Thursday, March 24, 2011

Classics for Pleasure

Classics for PleasureIn his introduction to Classics for Pleasure, Michael Dirda acknowledges that many people believe that classic books are "difficult, esoteric, and a little boring."  We grow up being told they are as good for us as cod-liver oil.

But in reality, Dirda says, classics are classics not because they somehow improve us but because "people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century.  These books "speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions."  And they connect us and our emotions with the parallel feelings of people thoughout the history of humanity.

Dirda relates that he found a copy of Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan when he was young boy.  The book shaped his future reading profoundly: "This Fadiman guy made great books sound just as exciting as Green Lantern comics or the latest Tarzan paperback."

After working his way though most of The Lifetime Reading Plan, Dirda began to branch out in his reading and discover many more classic books that he seeks to share with his readers.  "Classics for Pleasure deliberately ignores most of the authors discussed in that [updated, more multicultural] 1997 Fadiman-Major edition," says Dirda.  "It seemed more useful--and fun--to point readers to new authors and less obvious classics."  The entries in Dirda's book proceed to do exactly that--introducing readers to authors from Edward Gorey and Italo Calvino to S.J. Perelman, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Eudora Welty.

Dirda's entries are not simply listings or summaries as Fadiman's are, or as Murnigan gives us.  Instead, they are mini-essays which explore larger themes and make his observations personal.  He connects the books to each other, across time and place, allowing them to have a conversation.

This book is not so much as an introductory guide as a lovely exploration of ideas--perfect before or after one has read the books discussed.


  1. Thanks for the heads up on this book. Definitely something I'm going to be on the lookout for.

  2. Thanks so much for telling me about this book!

    Have you ever read anything by Clifton Fadiman's daughter, Anne? In all your spare time (hahaha) you should read Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.

  3. I might take a look at this. I'm dipping in and out of Fadiman (which I came across through you). He's interesting but I find him a bit opinionated and peremptory sometimes.

  4. Wow, this is such a timely review for me! I was just reading about this book yesterday on Goodreads and Amazon - along with Fadiman's New Lifetime Reading Plan and Harold Bloom's book The Western Canon. I've been floundering a little with where to go next with my reading so I was looking to these books for a bit of help.

    Your review is supremely helpful as well.

  5. Red: Dirda has a bunch of kind of similar books out. You can see some of his reviews online as well by searching at the Washington Post:

    Birdie: I love Anne Fadiman's work--especially her Spirit Catches You, which I recently reviewed. She's a terrific writer with an insightful, gentle mind, isn't she?

    Falaise: Yes, he is definitely opinionated--but I always find him to be picking fights with a grin, inviting people to join the argument and annotate their editions with all the things he misses. Don't take him too seriously. But honestly, I'm not so sure I would have been charmed by him if I had read him later when I was a bit more sophisticated. Dirda and I both met Fadiman's book at formative moments in our lives, I think.

    Everybook: Oh, I am so looking forward to what you do with these books and your future reading! I've only peeked through Bloom and have that tome on my get-to-eventually pile.

  6. I loved this book, and you perfectly explained what is so wonderful about it. Dirda's bookish essays are some of my absolute favourites. I haven't read Anne Fadiman yet, though, which I clearly need to fix.

  7. Nymeth: Definitely try AF. While I mentioned how much I love Spirit Catches You, you should know beforehand that it is not about books. Ex Libris, a slim and wonderful read which Birdie recommends, might be the perfect place to start. I have not read it in several years and think I will have to pull it off the shelf sometime soon myself!

  8. I always feel awkward saying how fun a given classic was - people give you that look, and sort of roll their eyes, thinkking you're just showing off. I usually just don't say anything, honestly - one fo the reasons blogging has been nice :)

  9. In fairness, many great works of art are difficult, esoteric, and/or a little boring. Some of the greatest are more than a little boring!

    I have doubts about their effects on the health, though - that is certainly a myth. Some great art is downright unhealthy.

  10. I hadn't heard of this, but I will definitely be on the lookout for it. It's always fun to discover lesser known classics.

  11. Dirda is one of my favorite reviewers. I read Bound to Please years ago, and every one of the recommendations I've followed from there has knocked it out of the park for me.

  12. I've seen this book around but have never read it. I love your first two paragraphs. I definitely started out feeling like classics were boring and difficult, and I'm realizing they're not necessarily life-changing books, but rather books that can maintain their appeal across generations. I think I'd really enjoy this book!


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