Home > I. Books > Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure–A Book Review

Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure–A Book Review

File:The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton frontispiece 1638 edition.jpg

The forest of books can present a stern face to adventurers: would-be learners and seekers after pleasure enter at their own peril, faced as they are with a vast array of material (especially after the introduction of the Internet)–some good, some appalling, some inappropriate, and some just boring. The reader’s quest is overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Enter the book reviewer, a humble surveyor of the literary landscape, vanishing for weeks into the thickets and faint paths, following rumors and the maps of other surveyors. A rare beast this, and all the rarer if gifted at picking out the choicest specimens of the writer’s art. None, RT believes, is finer at the task than Michael Dirda, a book reviewer for the Washington Post for many years. And no book is better proof of this than Dirda’s latest collection of reviews, Classics for Pleasure .


When you’ve reviewed important books for years, what’s left for your discerning eye to report on? Dirda’s answer: more than you might think, if you’re willing to look in the right places. Here are some of the writers he recommends: Willa Cather (My Antonia), H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines), Baruch Spinoza (Ethics), Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle), and Ovid (The Metamorphoses). Notice how each of these authors exists in a contemporary psychological blind spot: Cather, a literary standard writing about a time and place that can seem far from our own; Haggard, a Victorian author and champion of the British Empire in Africa; Spinoza, a 17th-century philosopher whose thinking was modeled on geometric proofs; Dick, a science-fiction author, not of the cheerier variety; and Ovid, a Roman poet telling some of the Greek myths.

Not to say that these books don’t offer adventure, gorgeous prose (or poetry), intriguing characters, some of the finest stories from ancient storytellers, and so on.  What really sets this selection of authors apart is the windows they offer onto non-mainstream realities (and sometimes, onto those of our own realities we feel most uncomfortable with). The purpose? To broaden our experience and heal our hearts–and more than occasionally, to offer plain fun.

Now, suggesting books is rather like buying a wardrobe for someone you don’t know:  they may not like your choices. But at least you can offer a broad variety of styles and colors to choose from, and here Classics certainly doesn’t disappoint. You can also offer quality merchandise, and the titles and authors suggested here are by common consent some of the finest. And you can concentrate on fun–and here, Classics offers adventure stories, children’s books, and exotic plots and places. If you need escape, you’ll find it; if you want to inform yourself about important ideas, you can do that too.

RT will certainly be copying down some of Dirda’s suggestions for future reading; he hopes that some of his readers will follow suit. Bravo, Mr. Dirda!     RT


Book Cover: Frontispiece for the 1638 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy; Author: Robert Burton. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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