Michael Dirda, a longtime book critic for the Washington Post, is such an enthusiastic reader that his column alone cannot contain his literary effusions. Classics for Pleasure is the fifth volume he's produced to catch the spillover, following, among others, "Bound to Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books" and "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments."
Critics are usually so caught up reviewing the next new book that old favorites are read on the sly, like candy bars sneaked in during a diet. Tried-and-true volumes provide not only comfort but also a yardstick against which the constant barrage of contemporary works can be measured. Does a book amuse? Scintillate? Resonate? Break new ground? Does it have staying power?
Recognizing that classics have gotten a bad name from deadly school assignments, Dirda starts out somewhat defensively. He asserts that "Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century." Fearing that if he'd arranged his book chronologically, readers might skip the older stuff, he instead relies on 11 categories, such as "Playful Imagination," "Loves Mysteries," "Traveler's Tales," and "The Dark Side," enabling readers to zero in on the types of books they prefer.
More significantly, Dirda refrains from rounding up the usual suspects (Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy). Instead, there are plenty of unfamiliar names (Jean Toomer, H. Rider Haggard, Sheridan Le Fanu) and some less highbrow surprises (Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Philip K. Dick). Dirda explains, "It seemed more useful – and fun – to point readers to new authors and less familiar classics."
In other words, "Classics for Pleasure" is not a book for people hoping to chart a course toward general literacy. Instead, it's aimed at avid readers looking for substantive recommendations that are neither obvious nor contemporary – readers who might ask, "What have I missed?"
Dirda conveys his passion for some 90 authors in brief essays filled with alluring quotations, juicy minibiographies, and sharp assessments. His tantalizing plot summaries deliberately leave us dangling. (After reading his encapsulation of the 14th-century medieval romance, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," I had to unearth my copy, untouched since high school, to find out what happens.)
In case his synopses don't do the trick, Dirda clinches each "sale" with lively shorthand comparisons to more familiar, beloved works. Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Svejk" is called "a Slavic cousin" to Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," while The Icelandic Sagas evoke "a thirteenth century Hemingway."
Discussing Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels, Dirda writes, "Imagine a mix of Oscar Wilde, Wilkie Collins, and Sophocles, or think of a gloomy P.G. Wodehouse." Georgette Heyer's regency romances elicit comparisons to Patrick O'Brian and Jane Austen, and Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov is called "a Slavic version of Forrest Gump." "Oblomov" is one of my old favorites, but that's not an association I would have made.
Dirda is both witty and wise. Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca" is praised as "a tour de force of narrative control and point of view worthy of Henry James," while Walter de La Mare's strange "Memoirs of a Midget" "may be regarded as one of the best novels that Henry James never wrote."
Although Dirda wears his erudition lightly, his literary zeal runs unchecked. "Not enough people read Samuel Johnson," he complains. Writing about the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, he notes, "It's nearly always rewarding to read several translations when one doesn't know a poem's original language."
How contagious are Dirda's enthusiasms? He aroused my curiosity about J.G. Frazer's "The Golden Bough" ("one of the great Victorian monuments of eccentric scholarship,") C.K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday" ("both Dickensian and Kafkaesque"), and Georgette Heyer's "The Grand Sophy," to name just three.
As for Jacob Burckhardt's 19th-century "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy," Daniel Defoe's early 18th-century "sprawling love letter to Great Britain," or Robert Burton's early 17th-century "Anatomy of Melancholy," I don't think I'll be reading them anytime soon. But Dirda did stir up fond memories of authors I haven't revisited in years – André Malraux, Elizabeth Gaskell, Denis Diderot, Erasmus – which may well prompt me to pull a few off my shelves and take a fresh look. But first, my next assignment.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance critic in New York.