inanities over a demitasse cup, and David Denby tries to pass as a callow undergrad, Dirda assumes a far worthier role: a literature professor.

And as such, he possesses many of the traits that we recognize from our own favorite teachers. He is immensely knowledgeable and competent to satisfy most any offhand factual curiosity one could have; he’s open-minded, less interested in steering students towards an answer than in simply challenging thought and sparking debate; best of all, he actively loves his material and formats his syllabi to reflect his mercurial passions. Dirda mentions that his book was partly inspired by Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan, but the truth is that Classics for Pleasure is not so rigidly selective as to work as a comprehensive reading plan. It could easily have focused on a hundred completely different authors; or it could have been twice as long. Dirda’s is the capricious pedagogy of a teacher who’s still intoxicated by literature, still energetically pursuing knowledge of it even as he instructs. We should never be so proud as to turn away from good teachers when we find them, and there are ample reasons in Classics for Pleasure to regard Dirda as a voice worth seeking out and listening to.

For all that, though, Classics for Pleasure cannot possibly succeed in attracting any but the most accidental readership. (We can guess that a lot of English majors received it this holiday season from bewildered aunts, but who else is going to buy it?) Some fault for this lies with the Harcourt, Inc. publishing division that, utterly deaf to Dirda’s gospel of exciting reading, has decked this book out in the ugliest cover imaginable, on which is pictured a Corinthian column, the standard mindless symbol for “classic,” and an image about as likely to appeal to the layperson as the mark of the beast would a churchgoer.

But most of the guilt must lie with Dirda himself, who, having organized a stirring and rigorous syllabus, then spends much of his lecture time pandering to the least interested, most distractible students in the class. In essay after essay we are chagrined to find Dirda oversimplifying, reducing, boiling down to potted summaries and clichéd lessons—doing the prose equivalent of moving his lips…really…slowly…when he talks.

He provides a surprisingly effective essay on George Meredith’s 50-poem sequence Modern Love, but then ends with this bit of insincere Lifetime network fluff:

We know that Meredith’s own marriage—to Thomas Love Peacock’s daughter—broke up, yet his poem is so filled with “tragic hints” that it transcends the particular, for don’t people in such circumstances try hard to do their best, to make the right decisions, to carry on? As Meredith says, usually “the wrong is mixed”—even if “passions spin the plot.” Alas, once trust is gone, so, too, are those “May-fly pleasures of a mind at ease.” And then comes the time of “endless dole.” It’s enough to make one weep.

And here is his summary of Gottfried von Strassburg’s famous love story of Tristan and Isolde:

Tristan raises many questions about which people still argue: Would you betray your country, your marriage vows, your honor, and your religion for love? Should you? Do Tristan and Isolde enjoy great sex simply because their passion is forbidden? (In their grotto, when they are free of social constraints, the pair start to grow a little bored with each other.) Is their mad infatuation just that—madness, not real, because it was initiated by a magic potion? Can physical passion elevate us to a truly spiritual realm? Must such erotic incandescence always lead to death?

It’s obvious from this sort of belabored passage that Dirda has not in his life been sufficiently humbled by the stern corrections of eye-rolling teenagers. The clanging irony of course is that anyone who might be willing to brave a novella made of sonnets or a weird Teutonic romance can only be frustrated by these glib, watered-down recapitulations. That frustration mounts every time Dirda rattles off lists of contemporary influences or comparisons to figures in pop culture. Of Edward Gorey, for example, he writes,

In his mixture of words and pictures he…anticipates more contemporary phenomena such as Japanese manga comics, the cartoons of Garry Larson’s “Far Side” and Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” the graphic novel, and many forms of computerized storytelling.

Well, it’s true that graphic novels and “Doonesbury” strips are made of “words and pictures” (although, what precisely is “computerized storytelling”?), but is any meaningful relationship being described here, anything that illuminates our understanding of Gorey (or, for that matter, of Garry Larson)? It’s the same when S.J. Perelman is likened, without elaboration, to The Simpsons and when Dirda informs us that the influence of Frankenstein can be detected in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as in Stephen Crane’s story, “The Monster.” Dirda is not attempting to teach anything here, he’s trying to cajole, in the way that parents will prepare foreign food to resemble dishes their children already like.

Far too often, Dirda writes with propitiating caution, as though he thinks that a single lapse into complexity and his entire audience will start playing cell-phone Tetris—and this intellectual timidity is the mortal blow against Classics for Pleasure.

Such is always the conflict of the evangel: how much should he dilute his message so that it will be palatable to the greatest number of people? In this case, Dirda’s method is self-defeating. Reading classics is unquestionably a rich pleasure, but it’s not the same kind of pleasure as watching an Indiana Jones movie or getting to the end boss in a video game. You still have to sit by yourself and read for hours at a time, and Dirda’s targeted audience, who only has the attention span for five pages of breezy synopsis and blurb-like praise, can probably never be cajoled into seriously enjoying such an activity. For those who like sitting by themselves and reading for hours at a time, this good-natured but largely superficial book just becomes dull.

In the prologue of Bound to Please, Dirda issued a moving plea for the need to read more expansively, beyond Dan Brown, Harry Potter, and Oprah’s latest flavor of the month. “I hate to think about how many great poems, stories and plays are slowly dropping out of our general consciousness because so few people read them anymore,” he wrote. “It’s heartbreaking…. Corny as it sounds, I believe that unless we try to familiarize ourselves with the best that human beings have accomplished, we will doom ourselves to be only half-formed wraiths, scarcely human beings at all.”

His passionate love of literature, then, can only be admired—but how much better it would be if he converted that passion into deeds as well as declarations. If he does ever bring out the book of charismatic, intellectually exciting criticism that he clearly has inside him, he can be assured an eager audience. Even in these days of plummeting literacy, that audience is still out there, and still eager for great books.

And if he wants to continue to bring our attention to neglected classics in the meantime, maybe he will consider getting a blog, which is virtually guaranteed to reach more readers than an expensive hardcover will. In the same prologue, Dirda confessed that he regards the Internet as “largely an invention of the Devil,” but, as he must know, it’s the duty of proselytizers to toil in benighted regions.

We can predict his objection, and he’s right: a blog is no substitute for a real book; but then, neither exactly is Classics for Pleasure.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.