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, 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.

Damn him.

(And his speaking manner is equally erudite and charming–which you can see at


Start at the 3:30 point.)

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  1. Ann Burns on September 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Thank you, Laurie, for giving me some more books to read (as if I need any more!) You have a treat in store when you read a Time of Gifts (or any other of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books). Road to Oxiana is another favourite of mine. So when I see a list that includes those two books – I know I am going to want to read rest of them. So many books, so little time …

  2. Poetic Justice on September 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Has someone sent this to Michael Dirda? I’m sure he’d get a kick out of it! 😛 Thanks Laurie!

  3. Laraine on September 3, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Darn you, Laurie! I’ve been so busy lately that I’ve had to take a complete reading ‘fast’, and here you are with tantalizing word of someone I’ve never heard of (dare I admit that??) who is eloquent, wordly-wise (spelling intentional) and has much to say . . . .
    One day I’ll have time to read again and I’ll blame you for the TBR stack.
    Thanks (sorta).

  4. Pat Floyd on September 4, 2010 at 5:17 am

    Thanks, Laurie. Great references and just in time for me to request the thesaurus for my birthday!

  5. Maggie on September 6, 2010 at 6:37 am

    Thanks for this! I need new books to read while traveling and will look for some of these.

  6. Jeana de la Torre on September 6, 2010 at 7:44 am

    Re: Pliny and the great Vesuvian eruption: in the past I read a great historical novel (author unremembered, unfortunately) called Aquarius or The Aquarian, in which the protagonist designed/maintained the great aquaducts of Pompeii, which ended up being the salvation for many citizens during the ash-storm.

  7. Meredith T on September 13, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Oooh, thank you. What is it with Pompeii that it is endlessly fascinating? I dragged friends and relations down to the L.A. County Museum of Art to stare at things from Pompeii and they even thanked me. And the spousal unit has just become fascinated with the talented Miss Highsmith. at least sort of.

    About this thing with Mr. Dirda. you might have to share.

    (best to all//Meredith)

  8. jmw on September 21, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I have to second Ann Burns’s comments on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. It’s magical. And now I’m going to have to look up Road to Oxiana. Damn…

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