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Bound to Please (thoughts)

July 21, 2007

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Michael Dirda is a bit of an ass. Why? First, it’s that he subtitled his book “An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education.” And then, well, it’s sentences like this….

“By ‘literary’ reading, the NEA report means almost any work that isn’t a textbook or business report. So the category embraces mysteries, chick-lit, adventure novels, westerns, fantasy and science ficion, spy thrillers, possibly even children’s books (this isn’t clear). In short, almost everthing. Now, although I enjoy trolling in nearly all of fiction’s genres-even, on occasion, checking out Harlequin romances, whose fans probably account for most of the people who get through a dozen or more titles a year-I still don’t think of these books as, for the most part, serious reading, as literary reading.” (xxiv)
-Note the snide remark that most reading Americans must be addicted to Harlequin-

“But those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins.” (xxiv)
-Note the charming assumption that if I don’t like to disfigure my books, I don’t love them-

“Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly “edgy”? (xxv)
-My favourite assumption from older people: since I’m young, I don’t value culture-

“Come the dawn, though, and our good intentions usually evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or line up at the multiplex for this week’s timeless Hollywood blockbuster?…Instead of actually reading Tocqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs.” (xxvi)

That was just the prologue. He also sometimes appends ‘postscripts’ to his reviews that usually highlight how special Dirda is. For example,
“I still reread The Unquiet Grace every year or two and, even though I recognize its occasional sentimentality and period flavor, continue to find it a mirror to my own heart.” (483)

Throughout the actual reviews (culled from almost three decades of the WP Book World) runs the sentiment that Dirda, unlike the ‘common’ reader, can appreciate the true value of literature. Through his writing, he hopes to raise us uninspired masses into a place where we can bask in his literary glow. Dirda’s one of those people who uses ‘should’ and ‘ought’ quite often.

Best of all, Dirda is a hypocrite. Towards the end of the book, he includes an essay he wrote on education. Among the prentensious claims and ponderous delivery, he argues for multiculturalism, with sentences like “Our schools should introduce young people to the world’s cultural richness and variety…” (505) and “Schools really should take pains to include more work by women.” (506) And yet, in a book that has exactly 500 pages devoted to 110 reviews, would you like to know how many authors Dirda looks at who are not from the US or Europe? 3: 1001 Nights, Borges, and de Assis (Brazilian). He also deigns to include 4 women authors to ‘balance out’ the 106 men. This in a book that claims to provide to any reader a “one-volume literary education.” Well, I guess Dirda can always fall back on that well-worn classic: do as I say, not as I do.

So, needless to say, Dirda is not someone I would ever want to run into at a cocktail party. Unlike Nick Hornby (see my effusions on The Polysyllabic Spree, another collection of previously-published reviews), Dirda represents, to me, everything that’s wrong about literary criticism.

That being said, I’m glad I read this book, and I’ll probably read his other collections of reviews. Why? Quite simple, because he has a comparative literature background and has been reviewing books for longer than I’ve been alive. The book was a great resource for new (European, male) authors. I have a list as long as my arm.

So, while Dirda and I are certainly not kindred spirits, I’ll tolerate his pretensions in order to be introduced to new authors. Of course, as a common reader, I’m obviously unable to appreciate books with the same depth as Dirda. But at least I spend my time with my nose in a book, and not upturned at the rest of the population.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Imani permalink
    July 21, 2007 9:32 pm

    Oh, this gave me the funniest idea. I’ll start adding quaint postcripts to my “reviews” on my blog. They’ll be more along the lines of “Every time I go to the chain book store I like to browse the erotic lit section. Just because!”

    Harold Bloom has a similar fondness for the words “should” and “ought” so I avoid his writings.

  2. Gentle Reader permalink
    July 22, 2007 4:06 pm

    Hee hee hee, I giggled when I read this post. I have a feeling Michael Dirda is a bit of an ass, too. But that’s not to say I’m not going to read my copy of Book By Book. Though I’m sure I’ll feel condescended to throughout…

  3. litlove permalink
    July 23, 2007 8:06 am

    Very interesting, Eva, as I’d been wondering whether to read anything or not by Michael Dirda, and now I think, probably not. I’m going to head off towards Elizabeth Hardwick instead!

  4. Sarah permalink
    July 27, 2007 3:09 pm

    You know, I bought one of Dirda’s books and was sooo excited to read it, but his tone made me cranky from the get-go. So, like you, I’ll read him in order to get new titles/authors, but I really don’t appreciate his elitism. Hornby, on the other hand, is fantastic all the way around (and when I worked at a bookstore I got to hear him speak–he’s great in person as well!).

  5. Michael permalink
    December 1, 2007 1:15 am

    Having crashed my way through most of Bound to Please today, I found your page while looking to see if Dirda had a webpage.

    I loved your angry take on his personality.

    I think editors choose subtitles in order to try and sell. It didn’t even occur to me to think less of the author because of it.

    In passing, Dirda doesn’t say Americans are addicted to Harlequins, but rather, that of those the NEA counts as reading 12 or more books a year, a majority consists of harlequin readers. An assertion that I doubt is meant to be taken at face value. Ranting about the woes of an increasingly illiterate culture seems to be a required rite for any author of a book on books.

    The signs of pretentiousness that you point out, I thought were only expressions of Dirda’s love for those works. Having just finished two non-fiction books written by insufferably pretentious authors, perhaps I am now too thick-skinned to feel slighted by Dirda.

    I enjoyed the selection of books Dirda reviewed. It was fresher than the Best Books Ever ( a la Bloom) but less faddish than the Best Seller lists. Lots of unusual works and authors I did not know that I plan to get to know better.

  6. rumicat permalink
    January 28, 2008 4:12 pm

    Well, obviously anybody over the age of 40 who has spent 100% of his working life reading and writing about books is probably going to earn himself the p-word epithet. In Dirda’s case, however, I’d type the label in lower case, maybe 8-point font. He’s really pretty gentle about pushing his opinions, and I’ve never suspected that he enjoys pushing a traditional western white male cannon for any other reason than he honestly believes in it. And it really does get down to the fact that the majority of enduring and influential works of liteature were written by carriers of the Y chromosome. I’m not happy about it, and I don’t think he is, it just happens to be true. I think Dirda and Bloom and some of the others that rally for the cannon are just frustrated at the efforts of well-meaning but misguided individuals who think that the route to helping traditionally disadvataged people is to rewrite history. Their answer is let’s just train everybody to love Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne, and see what happens. It’s quite easy to get interested in most popular writers, even most of our recent award winning authors are pretty accessible. But to get to the point that you can really enjoy reading Shakespeare, delight in Milton, or see the beauty in a tricky Donne poem, well that takes building a few brain cells and mental ciruits that just don’t come ready made from a steady diet of pop culture. It’s not such a bad thing, and if you need to write in, spit on, or abuse the margins of your books to get there then so be it.

  7. January 28, 2008 5:56 pm

    Michael, somehow I never found out about your comment-sorry. I guess everyone interprets thing differently! But I did definitely enjoy his selection of authors…have you read his new one, Classics for Pleasure? I liked it a lot more.

    Hi Rumicat! Thanks for stopping by. :)

    My issue wasn’t with the canon itself; I don’t have a problem with a ton of influential white men. My issue was the contradiction between what he thought the education system ought to do and what he himself was doing. So, I agree w/ you on thoughts on the canon.

    I recently read and reviewed his new book (Classics for Pleasure), and I really loved it; the preachiness that bothered me so much in this one is barely there. For this one, it was mainly his non-book review writing that contained the elitism.

  8. rumicat permalink
    January 29, 2008 10:08 am

    Hi Eva, Classics for Pleasure seems to be rubbing alot of people better. I ordered it recently so I’m glad to hear you recommend it. You might like Dirda better if you read his weekly WaPost discussion (Wednesdays or Tuesdays at 2 I think). He comes across as a pleasant guy, and there are always lots of suggestions for books to read from bibliophiles from all over the country.

    As for me, it used to bother me a great deal that so much of literature was written by old white guys. Not so much as I’ve gotten older and come to realize how tough it is just to get by in the world while simultaneously trying to take care of your family. I just figure John Milton’s sister was too busy.

    As for what you were saying, I would agree that Dirda could be more inclusive in his recommendations. I guess I figure he’s the one to go to if I’m looking for a good mystery or a lead on an overlooked classic. If I’m looking for heartwrenching family drama it’s Oprah’s book club. I’m generally just happy to find a good source for book recommendations, because there’s nothing I hate more than getting 50 pages into a book and feeling that I’ve lost precious hours of my life to a novel I probably could have written. Maybe I’ll find some good recommendations here…

  9. January 29, 2008 11:46 am

    Rumicat, I’ll have to look into that! That’s a good point you make about women being too busy. Life’s definitely been uneven! I’m fairly certain Classics for Pleasure is more balanced as well-at least I seem to remember a lot more women in it. I agree that it’s always exciting to find good book recommendations! Do you have a blog? (It’s not linking) And if you’re looking for my recommendations, I made lists of some of the books that stood out in my mind last year you can find by clicking on the “2007 Stuff” tab. :)

  10. rumicat permalink
    January 29, 2008 2:16 pm

    Hi Eva. I don’t have a blog. I do work full time and have a 1 year old, so it’s busy, busy, busy all day and all night for me. I peruse the internet when I’m resting my brain at work, usually between reading biochemistry papers. I probably don’t read enough lately to keep up a blog on reading, if I maganged to read 15 books last year I would be surprised.

    I’ll check out your 2007 stuff. I looked at it quickly and laughed at what you said about The Black Book. My feelings exactly! My Name is Red is wonderful however, along the lines of The Name of the Rose if you liked that one. Take care

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