Great Books Speak to Us

Classics for Pleasureby By Michael DirdaHarcourt. 352p $25
Any avid reader enjoys perusing the bookshelves of a well-read friend. You pick up a book, say, Oh, Id love to read this sometime, and your friend, standing beside you, picks others off the shelf, and explains why you must also read these, the authors lesser-known works. You spy a book you have read and say, Oh, I love this one! Your friend agrees, and deftly opens to a favorite passage which he reads with delight, and follows with a memorable anecdote about its author. Such is the experience of reading Classics for Pleasure, a brilliant new collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda. In an age of image overload, Dirda inspires people to read.

At the outset the author states his intention: For more than ninety authors Ive written brief essays of introduction or invitation, hoping through summary, tantalizing quotation, and concise biography to convey a writers or a books particular magic. In general, my approach is that of a passionate reader rather than that of a critic or scholar. Eschewing strict chronology, Dirda divides his book into 11 thematic sections; and the selections span a host of literary genres. Within each he discusses recognized classics the reader would expect to find, andmore oftenhe introduces relatively un-known gems. Thus, in the section entitled Heroes of Their Time, we rediscover the bleakly beautiful poetry of Beowulf, and we discover the Icelandic sagas, in which the heroes must bend to their gray and somber destinies. Loves Mysteries reintroduces Sappho, while we also meet Georgette Heyer, whose 40 Regency-era romance novels Dirda likens to those of Jane Austen.

The erudite Dirda has a strong taste for surgical witoften directed at religion. In The Playful Imagination, for example, he singles out Jaroslav Haseks The Good Soldier Svejk for its vitriolic attacks: Every time a Catholic priest comforts a condemned man, says Hasek, he carries a crucifix, as if to say: Youre only having your head chopped off, youre only being hanged, youre only being strangled, youre only having 15,000 volts shoved into you, but dont forget what He had to go through. Ivy Compton-Burnett icily observ[es] that people who believe in the resurrection will believe in anything. In The Way We Live Now, we read about Eca de Queiross Crime of Father Amaro, which tells the story of a priest, who before he had even made his vowswas already longing to break them. With relish, Dirda cites a long passage from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which Gibbon applies his most honeyed style to Christian miracles and martyrdoms with a wickedness that Voltaire might envy.

Dirda also appreciates the authentic religious imagination. He applauds Erasmus pointed satire against scholastic learningreligious hypocrisy, and fanaticism, but also his affirmation of the way Christ endured the folly of the Cross and reminded his followers to imitate children, lilies, mustard-seed, and humble sparrows, all foolish, senseless things, which live their lives by natural instinct alone, free from care or purpose. He lauds the language of the King James Bible, which keeps us spellbound with its deeply felt nobility and seriousness, as well as the life of Alexander Pope, who triumphed over many obstaclesa wrecked body, a persecuted faith [Catholicism], a formal education that ceased at the age of twelve. He also discerns a quiet, almost theological grandeur in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and pronounces Death Comes for the Archbishop one of Willa Cathers finest.

Is there a better Christmas dinner in American fiction than the one cooked by Father Vaillant and shared with his friend Bishop Latour? Is there a more moving scene than the one in which, on a cold winters night, the bishop discovers an old Mexican woman praying and weeping before the altar? Sada, a slave owned by an irreligious family, has been forbidden to attend mass, but on this night she has stolen away to spend a few minutes in the house of God. She tells the bishop it has been nineteen years since she was allowed to partake of the sacraments. At the chapters climax, the two pray together and the bishop humbly tells himself that truly this church was Sadas house, and he was a servant in it.

At times the reader wishes that Dirda had offered similarly attentive appreciations of the Christian dimension of others he discussesThomas More, G. K. Chesterton, Isak Dinesen and W. H. Auden. And I sometimes found Dirdas taste for the macabre wearisome: For dont we secretly envy Dracula? Whats truly disturbing about the Undead, after all, is not that they become blood-sucking fiends but that they take so completely to the lifestyle. And yet, even as the author delights in J. K. Huysmanss A Rebours, the acknowledged bible of decadence, he notes that Huysmans later took instruction at a monastery and converted to Catholicism. As Barbey dAurevilley said when he read A Rebours, After such a book, the only choice left open to the author is between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross.

Classics for Pleasure is itself a pleasure to dip into any time. Like the key that opens up the door to The Secret Garden, it provides easy entry to a colorful array of literary gems. If you are working up a reading list for the new year, Dirda is a good friend to consult.

Tim Reidy
9 years 4 months ago
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