The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning reviewer, critic, and essayist (An Open Book, 2003, etc.) dares to deliver on his subtitle’s outrageous claim.
Perhaps it’s the persistent feeling of shared joy in the discovery of moving and majestic literary moments that allows readers to be less picky with Dirda than he often is with the authors he dissects. For instance, introducing himself as a writer who eschews simile wherever possible, he goes on to say that reading Rabelais is “a lot like going to a Slovak or Ukrainian wedding in an Ohio steel town, where you pay a dollar to dance with the bride, eat way too much kielbasa and stuffed cabbage [and] drink yourself silly . . . fun, but a little goes a long way.” Then, in stressing that it’s not what you read but what you read first, the author (on Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose) pins readers to the wall with medieval monasticisms, demanding that they grasp “patristic exegesis” and both the “anagogical and eschatological levels” of meaning in biblical symbolism in a single paragraph. No surprise later when Dirda celebrates the “lip-smacking vocabulary” of Anthony Burgess on Christopher Marlowe. Verbosity aside, it’s his ability to dive in and extract themes, patterns, and even sweeping contexts that grip—along with bushels of literary quotes and epigrams, all keepers, such as Jean Cocteau’s “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” In Western fiction, Dirda notes, “love is a destructive passion,” and our romantic mythology celebrates adultery, perfectly justifying a reading adventure in great, reasonably seamy literature. In addition to the classics, Dirda nominates lots of little-known or underappreciated gems, e.g., the American novelist Djuna Barnes, a handful of post-Revolutionary Russians, and Terry Pratchett, a bestselling author in pre-Rowling Britain but not here. The main text is followed by concise, useful recommendations in Renaissance works, science fiction, and other genres.
Tough at times, but well worth it, with manifold rewards for any serious reader.