Classics for Pleasure

By MICHAEL DIRDA

Washington Post book critic and Pultizer Prize winner states his intention plainly: he wants to introduce readers to great works of literature that will give them pleasure. And in his aptly titled new book he does so with great gusto and aplomb. That alone separates him from most academic writers, while his sense of “classic” is also a far cry from what you might expect, since Dirda displays a genuine love of so-called genre fiction — the everyday magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the cracked visions of Philip K. Dick, and the creepy forebodings of M. R. James. A self-confessed “passionate reader,” as he’s demonstrated in a number of previous books as well, Dirda once again surveys an amazing range of literary works: from poets (Pope, Pound, Ovid) to philosophers (Heraclitus, Spinoza, Kierkegaard), with a few playwrights (Marlowe and Webster) thrown in for good measure. Dirda’s breadth of vision will humble even the most voracious readers, who are certain to meet some unfamiliar faces in this crowd, which includes Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Marie-Madeleine de La Fayette, and Girolamo Cardano, to name just a few. Better yet, Dirda reminds us of why we treasure the authors we do — he celebrates the “civilized amusements” of Max Beerbohm, the “heartbreakingly pure voice” of Sappho, and the “grave and august power” of the Beowulf poet. Dirda’s generous aesthetic spans writers as different as the genial Erasmus and the misanthropic Louis-Ferdinand C‚line: he admires both the complex prose of Cicero and the clean narratives of Dashiell Hammett. In short, Dirda’s a critic of Whitmanic proportions: he contains multitudes. -Thomas DePietro