In love with Michael
I’m in love with Michael Dirda, damn him.
Michael is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a number of dauntingly erudite yet gorgeously readable books about books. He writes equally stunning essays for the New York Times, the Barnes & Noble Review, and, well, pretty much any venue where the printed word is discussed. I’ve met him a few times, he being a regular at the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner. And when I’m writing, he is rarely far from my mind, since I often dip into the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus to spark my interest in, and attention to, the words I’m using—and there stands MD, delivering pithy remarks about words from boring (“Just as sexy (q.v.) is the ultimate compliment, so boring is the most dreaded pejorative.”) to very (“among the few words that gains in effectiveness when repeated”) with stops at crapulous (“Writers ought to use these tricky words sometimes, not only to keep such useful terms current but also to lend a little panache to their prose.”) postmodern (“neatly suggests that its user is learned, widely read, up to date on the latest in literary theory, and, in general, really cool, not to say—ahem—edgy.”) and sexy (“be careful when using this revealing adjective: It allows others a peek into your unclothed psyche.”)
But this Dirda affaire is getting out of hand. The most recent upsurge in our relationship (about which, I hasten to say, he is unaware—or…was.) began with a reprinted article of his in Salon.com, a site to which I subscribe, for the pleasure of no ads. I’m behind on my reading—both online and on the page—so when I spot something I like, I tend to scroll down a bit and discover things I missed when they first appeared.
Such as a review, of all things, of Pliny the Younger’s description of Pompeii, a review sparked by the eruption of our considerably less dramatic and more tedious Icelandic volcano that brought air traffic to a standstill.
The review was simply riveting: Pliny’s uncle (Pliny the Elder) died under Vesuvius, and the nephew describes the death, and his own experiences at Misenum, where—but no, I’m not going to repeat what the reviewer says so brilliantly, go and read it for yourself, and then come back: Here’s the link.
I read the review, as I hope you just did, and having overlooked the name of the reviewer (a sin of which I am as guilty as anyone else, alas) looked back at the top and saw the name Dirda. I should have known. And so I followed the Barnes & Noble link over to that page, and found there a more recent Dirda review, of James Lees-Milne, The Life by Michael Bloch. Which essay I greedily read, and then went hunting for others. That took me sideways into a New York Review of Books piece on the Patricia Highsmith novels,
and into books about bar-crawling Roman emperors
and then a reminder of a delightfully eccentric memoir I’d read when writing The Game called Hindoo Holiday:
Ackerley’s holiday journal deserves an honored place in that literary subgenre of witty, opinionated travel books by sandy-haired young Englishmen. It belongs on the same shelf with such delicious armchair escapes as Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen, Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.
But I had to stop when I came across an essay entitled “2009: A Year in the (Reading) Life”
because I knew that if I entered that particular essay, I would never come out again.
Thank you, Michael, for adding to my 23 linear feet of already purchased to-be-read by bringing to my attention, or nudging me to re-read:
Pliny the Younger: Complete Letters, P. G. Walsh
James Lees-Milne, The Life, Michael Bloch
Another Self, James Lees-Milne
The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron
A Time of Gifts, Patrick Lee Fermor
Highsmith, a Romance of the 1950s, Marijane Meaker
The five Ripley novels, Patricia Highsmith
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith
And lest I forget, if you haven’t read it, take a look at Michael’s memoir:
An Open Book, Michael Dirda.
(And his speaking manner is equally erudite and charming–which you can see at
Start at the 3:30 point.)