What I Like About Michael Dirda

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In a word--breadth. This is a man who finds much to enjoy in the literary world. Listed in his "sources" in the back of the small volume Book by Book we find reference to: Charles Addams, Mortimer Adler, Italo Calvino, John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton, Collette, John Collier, Robertson Davies, Lord Dunsany, Umberto Eco, Ford Madox Ford, Michel Foucault, Northrop Frye, Henry Green, Georgette Heyer, Diana Wynne Jones, Sheridan Le Fanu, Vernon Lee, China Miéville, Thomas Love Peacock, Mervyn Peake, Rex Stout, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Mary Wollstonecraft, Gottfried von Strassburg, P.G. Wodehouse and others. This doesn't include the authors within the body of the work.

What this reach says is that it is not necessary to denigrate the lesser luminaries to enjoy the works of the great. There is as much pleasure to be derived from the real enjoyment of Georgette Heyer in her capacity as a Regency Romance novelist as there is to be garnered from braving the wilds of Rabelais. There is as much delight in the light fantasy of Dunsany as there is in the more robust measure of Stendahl. Gossamer webs do not preclude iron bars. The appreciation of literature comes from the appreciation first of what it is and second of how well it fulfills the mission of being. In Dirda's world Lovecraft can be as much a way of exposing the human as Céline or Lowry. Rex Stout has as much to offer the reader (albeit in a very different sense and way) as Dickens. I'm sure even Mr. Dirda has limits he will not transgress, but I have to revel in a list that sets side by side Michel Foucault and Georgette Heyer; Umberto Eco and Lord Dunsany;P.G Wodehouse and Mary Wollstonecraft; John Dickson Carr and Gottfried von Strassburg. There is something to admire in a person who can embrace all of these things and find within them something embraceable.

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I met Michael Dirda once, at a Wodehouse Society chapter meeting in Washington, DC. He was fresh from a GK Chesterton Society meeting, and commented on the variety of motivations among GKC devotees. (Alas, he's a "raised Catholic," though without an evident chip on the shoulder.)

Some time later, he wrote an article that, if memory serves, listed several books he regarded as tried and true sources of wisdom. The list included a volume of Nietzsche, and I sent him an email informing him that any list praising Nietzsche is fundamentally unsound. He didn't catch the Wodehouse allusion (in one story, Jeeves tells Bertie, "You would not have liked Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound."), and so took it as something of an insult.

But yes, his breadth does him well. It also doesn't hurt that he's a very perceptive reader and a very good essayist.

A friend of mine who used to live in northern Virginia would clip Dirda's columns from the Washington Post and send them to me. They were much appreciated.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 19, 2006 8:40 AM.

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