In 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.