Hi reddit,

Dirda's son here. My dad's not the redditor type, but in spite of that he's still a pretty interesting guy--he's a longtime book reviewer and columnist for the Washington Post and an author of many books about reading and writers--so I'm having him sit down for the next few hours to answer questions about book reviewing, tell stories about his author friends (including, yes, Neil Gaiman), and offer book recommendations on any topic. He's not a big braggart so I'll brag for him: He's been called the most well-read man in America (most notably by Michael Kinsley), he's an expert on Arthur Conan Doyle and his most recent book on the guy won an Edgar Award, and he once almost bought a thumb from a gypsy in France.

I'm really here to help him navigate the site and coach him on how to respond to questions about things like baconing narwhal. I won't influence the content of his answers--I'll be typing up exactly what he says.

I'll also post a picture of his Pulitzer on top of our cat.

Edit: Cat and Pulitzer: http://i.imgur.com/d26Yb.jpg

Edit 2: 3:45PM - We've been at it for a few hours now, so we're taking a break and will be back to answer more later this afternoon. Thanks guys!

Edit 3: We're back now (6pm) and will do a few now, and another run later this evening!

Edit 4: Taking another break--we'll try to do one more sweep in an hour or so. Thanks for all the questions, guys!

Edit 5: Ok guys, calling it quits since I think the papa is a bit fried from hours of doing this. Thanks to all who asked questions, and apologies to those whose questions we missed. My dad really wanted to dethrone Stoya as the top post of the subreddit, so maybe we'll do another sometime.

Comments: 453 • Responses: 67  • Date: 

MichaelDirda87 karma

Please send the original.

Frajer101 karma

Do you find as a critic you can no longer just read for pleasure?

MichaelDirda103 karma


MichaelDirda124 karma

Expounding on that: It's not so much that I'm a critic that prevents me from reading for pleasure as that I make my living by writing about books. That means I lurch from one project to the next: A weekly review for The Washington Post, two weekly blogs for the Post and The American Scholar, a monthly column for the online Barnes and Noble Review, regular pieces for the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and other journals, and a fair amount of introduction writing. Also this spring I taught a course at the University of Maryland on the modern adventure novel. I also read everything with a pencil in my hand, scribbing marginal comments as I go.

Kiwiwastingtime78 karma

Are you a fan of Hunter S Thompson?

MichaelDirda278 karma

My copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is inscribed: "To Mike, with thanks for getting me the crack cocaine in Boston, Your friend, Hunter." The inscription is genuine. We won't look into what I did for Hunter in Boston.

Edit--Here you go: http://i.imgur.com/VF2W1.jpg

JustIndeed73 karma

What is the worst book you have ever read?

MichaelDirda53 karma

I already answered this question: Judith Krantz's "Dazzle." Even the sex in the book was boilerplate, a totally meretricious work. John Sutherland--a distinguishe Engilsh authority on the novel and the best seller--once included Dazzle in his list of the 25 worst novels of the century.

flagamuffin33 karma


Great word which seems to mean the opposite at first. Fun stuff!

EDIT: Mr. Dirda, if you see this, do you have a favorite word?

MichaelDirda43 karma

wonderfully, used as an intensifier.

Pack04161 karma

How do you feel about the trend of reading books electronically? Do you think this takes away from the mystique of reading hard copies, or is it a positive trend if people begin to read more?

MichaelDirda279 karma

Of course, anything that encourages people to read more--and, better yet--more widely is all to the good. But your point about "mystique" is an important one. I think e-book readers tend to slightly flatten the reading experience, making all books look roughly alike. I think books should be different in look and feel. Raymond Chandler ought to be read in a cheap paperback with a leggy blonde on the cover; Henry James demands some stately format like the New York Edition. I also like to read first editions, or editions close to when a book first appeared, because this adds what Walter Benjamin called a certain "aura." I also worry that reading on screens invites quick reading, almost scanning, rather than the slow immersion that serious reading requires. But I don't want to make too much of this. People probably complained when the codex first appeared and said "What was wrong with scrolls?"

Sirhossington29 karma

At some point (and apologies if I've missed this), but I feel like e-books will offer the opportunity for an author to work with an artist to embellish the books in a digital format that may not be possible in a traditional book format. We can now add shading, footnotes, outside references, and other add-ons with little to no cost. A thriller write like Brown could add easter eggs to his e-books that lead you on a digital world scavenger hunt. A writer like Gaiman can add length to his books that had to be cut form earlier versions.

E-books may not have the weight and gravity of a real book, but they may offer more than just a one size fits all format.

At least I hope.

MichaelDirda75 karma

Yes, of course--you can insert links or art into digital formats. I'm sure writers and artists will go to town with these possiblities. In some ways, The annotated editions of classics (eg. Martin Gardner's Alice in Wonderland) do this with a book format. However, there is a point when a book starts to get cluttered, when it's so encrusted that it'll turn into something like a Norton Critical Edition and discourage rather invite readers. Remember Choose Your Own Adventures and Hypertext fiction? In my experience, people don't want to choose their own adventures--they want an author to guide them through the book. We want to surrender to an author's voice, not think about interrupting it all the time.

VolatileChemical48 karma

It's been years since the U.S. has won a Nobel Prize in Literature, allegedly due to the insular focus of American writers on their own lives and country. Is there something to be said for "writing what you know" and sticking to themes and content familiar to oneself, or do you prefer writers who experiment and write books more universal or remote to themselves? Are there any American authors you think are doing that?

MichaelDirda90 karma

Hey, it's a big world. I do think the Nobel is useful in reminding Americans that there's a lot of writing in the world that isn't in English. We should read moer widely, look more often at books in translation, and not be overly insular. But I think writers can make universals out of localities--think of Faulkner who only wrote about a small county in Missisiippi. I'd like to see more attention paid to writers like Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin and John Crowley as major AMerican authors and deserving attention from internatiional award committes.

VolatileChemical13 karma

Awesome, thanks for the recommendations!

MichaelDirda20 karma

Of course.

Ambivalent_Fanatic48 karma

There's been a very popular thread in /r/books today saying that people who self-publish their own books or e-books have no right to call themselves published, and that they are attempting to glorify themselves by doing so. Other people say that traditional publishers have acted as they gatekeeper for too long, and have an inflated sense of their own importance. Do you think that the publishing industry is actually changing because of the self-publishing and e-books revolutions, or do you think that we are just seeing a lot more dreck?

MichaelDirda47 karma

There are certainly arguments to be made for self-publishing-- A teacher of mine wrote a memoir that was brought out by the old vanity press Vantage and I wrote an introduction to it. Gertrude Stein self-published the Plain Edition, etc etc. Still, I basically feel that if you've written something that people actually want to read a reputable publisher--small or big, university press or trade house--will want to publish it. I do worry that the avalance of selfpublishing functions a bit like Gresham's Law--bad money drives out good. But, as you say, publishing is very much in flux and who knows what the industry will look like in another 20 years.

adrianh41 karma

Let's talk logistics: How do you manage to read so many books, so often? Is it just that you make reading your top priority and spend every waking moment doing it, or do you read particularly quickly? Or both?

MichaelDirda89 karma

I'm not at all a speed reader--I move my lips while I read. But I am dogged and I do like to read. I even like to write, which probably sounds even more unlikely. And you're right: I don't do a lot that other people do. Very few movies. Almost no television. I try to keep my interactions with computers restricted to writing and emails. Hence, no Facebook or social networking, which I regard as time-sinks. I come from a working class family and as a kid I really wanted to feel at home in the world, and through reading books I gained something of that sense of being educated, even--dread word--cosmopolitan. But mostly I like learning things and books to me are still the primary way of doing that.

smashey28 karma

Do you believe that reading things on the internet produces this effect in people, or does it affect their attention span negatively?

Another similar question - to enjoy something, and in order to fairly review it, you need to extend a lot of generosity to the author, to his subject, or the characters he portrays. Do you find this exhausting? Have you gotten better at this over the years? What have you read that challenges you in this regard?

I am currently reading a novel which is written from the perspective of a really vain and irritating character (The Sea, The Sea.) I am enjoying it, but I have read a lot of reviews from people who despised the man and his writing style so much that they couldn't get into it.

MichaelDirda57 karma

Ah, that second part of your comment/question is particularly interesting. I can't, in fact, review fiction week after week--it's too draining; it's like having your heart broken over and over and over again. I do probably four or five works of nonfiction for every novel or short story collection, simply because it does demand an exhausting emotional commitment. That's also why I like comic fiction--it asks less of me, and usually has a cool veneer. The Sea, The Sea--isn't this a novel by Iris Murdoch? But I think you must be reading John Banville who has a similar title, The Sea. Banville can be cold and Olympian, though he also writes excellent mystery novels about Ireland under the name Benjamin Black. I'd ignore the critics and follow your own tastes. But you might want to look up a piece I wrote about Banville for the New York Review of Books--I like his work a lot.

D3uces38 karma

My mom calls me the best-read man in America. You trying to take my title?

MichaelDirda105 karma

Mothers are always right. I yield my title to you.

mbrown941236 karma

So, is the offer for a Neil Gaiman story still standing?

MichaelDirda125 karma

So Neil sends me an invitation to his 50th birthday party in New Orleans. Alas, I can't go. So I write back that instead I'm sending a smarter, better-looking and younger Michael Dirda in my stead. So my son Mike went down to New Orleans, hung out with Michael Chabon and various science fiction people, and flirted with the daughter of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain.

TooSmalley32 karma

What was the most controversial book review he has ever give? as example did he ever get major backlash for one of his reviews ?

MichaelDirda72 karma

My two most famous "negative" reviews were pretty mean, but with good reasons. About Judith Krantz's "romance" novel "Dazzle" I opened with this lede: "I read Dazzle in one sitting. I had to. I was afraid I couldn't face picking it up again." I ended by pointing out that critics sometimes lament that good trees were felled to produce a book, but in the case of Dazzle I even felt bad for the book's ink and glue. The other was a very dispassionate demolition job of Daniel Boorstin's The Creators, a really flawed book about the arts.

[deleted]29 karma

Mr. Dirda, thank you for doing an AMA. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what direction(s) you see American fiction going in these days? Do there seem to be any detectable patterns in terms of themes, topics, prose style in fiction today that strike you as new (or renewed) from where you stand? Or is it all too entropic and big to really generalize about?

MichaelDirda61 karma

More than 30 years ago I predicted that mainstream literature would be invaded by "genre" fiction, and this seems to be happening. Writers like Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon and others came out of science fiction and comics. I used to receive newsletters--typed newsletters--from Lethem when he was secretary of the Philip K. Dick Society. I think that we are seeing what sf critic Gary Wolfe calls the "evaporation" of genre lines, and fiction is bursting with all sorts of new inventions and possiblities. The new technology certainly adds to this too. It's an exciting time to be a young writer.

wes-g19 karma

First, thanks for doing the AMA Mr. Dirda. Secondly, don't you think that what is in fact "new" about Lethem and Chabon is their recombinant use of genre, what I think of as mash-up? So instead of writing a western or detective story they mash those forms up with, say,science fiction? Leslie Fiedler was already talking about pop literary projects in 1970 in "Cross the Border-Close the Gap," so it strikes me that that is simply a symptom of postmodernism, as Fred Jameson has identified.

MichaelDirda26 karma

Ah, Leslie Fiedler--there's a blast from the past. I think I read all his books. And Frederic Jameson, too. I won't argue with you on this; it sounds as if you know your stuff.

Pomguo10 karma

I think the genre lines have been less well defined than popularly thought for some time - but that this has been largely hidden by a habit of the literary press to appropriate any great literary works within genre fiction and attempt to separate it from that label. 1984, The Time Machine, Brave New World, etc etc. Then some have the gall to claim there's no such thing as respectable genre fiction, as if they weren't merely trying to relabel those examples that do exist! Thankfully this sort of attitude appears to be on the decline as genre fiction invades the mainstream as you predicted.

MichaelDirda29 karma

Yes, we used to joke how Margaret Atwood never let novels like The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake be identified as science fiction. A lot of these labels are marketing devices. Back in the late 19th century and Edwardian period every major English writer wrote ghost stories, for instance, and didn't think they were slumming.

kablunk29 karma

One of the many reasons I love your writing is because it exudes a strong feeling of being written by someone ancient, yet very, very childlike at the same time. Do you consider that an accurate description of yourself? Also, which other writer(s) (preferably someone alive) do you think write(s) in a style similar to yours?

(PS: Not being a US resident, I don't get a much of a chance to read your articles in the Washington Post, but I thoroughly enjoyed Readings)

MichaelDirda51 karma

Ancient and child-like--I sound like a combination of Gandalf and Frodo. I think what you'e saying is that I approach book's with a kind of golden-age enthusiasm--the golden age of reading being, as everyone knows, 14--but I've also read a lot of books, so I do bring a lot of background. My aim is to encourage people to read more widely, beyond the best seller list. Writers in the past I admire and try to emulate a bit include Randall Jarrell, Cyril Connolly, Vincent Starrett, Louise Bogan, Kenneth Tynan, Edmund Wilson, Brigid Brophy and a dozen others. As for contemporaries: I find that there is a tendency to emphasize the ancient and snarky, rather than the enthusiastic and, as you say, childlike.

kablunk14 karma

I was thinking more of a mischievous, Merry and Pippin kind of double-breakfast-eating child, but sure, Frodo works, too.
Thanks for the AMA!

MichaelDirda31 karma

Yeah, Merry and Pippin are probably better examples of childlike than Frodo =)

amoryroark28 karma

First off, HUGE fan of your critiques Mr. Dirda. I am a 25 year old, fairly well-read male here, and I could use some advice: I'm in the process of building a cabin miles away from the nearest neighbor, and plan on being out of contact for roughly 6 months. If you could recommend 10 books that I should take with me into the wilderness, that would shape my experiences in seclusion, what would they be?

EDIT: Just finished reading Ishmael, and loved everything about it.

MichaelDirda43 karma

Hmmm. I'd certainly take two kinds of books--some by authors you know you like and some that you've always wanted to read but have never had the time and seclusion for. For instance, I read the very long Japanese novel The Tale of Genji when I was on a three-week Post "fellowship" to Duke. I didn't do much else in Durham and had a great time. So, take a couple of classics, maybe Gibbon--who is good for reflecting on mankind's follies. Walden (the subtitle is "Life in the Woods" after all). A big fat volume of poetry. Maybe the collected poems of a poet you already like. A good book on woodcraft. But really, you need to think about what you like and what you'd like to know more about and these will lead you to the right books.

NeedsToAsk26 karma

David Foster Wallace. Thoughts?

endymion3220 karma

Yes, please answer this. There are still many of my generation (say gen. X and Y) who consider him to be the most important writer of our time. Not because of the obvious points: the erudition, the long sentences, the footnotes. But because of the compassion, the purity of intent, and, above all else, the heart-breaking beauty of the prose. Thanks!

MichaelDirda37 karma

I'll just agree with you, okay? I did know Wallace a bit--we talked on the phone a few times when he was living in Normal, Illinois and I got him to review for me at The Post--a novel by Clive Barker, which he hated. If you're a real fan, do you know about the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus? The editors asked 9 writers, of various kinds of books, to contribute mini-essays on favorite or disliked words. I talk about Wallace's entries a little in this week's installemnt for my Browsings column for The American Scholar web site. We got to know each other a bit more on this project--I was one of the other nine--and I retain very fond memories of him.

clayjo3725 karma

What author is the least deserving of their notoriety in your opinion? Also, worst "classic" of all time?

MichaelDirda59 karma

Oscar Wilde once said that only an auctioneer could appreciate all forms of art. Everyone has a book or author or genre that doesn't "work" for them. But classics are classics for a reason; they speak to us generation after generation. Today, we may not care as much for Boethius or Spenser as earlier generations, but that's probably because we're failing to measure up to them in some way.

RuskiesInTheWarRoom24 karma

Different take on this AMA for me:

What are some of Mr. Dirda's "favorite" adaptations to Film (or TV?) What makes a good adaptation?


MichaelDirda91 karma

The general rule used to be that B novels made A films, but that A books--because of their reliance on style and, often, interior monologue---didn't work as well on the screen, which is obviiously largely visual and external. A few great books have been made into great movies--Lampedusa's The Leopard, for instance, in the great Viscontin film with Burt Lancaster. The BBC Pride and Prejudice was really pretty good, too. I think the recent BBC Sherlock series has done a terrific job of translating Holmes and Watson to the 21st century.

manunited9721 karma

Do you believe that almost all authors who wrote novels of literary merit genuinely intended to insert all the symbolism and deeper meaning into their works, or do you think they were just trying to tell a good yarn, and we've somewhat overanalyzed their stories to fit some underlying theme?

MichaelDirda24 karma

Depends. College teachers tend to downplay story or plot in favor of character development or symbolism. But an artist makes every word do double duty--it might advance the plot, but also echo something from earlier in the story. Certainly, Melville meant Moby Dick to be symbolic or he wouldn't have put in all that business about the whiteness of the whale. But there's art and there's entertainment, there are books you read once and books you read again and again. Sometimes the reason is because there's a lot more going on beneath the surface than is immediately perceived. The book gains a certain richness, almost a haunting quality when that happens.

kablunk20 karma

I didn't know the bit about Arthur Conan Doyle. Have you seen the recent film and television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes? Do you think they're untrue to canon, or simply reinventions that should be judged on their own merit?

MichaelDirda30 karma

You should read my little book "On Conan Doyle" if you are intrigued by the Holmes stories. The Jeremy Brett series was, obviously, more faithful to the stories than the Downer or Cumberbatch series--but both these latter are a lot of fun. I especially like them because they show Watson as more than a bumbling dolt (think of Nigel Bruce to Basil Rathbone's Holmes). He is, after all, a doctor, soldier and ladies' man ("an experience of women extending over three continents"). All of which said, the stories are still the starting point for everything and they supply a pleasure the movies can't match.

eriwinsto20 karma

How did you find out you had won the Pulitzer?

Was it a surprise, or did you have a suspicion that you'd win?

Thanks for the AMA!

MichaelDirda137 karma

I was nominated three times by the Post before I won. I really wanted the prize to impress my Dad, who rather thought I was a failure because I wasn't making tons of money. Of course, in the way of these things, he died six months before I won. I'd been leaked that I was on the shortlist, and was told I'd won a couple of days before the announcement. But the call for that was still a real kick. My mom believes in the Tao of the universe--when something good happens to you or your family, that means something bad will have to happen to balance it out. And vice versa. So I called her up and told her I'd won the Pulitzer. Long pause on the phone. Then she said, "Well, guess there's no point in going to Bingo tonight." True story.

HeavyMeddle18 karma

have you read twilight? it's pretty good right

MichaelDirda73 karma

A masterpiece of marketing.

LardManNont17 karma

It saddens me a Pulitzer Prize winner has less reads than a middle of the road pornstar.

MichaelDirda64 karma

Are you really surprised? I mean, how can anyone compete with sex? Of course, I think of myself as an adult entertainer of sorts.

Danish_Touch17 karma

What's Michael Dirda's favorite book of all time?

MichaelDirda32 karma

An impossible question. The Odyssey, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Walden, Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, Njal Saga, Les Fleurs du Mal, The Tale of Genji--all these are favorites. My favorite writer, though, is probably Stendhal, especially his autobiographical works as Henri Beyle.

steve_abernathy17 karma

You're an admirer of John Crowley's Aegypt tetralogy, but what do you think of his post-Aegypt books?

I thought the Byron book was a bit of a mess, Four Freedoms was solid, but The Translator is the best and most memorable; also seemed the most semi-autobiographical.

MichaelDirda21 karma

I pretty much agree with that assessment. (I hope John won't be mad at me.) My favorite of his books remains Little, Big--the great American fantasy novel of the second half of the 20th century.

nearly_god15 karma

So, Mike, what's it like to have such a succesful father? Is it a bruden, because you'll most likely not be able to surpass his achievements or a relief, because you know you'll not be able to surpass his achievements.

MichaelDirda62 karma

The son: Yes, it's quite a bruden.

ProcDiadochu15 karma

Did you enjoy the book "Good Omens"? What are your thoughts on the story?

MichaelDirda29 karma

Yes, very much. The Post used to have a book club and I arranged for Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman to come talk about the book. At the last moment, Neil had to drop out, so it was just Terry but we had hundreds of people there and he signed books for hours. People sometimes ask if there will ever be a sequel. I doubt it (and so do Terry and Neil). But I love their proposed title for one: "664: The Neighbor of the Beast."

jetpack_operation15 karma

What is your favorite work of speculative or science fiction? And have you had the chance to read the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons?

As a side, you mentioned Gene Wolfe in one of your comments -- I tried reading the Book of the Long Sun when I was younger and couldn't get into it, but I may try it again soon as it's sitting on my shelf.

MichaelDirda39 karma

Hard question. Here are four: Well's The Time Machine; Stapledon's Last and First Men; Bester's The Stars My Destination; Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. I read Simmons's Carrion Comfort but not the Hyperion books. You should read not The Book of the Long Sun, but the Book of the New Sun, ie. The Shadow of the Torturer and its sequels. A masterpiece.

aluminiumjesus14 karma

What would be your critique of the Holy Bible?

MichaelDirda85 karma

Pages too thin.

MichaelDirda61 karma

That was actually my son Mike's reply. Apart from whether you believe the Bible is sacred scripture or not, it remains one of the great foundational works of western culture. It's simply hard to understand a lot of art, music, literature and much else if you don't have some acquaintance with the stories, people and poetry of the Bible. It's one of the great grab-bag books, like Ovid's Metamorphoses, The Arabian Nights and the Arthurian romances--there's something for every taste.

fairywaif13 karma

What's your advice to writers and to those who want to become editors?

MichaelDirda24 karma

Read as much as you can and as widely as you can. Every writer alive will give you the same advice. You don't become a writer until you've first been a reader. An editor needs to have read a lot, but also to possess a sense of story structure, an ear for prose rhythm, a sound knowledge of grammar, and a willingness to check all kinds of things.

PoopNoodle13 karma

Not to be contrary, but do you agree with some who say that all literary critics are merely frustrated writers?

If you were not critic at the top of your field, and had never become a renown literary critic, do you think you would be the best read plumber or he best read banker?

Thanks for the AMA, and thanks to your son for making it happen.

MichaelDirda39 karma

Critics are writers. You mean frustrated novelists or poets, right? I'd much rather have been a good novelist, but it wasn't in the cards or I didn't have the right ambition or talents. But I don't think most critics think of themselves as "enemies" of artists. Their aim is to encourage the literature of their time, even if sometimes this requires a certain amount of tough love in the correction of taste.

wwebsiteasoninternet11 karma

How many books have you read? Have you ever had an author express outrage about one of your reviews? (Sorry of these have already been asked.)

MichaelDirda38 karma

I have no idea how many books I've read. But I review about 75 books a year--50 for the Post and the rest for other magazines and periodicals. I try to write two pieces a week, though I don't always manage that. REmember I'm not including the blogs and mini-essays I write for The Post and the American Scholar. And all these reviews are for money. I live by my pen and hesitate to devote too much time to any writing that won't help pay the bills.

kaleemhu11 karma

What are your views on the work of Japanese author Haruki Murakami? Since most of his works appeal to me a lot, what other author(s) would you recommend whose style is similar to Murakami?

MichaelDirda11 karma

I liked his last two books a lot. IQ84 is immensely long, but it's so engagingly written that it's hard to stop reading. I reviewed them both for the Post. Style similar to his. I can't quite think of anyone like him, though you might try Robertson Davies, who gives a tinge of fantasy and the occult to his realistic fiction. A very engaging novelist.

oldzealand11 karma

A question based more on education than literature: often we see English classes nowadays studying classic novels that are quite dated. Do you think there is merit in refreshing the English curriculum with modern classics?

MichaelDirda22 karma

Depends on whether you're talking about high school or college. In high school I think kids should have a grounding in a core of classics--those great patterning works that influence so much later literature. Hence, Homer, Shakespeare, and the like. The place of modern books in such a curriculum is essentially to hook young readers by offering them hip contemporary books. The problem is that you wait 20 years and everyone has forgotten those books; they don't have the lasting power. In college courses, though, I think it good to open up the curriculum to all kinds of books. Not just books by hitherto marginalized groups, but also genre fiction, comics, everything. But such courses should still be supplementary to the Great Books. They're great for a reason. Knowledge of them allows you to make an allusion or crack a joke without explaining yourself. The novelist Robertson Davies once said that he had a student in a class who didn't Know who Noah is. You want to avoid that.

FilingCabinet8 karma

I agree that a foundation in the Great Books is important. An allusion was used to quickly describe and coordinate strategy in The Avengers, something which surprised one of my friends who thinks of comic book aficionados as being low brow and poorly read. What do you think about stereotypes of readers of specific genres, e.g. comic books or romance novels? And is "A Paperback Writer" an actual class of author that one could aspire to be?

MichaelDirda35 karma

Many of my best friends could be described as "paperback writers." I admire people who can crank out a novel in a week or even a weekend. So aspire to be Larry Block or Don Westlake or Bob Silverberg or Barry Malzberg--these guys are masters. I read comic books regularly when I was in graduate school in medieval studies. Stereotypes should be flouted. I once reviewed three Harlequin romances for Valentine's Day and I remember the lede: "This is where I lose all credibility as a critic." I said they were excellent books for what they were, well crafted, witty, fulfilling the function of a romance novel. Sometimes you want to climb Mt. Everest; sometimes you just want to take a stroll in the park. There's a place in a reader's life for all kinds of books.

Dordo310 karma

What did you do when you found that people called you the best read man?

kablunk20 karma

New visiting cards, bitches!

MichaelDirda42 karma

You know those signs for fortune tellers that you sometimes see? I've sometimes thought of having a card made that said "Michael Dirda--Reader and Advisor."

astring10 karma

Hey, You gave a presentation at my school, Flint Hill, in Oakton, Virginia a few weeks back. I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation! Your stories about your time in high school were very enlightening. Thank you!

Also, a question. What advice do you have for a student with a hectic schedule who sometimes finds it hard to find time to read?

MichaelDirda33 karma

Pick your books carefully. If a book doesn't speak to you, set it aside and try another. Cut down on TV or social networking. Everything in life is ultimately about triage, priorities.

Ambivalent_Fanatic9 karma

Just today I was having a "conversation" with some people about the difference between customer comments on Amazon.com about a book and critical reviews of the same book. I maintain that critics play an important part in our culture and that their opinions are in every way superior to those of the average joe who can write whatever he likes about a book. Other people say that I'm a snob, and that they get far more use out of customer comments than they do out of critical reviews.

So, can I ask you, in your own words, what is the role of a literary critic in our society?

MichaelDirda29 karma

I find that the amazon comments often are exceptionally shrewd and insightful, so I'm not going to diss them. But you don't really have any guarantees that what you're reading wasn't written out of friendship or spite. Critics for established venues are vetted by editors; they usually demonstrate a certain objectivity; and they come with known backgrounds and specialized knowledge. People who've read my reviews know my tastes, know how I approach a book, know my background. I can write with believable authority. It doesn't mean I'm always right. Ultimately, of course, the writing is what counts: We read certain critics because we like their style, their enthusiasm, their minds. I think of my own work as part of a decades long conversation about books and reading with people I will mainly never meet.

MakingADumbPoint9 karma

I love the work of PG Wodehouse. What do you think of him? What are some other authors that I might like in that vein?

MichaelDirda12 karma

I'm a great Wodehouse fan, used to be a member of the Wodehouse Society and still attend meetings of the local group Capital! Capital! No one is better at the original simile than Plum: "He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted it was not hemlock." Other authors? James Thurber, Terry Pratchett, earlier English classics like Three Men in a Boat and The Diary of a Nobody. My favorite comic novel though is called Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself. The author was a judge named H.H. Bashford-- a brilliant comic send-up of religious zealotry.

hellinacandybar9 karma

I've found lately that I find memoirs quite fascinating. Any recommandations of ones I should pick up? I've read some good ones but many of them are just awful.

MichaelDirda25 karma

Memoirs--you can hardly go wrong with An Open Book: Chapters in a Reader's Life. I'd go back to some older books. Benvenuto Cellini's memoirs are quite exciting--another look at the Renaissance; The Book of My Life by Girolamo Cardano is a charming book by a Renaissance magus and mathematician, Stendhals The Life of Henry Brulard is a masterpiece about coming of age. My favorite autobiographies, though, are Rousseau's Confessions and Casanova's History of My Life--two exceptionally long, but enthralling accounts of 18th century life. The Casanova is incredibly exciting--in all kinds of ways. I know what you mean about modern memoirs--too much "Once I was Lost and now I'm Found" or "look how awful my family life was."

adrianh9 karma

Have you been successful in getting your children to love reading? Any advice on the matter?

MichaelDirda46 karma

All my kids know how to read. Do you mean more than that? Every person finds his or her own relationship to books--for some it's going to be more important than others. For instance, Mike--the son involved with Reddit today--is much more of a people person than I am. I'm pretty happy to spend a lot of time alone. But back to reading: I look back on the half hours I spent reading books to my kids when they were little among the high points of my life. Not just my reading life. My life. I think most parents would say the same. My old friend Joan Aiken used to say if you weren't prepared to read to your children for an hour a day you shouldn't have any children.

cap17069 karma


MichaelDirda42 karma

You might want to ask yourself why you're becoming an English teacher if you haven't read much. Perhaps you've simply not had the chance or only lately discovered a passion for literature. But really, it doesn't matter so much how many books you've gotten through as how many books have gotten through you. If that's clear. Better to know a couple of dozen books well than a coulple of hundred only superficially. Beyond that, you might want to take a look at my books Bound to Please and Classics for Pleasure, which are invitations to read a number of 'great books."

TheJonnyB8 karma

What do you think about people who read a book review and then base whether or not they buy the book on the review? In other words, do you think that critiques of books should have any say on whether or not people buy the book and enjoy it?

MichaelDirda13 karma

Of course. One purpose of a review is to describe a book so that a person can decide whether or not to buy and read it. Indeed, for many people that's its primary function. But a review can also be other things, such as an entertaining essay.

RodionRask8 karma

I'm currently reading Gravity's Rainbow and having a horribly difficult - though occasionally exciting - time following the story. I sought some assistance and all I can find are recommendations to read up on rocketry, Parapsychology, Pavlovian Psychology, Calvinistic predestination, etc.; to takes notes on the 400+ characters in order to track their relationships; or to pick up the 700 page companion piece in order to help with the plethora of references. It seems as if the only people who could enjoy/understand this book are the literary connoisseurs who respect it's place in history and are willing to take the time to dissect Pynchon's dense prose.

What role do you think this type of writing has in both art and literature? What is the point if so few can actually comprehend the story?

MichaelDirda10 karma

The more you put into an ambitious book, a great book, the more you get out of it. If you read Proust, you could say it's about a guy who has trouble getting to sleep or who likes madleines with tisane. But that's hardly all there is to the novel. Of course, the effort is only worth it when the novel delivers a payoff. But I think Pynchon does.

steve_abernathy7 karma

It seems that independent publishers are taking more risks these days than their major publishing house counterparts. Are you noticing and trends or traits of books you read from independent publishers versus major publishers?

MichaelDirda15 karma

Yes, I would agree. Most of what I review, by necessity, comes from New York trade houses. But I'm a big fan of fantastika--that is, science fiction, horror, fantasy, children's literature--and a lot of the best stuff is published by small independent presses. These books can be pricey, though sometimes they are available as ebooks--see the Ash-Tree editions of classic ghost story authors--but I find that they are books I actually want to own. A lot of what the trade houses bring out is geared entirely to the best seller list and the profit line, and thus concentrated on bringing out an ever increasing number of ephemeral books by James Patterson, and a couple of dozen other trade name authors. Boring.

glr1237 karma

The Modern Library ranks Ulysses as its first book in the top 100. Do you think this is a fair claim? After reading Joyce, personally, I question if this is a valid assessment of the book or a novelty ranking for a variety of reasons. What are your thoughts on this and the novel as a whole?

MichaelDirda20 karma

All contests are specious. But Ulysses is certainly one of the most inexhaustible of books--you can reread it all your life and always find something new to admire. This doesn't mean it's my own favorite novel in English of the 20th century. I have a penchant for Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Nabokov's Lolita--the two greatest love stories of the century. Sort of. "This is the saddest story I have ever read." "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul."

emceegull7 karma

If your son Chris becomes an MD, would you let him treat you? As his friend, I would advise against it.

MichaelDirda11 karma

Only if it was an emergency. But I hope he becomes a very fine doctor or physician's assistant. He's smart and sensitive.

emtilt7 karma

Do you think you are as well versed in other mediums (film, theater, video games, sculpture, etc) as you are in literature? Either way, how do you think that impacts your perception of literature? Does being well versed in the criticism of other media aid in the criticism of a particular one?

Relatedly, do you think critical writing on newer mediums (film, etc...perhaps even video games) is as mature as that of literature, and, if not, what is it lacking?

MichaelDirda11 karma

Well, I just wrote a really long answer to this, and accidentally hit something on MIke's computer and it was deleted. So this is going to be short. I know books well, and pre-1980 movies, classical music and art reasonably well too. But, apart from once reviewing Myst when it came out, I don't play computer or video games, know nothing about American Idol, have never watched reality TV, and am generally pretty out of it when it comes to what was once called "youth" culture. But, hey, it would look really weird for a guy my age to be deeply into those things. New media requier new critical tools, and those are developed over time. Film criticism is fairly sophisticated now, but I'm guessing that games are still in the Isn't that Cool stage. But, as I say, that's just a guess.

Willravel7 karma

Who do you believe is the best-written character in literary history?

MichaelDirda9 karma

Best written? Not sure what that means. Hamlet? Sherlock Holmes? Elizabeth Bennett, Raskolnikov? They're all pretty vivid on the page.

[deleted]6 karma

Who called you "the best-read man in America" and why?

MichaelDirda15 karma

Michel Kinsley, the former editor of Harpers and The New Republic; also a Time Magazine columnist. Why? Because I am. Okay, that sounds too vain. I know a half dozen people who are better read than I am in one way or another, but none who is quite as widely read in all sorts of areas. But really this is a frivolous matter--it's a great blurb for my books, but one can hardly take such a claim too seriously. Who are those other people who are so well read? Harold Bloom, Alberto Manguel, John Sutherland, George Steiner, John Clute, Brian Stableford.

snowlions5 karma

Have you read any of Melvyn C. Goldstein's works? And, if so, what is your opinion of Goldstein as an author and anthropologist? The reason I ask is because Goldstein writes much about Tibet, which is one of the things I hone in on in my field of study. I'm considering graduate schools/mentors and I really enjoy other perspectives on things instead of just my own, so this seems like a great opportunity to get a legitimate, astute opinion from someone who knows what they're talking about. Thanks!

MichaelDirda15 karma

Okay. Here goes my cred for being well read. I don't know anything by or about Melvyn C. Goldstein.

istillcandream5 karma

What is your favorite science fiction (short) story? (I am admittedly an avid reader of science fiction and especially of Isaac Asimov).

MichaelDirda17 karma

"Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester. I like Asimov, too. I wrote the introduction to the Everyman Library edition of The Foundation Trilogy.

Grimms4 karma

Thanks for this fascinating AMA, I've been marking down books you've mentioned through-out. I'd like to ask if you've read any of Irvine Welsh? His works always felt extremely visceral and the language is steeped in reality (he is Scottish) at the expense of the readers comprehension, down to the local accents used and unconventional formatting.

As a secondary question do you feel this type of writing alienates or immerses a reader deeper into the world the writer is laying out even if certain language quirks are initially misread?

MichaelDirda3 karma

I have read Welsh, and do like writers who play with language or use a lot of dialect. This thickening of the transparent is a kind of enrichment. We're all taught to write plainly, directly--thanks George and E.B.--so it's a pleasure to find prose you can almost chew. I love Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban for just this reason and those 17th century masters of baroque prose, such as Robert Burton, Lancelot Andrewes, and Jeremy Taylor. Here the prose rises to prose poetry. You wouldn't want to read it all the time, but now and again it's wonderful.

JonWolfe4 karma

I'm an avid reader, but I find that I lack enough books in the genres I really enjoy to read as much as I would like. My favorite author currently has to be Terry Goodkind (Sword of Truth/Richard&Kahlan series), but I also enjoy Orson Scott Card and a plethera of like sci-fi/fantasy authors.

Currently, on a 14-hour plane ride to Frankfurt for a study abroad so I brought along Robert Jordan's "The Wheel of Time" series (books 2 & 3). I enjoy his Tolken-like style of fantasy writing, but Jordan feels to sporadic with whom the story is following and to why the sudden switch (I describe it as "an ADD child telling a really great story").

So my question is, do you have any suggestions on other authors to look into and series to pick up?

MichaelDirda26 karma

I'm presuming you know the "classics"--Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, T.H. White's ONce and Future King, Fritz Leiber's series of stories about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Robert E. Howard's Conan novels, and even Edgar Rice Burroughs's books about John Carter. (And "John Carter" was a really good, if not great, adventure movie.) . If you don't know these books, go back to them. Among contemporary authors you should certainly try Terry Pratchett's Discworld series--funny but also quite moving at times. Who can ever forget the 90 year old Cohen the Barbarian?

[deleted]3 karma


MichaelDirda4 karma

Toole's novel is a comic masterpiece--and it's a tragedy that he had to kill himself before it got into print. Jon Y and I are good friends, but our tastes often differ dramatically, but we both agree in our love for Exley's novel. If Jon hadn't written Exley's biography, I'd have wanted to do it. One summer in grad school I used to read a chapter of Fan's Notes as a treat at the end of the day.

[deleted]3 karma

It seems that a number of today's prominent literary critics (Lorin Stein comes to mind) dabbled in fiction writing before turning eventually to criticism. Did you ever consider a career as a novelist, or other writer of non-critical texts? If so, what turned you towards literary criticism?

MichaelDirda7 karma

I was going to be a college teacher and write fiction in the summer. I get get a Ph.D. in comp lit (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell, but then drifted into journalism when I came to Washington (because my then girlfriend now my wife was there). I've written half a novel and a dozen stories, one published. I thought they were fine, just not terribly distinctive or original, so I never did anything with them. I may try again one of these days.

Viridovipera3 karma

Is it weird that your son has the same name as you AND went to the same college as you? I think it's cool, but I've never met Michael Dirda senior.

MichaelDirda8 karma

Well, I told his mother not to give him the name Michael but, as usual, she never listens to me. So long as Mike is okay with this, I'm fine.

[deleted]3 karma


MichaelDirda5 karma

ONe sentence: I know a good book when I read it. If I may expand slightly: Good depends on the ruler used in the measuring. If you think a good book needs to be fast-paced, you won't find Proust to be a good book. I would urge staying loose and flexible with books. As Henry James famously said: Be one on whom nothing is lost.

illogicalexplanation3 karma

What is your favorites Sherlock Holmes short story and/or novel and why?

Mine is The Second Stain; I believe it to beautifully well done and when Sherlock butts heads with the Prime Minister over disclosure of the contents of the treaty at the beginning of the tale I am always taken aback by the power over the Prime Minister that Sherlock displays with his initial rejection of the commission on the case.

MichaelDirda7 karma

The Hound of the Baskervilles--in part because it was the first Holmes I ever read. I write about that experience--a dark and stormy night, being home alone, etc.--in On Conan Doyle. Among the stories I'm equally conventional: The Speckled Band. Of course, I could say The Three Gables--that's one of the worst of the Holmes stories. But I'm a member of the Baker Street Irregulars and my investiture name comes from that tale. "Watson," says Holmes at one point, "this is a case for Langdale Pike, and I'm going to see him now." Langdale Pike is essentially a gossip columnist for the London newspapers.