By Michael Dirda
HARCOURT; 325 pages; $25

Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle 11.9.07

It’s a daunting endeavor to critique a critic, even more so an ardent, Pulitzer-winning wordsmith such as Michael Dirda. This challenge is compounded by the nature of his new book, “Classics for Pleasure,” an ambitious roundup of classic works of literature chosen for their delight-inducing qualities.

Dirda’s crystalline prose—ripe with distinct and often exquisite diction, such as noting the costive or epigrammatic nature of a passage—and his patent love affair with literature and writers, elevates this collection of essays above a mere reference guide, even if Dirda appears to see his book as partly that: “Think of what follows as a guide to good reading, a collection of love letters to favorite books, and an expansion of the canon to include more genre titles,” he writes. “Please feel free to dip and browse at whim.”

Each selection is thematically organized according to categories of Dirda’s design –from “Everyday Magic” to “Encyclopedic Visions” to “Love’s Mysteries”—a smart choice, effective in pulling readers inside the books at the outset, preventing the casual skimming and era-jumping of pure alphabetical ordering. More important, these loose interpretations allow room for surprises; for example, reading about Jules Verne’s works alongside Xavier de Maistre’s travel narratives of his room in the section “Traveler’s Tales.”

The list of authors and manuscripts is by no means comprehensive. Dirda’s selections are culled to eliminate crossover with titles mentioned in his other books, making “Classics for Pleasure” at first seem best for those already acquainted with Dirda and his reading series. Such readers will have no trouble trusting Dirda’s designation of these books or his beautifully effusive metaphors, such as: “If reading the Victorians may be likened to devouring a rich Christmas feast, reading Merimee is like sipping a dry martini—cold, bracing, and delicious.”

Such comparisons abound, revealing not only the promised pleasure of reading enduring works of literature, but also of reading Dirda. So even if one is new his prose, his impeccable standards, unbridled enthusiasm and intelligent joy at recounting elements of character, scene, author and society, will attract anyone with a genuine interest in literate discoveries. The book’s brief plot summaries whet appetites for new tomes and act as primer for literati cocktail parties, while the more critical explorations in “Classics for Pleasure” offer new points of entry for beloved works.

The book’s remarkable breadth sweeps continents and eras, alighting on such countries as Persia via “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings”, Greece by way of Sappho’s Poetry, and Iceland through The Icelandic Sagas, which Dirda wittily dubs “Mafia crime dramas, or spaghetti westerns on ice”; and ranging from the Tao Te Ching in 570 B.C., Beowulf in the 8th century, and the late 20th century work of Edward Gorey. Dirda covers the expected, such as Christopher Marlowe and Chekhov, as well as the surprising, such as Kierkegaard the “Love’s Mysteries” section, providing significant biographical background information, which could only be more compelling if accompanied by notes and source citations.

And if that isn’t enough, Dirda makes recommendations such as which editions to purchase, classics with which to begin, how to read Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books (slowly) and why you should “not be put off from discovering Zola.” But the most delightful moments are Dirda’s contemporary comparisons to relevant titles and cultural icons, such as describing Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” as “an exceptionally campy work, an epic in drag,” and the modern equivalent of “Shanameh” as “an amalgam of Homer’s Iliad and the ferocious Old Testament book of Judges.”

Even when Dirda includes an author who doesn’t seem a good fit, one can enjoy great lapidary characterizations of them, like this one of S. J. Perelman’s prose: “An ability to parody anything from romance novels to international thrillers to socialist dramas, a quicksilver syntax and breathless narrative pace, diction in which Hollywood argot, Yiddish, and the rare words in a good thesaurus brazenly co-habit, and sentences that follow the vertiginous logic of their grammar right into Wonderland—these are the chief elements of Perelman’s surreal pages.” As Dirda writes of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” the same could be said of his book: “It’s hard to stop quoting.”

Classics for Pleasure” is a handbook of classic thinkers, poets, raconteurs, and their ideas that have remained to shape us throughout centuries. Dirda tackles the formidable subject of classifying important works of the world in such a way to make for effortless reading—each page seems not a hermetic, dehydrated longueur, but a relaxed, enjoyable causerie. This bevy of distinctive voices stands out more for their genuine celebration by an equally distinctive writer, who manages to convince the reader that each author and each book must be read.