Terence's Reviews > Classics for Pleasure

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda
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's review
Dec 30, 08

bookshelves: literary-criticism, essay-collections
Read in December, 2008, read count: 1

"Real" rating = 3.5 or so

Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure is an eminently readable collection of three-to-five-page essays on authors of the lesser known "classics" of Western literature (mostly - Dirda does slip in Laozi (China) and Ferdowsi (Iran)). I'm not about to rush out and find all of the works mentioned in this book but there are some that I am interested in reading. And the ones that I don't feel attracted to? Well, now at least I have an idea of what I'm missing. (Truly, I think in many cases, I would enjoy Dirda's essay more than the author's work itself.)

The book is divided into eleven sections:

I. Playful Imaginations: Here Dirda introduces masters of the lighter side of the human condition, starting with the Greek Lucian. Of the selection, Ivy Compton-Burnett looked interesting enough for me to follow up on. And, while I have no great interest in S.J. Perelman's collected work, Dirda does quote a passage from "Strictly from Hunger" that I particularly liked: "Our meal finished, we sauntered into the rumpus room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her." (p. 27)

II. Heroes of Their Time: Starting with Beowulf (which I still believe is better heard than read) and moving through to James Agee, Dirda samples the authors who've explored what it means to be a hero. I'm almost tempted to find a copy of the Shahnameh or the Njal Saga. I have been tempted to track down Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel.

III. Love's Mysteries: This category's subject matter should be self-evident. Here, I was introduced to and became interested in George Meredith and Anna Akhmatova.

IV. Words from the Wise: I've always been a fan of Laozi, Heraclitus and Spinoza but I learned a few things about other wise men as well. (And, yes, alas, they are all men in this section; though I don't think Dirda is suggesting anything by this. He's got plenty to say about women writers of equal depth to anyone in this section elsewhere.)

V. Everyday Magic deals with writers of youth - The attempt to recapture, if not innocence, then the sense of wonder and of the new with which children see the world.

VI. Lives of Consequence: Here are authors who speculate about life's meaning(s). All of the essays were fascinating glimpses into the lives and works of the authors.

VII. The Dark Side - a favorite genre of mine. Many of the authors I've already met - Shelley, Le Fanu, Stoker, Lovecraft.

VIII. Traveler's Tales, being a loosely defined genre that includes real travelers as well as the fantastic sort (i.e., Jules Verne or Thomas More).

IX. The Way We Live Now: In this section, Dirda writes about the writers who "show us recognizable people making their way through 'the real world.'" (p. 233) Happily, Anton Chekhov makes the list but I also learned about Ivan Goncharov and Jose Maria Eca de Queiros.

X. Realms of Adventure: Another section where I've already made the acquaintance of most of the authors - Haggard, Doyle, Kipling, Wells, Chesterton, Christie and Hammett. Dirda's essay on Kipling almost, but not quite, makes me want to read Kim.

XI. Encyclopedic Visions deals with the writers who tackled subjects of vast scope - psychology, history, anthropology and the meaning(s) of reality.

One may quibble at the relative lack of authors post-1950 (in fact, most come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries) but Dirda points out several times that this book isn't an exhaustive list; many of his favorites have shown up elsewhere and he felt no need to repeat himself here. Read this volume simply to enjoy Dirda's essays and discover a bit more about our richly complex literary heritage.

This may also be a good recommendation for the bookish teenager looking to find out what's worth reading; or for anyone seeking to expand their reading experience.
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Reading Progress

12/29/2008 page 270

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Wow, based on your review I'm going to *have* to pick this up now. The sheer scope of the topics covered is breathtaking.

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