Book Brahmin: Michael Dirda

photo: Chester Simpson

Michael Dirda, a weekly book columnist for the Washington Post, is the author of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books (Pegasus Books, August 15, 2015). He is also the author of a memoir, An Open Book, and of four previous collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book and Classics for Pleasure. His biographical-critical study, On Conan Doyle, received a 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review and several other literary periodicals, as well as an occasional lecturer and college teacher. In 1993, he received the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

On your nightstand now:

The Sea of Blood by Reggie Oliver (Dark Renaissance Books), selected short stories--two dozen in all--by one of the best living writers of "strange tales." Also, the spring 2015 issue of Wormwood, "a journal of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent," published by Tartarus Press and edited by the multi-talented Mark Valentine, whose own weird tales are wonderful and varied. Not least, a slew of mysteries by Paul Halter, Yukito Ayatsuji, Noël Vindry and others from Locked Room International.

Always on my nightstand: The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene, 1900-1950 by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane; The Guide to Supernatural Fiction by Everett F. Bleiler; and Tellers of Tales: British Authors of Children's Books from 1800-1964 by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Elementary school: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas--perhaps the greatest of all adventure novels, as well as an inspirational example of the power of education.

Junior high school: Walden by Henry David Thoreau. If I could, I would write like Thoreau.

High school: Immortal Poems of the English Language edited by Oscar Williams. I memorized many of these poems as I walked to high school. Best thing I ever did as a teenager.

Your top five authors:

William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Stendhal, Anton Chekhov, P.G. Wodehouse.

Book you've faked reading:

None. As a book reviewer, you can't afford to fake knowledge of a book you haven't actually read. But there are plenty of books I should have read, that people think I've read, but that I haven't (e.g., Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa). They've been on my "to be read" list for a long time, and someday I hope to get round to them.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Just one? My whole career has been built on telling other readers about books I love and that they might love too. Can I pick a subgenre? The Icelandic sagas. Imagine spaghetti westerns with swords. But the book I've read more often than any other is Stendhal's autobiographical Vie de Henry Brulard (The Life of Henry Brulard). Another favorite I champion is James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner--similar to, but in some ways better than, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And a third is wistful Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave. Mon semblable, mon frère! And then there are the essays of Vincent Starrett, and the uncategorizably wonderful short stories of Howard Waldrop, and the mysteries of Edmund Crispin, and almost everything Jack Vance ever wrote ("Ixax at the best of times was a dreary planet"), and Jan Morris's Hav, about the best of all imaginary cities, and so many others.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Backwoods Teaser by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal Books, 1960). From the cover: "She wasn't exactly a tramp..." The artist? Robert McGinnis, of course. His are the impossibly gorgeous women guys of my generation dreamed about--and sometimes still do.

Book that changed your life:

Nikos Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek. I read the book when I was 16 and came to a sentence, written by a repressed young Englishman who has just met the larger-than life Zorba. It said, "I had fallen so low that if I had had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I would have chosen the book." Recognizing myself, I finished the novel and went out on my first date the following week.

Favorite line from a book:

An impossible question. My little Book by Book is a collection, with mini-essays, of favorite passages and quotations from my reading. But here are two longtime favorites.

"As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given the field-glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you...." --Richard Wilbur, opening of "Walking to Sleep"

"We refilled our glasses with cognac, after which all things seemed possible." --William Gerhardie, Doom

Which character you most relate to:

It depends on what you mean by "relate to." A fictional character I want to be like? Bond, James Bond. A character I am somewhat like? On good days, Kim, from Rudyard Kipling's novel; on bad ones, Eeyore, from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. My favorite character in fiction? Elizabeth Bennet, from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Jorkens Remembers Africa by Lord Dunsany. I found these tall tales--told by a bibulous old clubman--filed under "Travel" in my high school's library. On the title page, a frontispiece shows a hunter in desperate combat with a unicorn. Each story is more fantastic and more wonderful than the last. Plus, Dunsany is one of the great masters of evocative English prose.

Motto above your desk:

"It was not by gentle sweetness and self-abnegation that order was brought out of chaos; it was by strict method, by stern discipline, by rigid attention to detail, by ceaseless labor, by the fixed determination of an indomitable will." --Lytton Strachey, on Florence Nightingale (from Eminent Victorians)

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