Just when you think you’ve read a few books, here comes a Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic with jaunty evidence that you haven’t read Jack—not to mention Jill, Jacques and many others.
Sorted into 11 categories (“Love’s Mysteries,” “Lives of Consequence,” etc.), this latest entry in Dirda’s inspiring lit-crit series (Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, 2006, etc.) offers a little bit of everything—from John Aubrey to Zola, from books we’ve all read, or claimed to (Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein), to writers of whom honest folks will admit they’ve heard little, if anything (William Roughead, Sheridan Le Fanu). Dirda employs approximately the same approach to each of the 90-some writers he includes: sketchy biographical material (he offers more for those with troubled or troubling lives, e.g., Ezra Pound), a bit of summary (generally swift and felicitous enough to engage), some sort of encomium. The biographical bonbons are sometimes luscious, as in his wonderful note about how the hand of the dying Henry James moved as if writing across the spread on his deathbed, and Dirda’s humor and wit are evident throughout: Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, for instance, is “one of the best novels that Henry James never wrote.” He also pauses periodically to deliver schoolmasterish warnings about paying more attention to so-and-so and is especially convincing with his tribute to Willa Cather (less so with Zora Neale Hurston). Politics are generally absent, though Dirda can’t resist including a paragraph from Utopia of eerie relevance to the current military situation in the Middle East. The superlatives become a little shopworn after 300 pages, but perhaps English is simply inadequate to provide sufficient words to praise this many terrific writers and wonderful works of literature.
Tasty samples from a most eclectic and inviting bibliophilic menu.