Get out a pad and pen: "Bound to Please" by Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda will send you off on one literary adventure after...
“Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education”
by Michael Dirda
W.W. Norton & Co., 525 pp., $29.95
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Get out a pad and pen: “Bound to Please” by Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda will send you off on one literary adventure after another and likely prompt a substantial list of books to read, reread or recommend.
Thanks to Dirda, my scribbled list includes the biography of Chester Himes by James Sallis, “Dom Casmurro” by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature,” “Grievance” by K.C. Constantine, and “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford.
This collection of more than 120 of Dirda’s essays on literature may seem intimidating at first, beginning as he does with the Bible and Ovid and ending with Don DeLillo and metafiction. But Dirda, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, is never professorial or abstruse. Rather, he is like a genial museum docent, guiding readers through a magnificent variety of written art, never making you feel dim-witted or inadequate. The author himself terms his book “a cocktail party more than a work of criticism: it’s meant to be entertaining, sometimes provocative, above all a way to catch up with old friends and make new ones.”
Dirda’s list is delightfully eclectic, with no controlling theme other than steady critical authority and an ear for fine fiction. He includes features on Proust, Flaubert and Dostoevsky, but his is no canonical survey, and you’ll notice many gaps.
Part of his mission is to champion neglected and quirky authors. He reminds us, for instance, that William Tyndale was the first to translate the New Testament into English, forming the basis of the gorgeous language in the King James Bible. While Dirda gravitates to prose stylists and innovators and has a soft spot for popular fiction, he also has the intellectual rigor to tackle Rabelais and T.S. Eliot. Impressively well read, he often compares different translations of non-English works.
Each chapter is three to four pages long, so “Bound” can be easily read in short bursts. You may be tempted to skip around, but you’ll want to savor each essay, lest you miss nuggets like Alexander Pushkin (from a biography by T.J. Binyon) once attending a formal dinner, “wearing muslin trousers, transparent, without any underwear”; the remarkable artistic talents of William Morris; and Georges Perec’s creation of the world’s longest palindrome, a 500-word story that can be read forward or backward.
For Dirda, the discovery or rediscovery is always fresh and thrilling, and the feeling is infectious. He lauds the comic novels of Dawn Powell; the underestimated genius of British writer Henry Green; the suave observations of Austrian Joseph Roth, whose 1932 book “The Radetzky March” Dirda calls “one of the most impressive novels of the century”; and the “brutal vignettes” of Russian short story writer Isaac Babel.
Dirda’s enthusiasm for artful descriptions, the alchemy of wordplay, is unfettered. “Strong readers will portion out the book in small servings so that it lasts for weeks and weeks,” he writes of “The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh.” “Others — frail, fallen creatures like myself — will sybaritically gobble up these 500 pages, heedless of measure and propriety, forgetful of all but their own selfish pleasure.”
I suppose it’s perverse to long for a negative review in a book called “Bound to Please,” but I would have loved to see a delicious debunking — Dirda style. That may be his next book. This one has arrived in time for a new year, a book that will stimulate a serious reading binge. And think of this: no carbs, zero calories, all pleasure.