11:22 PM CDT on Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The mid-20th-century Italian novelist Italo Calvino once asked: “What do reading and lovemaking have in common?” The answer is, of course, pleasure.
Longtime Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda concurs. The title of his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, says it all. It is his fifth collection of essays about books and reading, after all.
“I wanted to break open the canon in ways that surprise people, by including books like Sheridan Le Fanu’s ghost stories or the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer,” Mr. Dirda says by phone from his home near Washington, D.C.
Mr. Dirda will be sharing his inclusive view of literature, and his gift for celebrating the pleasure of reading, with thousands of Texans at this weekend’s 13th annual Texas Book Festival taking place at the State Capitol in Austin.
He’s no stranger to such scenes, having been a regular presenter at the National Book Festival, which was co-founded by first lady Laura Bush in 2001 and is modeled on the Texas Book Festival, which the first lady also co-founded.
Mr. Dirda sees the rise in the number of book festivals as a positive trend in a culture said to be increasingly disinterested in books and reading.
“The country has a lot more readers than we realize,” says Mr. Dirda. “When I’ve gone to festivals, I’ve seen people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. There does seem to be a real enthusiasm for books that we sometimes forget about. What’s more, there often is a little something for everybody at such things, so it’s a great day out.”
Mr. Dirda’s own passion for books is infectious. The Pulitzer-winning critic’s latest book (Harcourt, $25) offers summaries of 90 titles, ranging from the accepted ancients, such as Plutarch and Ovid, to contemporaries Eudora Welty and André Malraux, as well as writers whose works may not be everybody’s idea of classics, such as H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and cartoonist Edward Gorey.
The most important thing about the book, says Mr. Dirda, “is that people realize this is not academic literary criticism — it’s a book of enthusiasms, books that are important to me and that I want to introduce to others.”
The book is so effective that, as one reads it, it’s all but impossible not to pitch it aside and rush out to purchase whatever title Mr. Dirda has just finished describing, be it Xavier de Maistre’s anti-travel book A Journey Around My Room (written in 1795 after he was confined to his quarters for 42 days as punishment for dueling) or the Icelandic Sagas or the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. That Mr. Dirda should be so high on medieval and Romantic literature, an area the majority of us will find obscure, is no surprise: It’s the field in which he holds a doctorate.
His eclectic interests might meet their match at the Austin event, which this year includes gay-themed young adult fiction, T. Boone Pickens in conversation with Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith, a panel covering “Water Issues in Texas,” and a talk with Pulpwood Queen Kathy Patrick, the larger-than-life personality who runs Beauty and the Book, a bookstore-cum-hair salon in Jefferson, Texas.
Though it’s an election year, which means publishers have largely decided to hold back their biggest name authors until the media might pay attention again, there are still a number of not-to-be-missed authors on the roster, such as LBJ biographer Robert Caro, who is being honored with a Bookend Award from the organizers, and novelist Richard Price, who will be interviewed by Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch.
The only disappointment to Mr. Dirda is the absence, for the first time in many years, of Kinky Friedman.
“He’s someone I’m fond of and who I actually think of as being a Texas writer,” says Mr. Dirda. “Otherwise, I don’t think of a writer, Larry McMurtry for example, in that way. I tend to think more about the quality of their vision or their process.”
As for Mr. Dirda, he’s looking forward to catching up with fellow authors whom he admires, including Francine Prose, Christopher Buckley and Roy Blount Jr.
“Otherwise, I’m just the same as everyone,” he says. “I’m looking for discoveries. And hopefully, as is the case with my book, rediscoveries.”
Houston freelance writer Edward Nawotka, who served as programming and communications manager of the Texas Book Festival in 2004, will interview Mr. Dirda onstage at this year’s festival.