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Classics for Pleasure Hardcover – November 5, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this casually brilliant collection of great book recommendations, Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post Book World, discusses titles ranging from well-known favorites such as Sherlock Holmes and Beowulf to more obscure writers such as Jaroslav Hasek and John Masefield. Dirda is a charming and exceedingly well-read host, erudite without slipping into pretension. He is more generous and less canonical than Harold Bloom, to whose work Dirda owes a debt in style and substance. The book creates a pleasurable but somewhat maddening sensation in the committed reader, who will be tempted to read most of Dirda's selections based on his brief summations. The complete works of Christopher Marlowe are summed up in five eventful pages, and Dirda makes Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sound so essential over the course of three pages that one forgets it would take the better part of a year to actually read. Dirda's greatest accomplishment, however, is rescuing many formerly illustrious masters from the dustbin of our culture's pitifully short memory: James Agee, G.K. Chesterton and Ernst Junger are just three who benefit from their inclusion in this indispensable volume. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

The book critic for the Washington Post offers a wealth of personal takes on works of fiction, poetry, drama, and other nonfiction prose that have come to be regarded as classics and thus, he fears, are generally thought of as "difficult, esoteric, and a little boring." It is Dirda's conviction that "great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions," and to broadcast that sentiment widely, he supplies energetic, even exciting, 3-page essays on approximately 90 authors. He arranges his selections into nontraditional categories, from "Playful Imagination" ("the realm of every sort of laughter—wit, irony, repartee, satire, gallows humor, imaginative exuberance, the fanciful and the surreal") to "Heroes of Their Time" ("the heroes range from a slayer of monsters to striking coal miners, from Persia's greatest champion to the dirt-poor of Depression-era America"). Provides true inspiration to shut off HBO and start reading. Hooper, Brad

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (November 5, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151012512
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151012510
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #144,304 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Ken C. on December 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Meandering (at a delicious, leisurely pace) through Michael Dirda's CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE, one feels as though he is riding shotgun through a world of both well-known and unknown wonders with an expert guide. And though Michael Kinsley, in his blurb, writes, "Michael Dirda is the best-read person in America. But he doesn't rub it in," he forgets to add this: Dirda seems to fervently hope you will not only appreciate his literary expertise, but will also rise to meet it. His voice is that generous and unpretentious.

Dirda divides his mostly 2-4 page descriptions of classics you should read into these novel categories: Playful Imaginations, Heroes of Their Time, Love's Mysteries, Words from the Wise, Everyday Magic, Lives of Consequence, The Dark Side, Traveler's Tales, The Way We Live Now, Realms of Adventure, and Encyclopedic Visions. Those titles alone are like browsing colorful glossies at the travel agency. You can't wait to jump in.

In Realms of Adventure, Dirda shows his range of tastes, including writers as varied as Rudyard Kipling and Dashiell Hammett. In reviewing H. Rider Haggard's KING SOLOMON'S MINES, Dirda shares a typically fascinating piece of trivia: "He [Haggard] had reportedly boasted that he could write a better novel than Robert Louis Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND. His brother challenged him to prove it, and KING SOLOMON'S MINES was the result." At the end of the essay on Haggard, Dirda plays coy: "Is it better than TREASURE ISLAND? As a boy I thought so, but happily there's no need to choose between them." Nevertheless, Dirda's job is done. The less well-known H. Rider Haggard's two books, KING SOLOMON'S MINES and SHE are added to the reader's (THIS reader's, anyway) already listing "To-Be-Read" pile.
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55 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Charlus on October 24, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Dirda is the go-to man for great reading. If you want to find intensely pleasurable reading in titles you never thought to pick up, he will expertly guide you and easily convince you of what you should read next. His tastes range from the conventional classics to the unexpected gems to genre writing and titles far afield from the usual literary lists. His enthusiasms are infectious, his tastes are broad, his explanations of why the title chosen is worth your while are persuasive.

As with his previous books, Dirda is the informed cicerone through the labyrinth of literature, a dependable companion whose advice is wise, witty and informed by the love of books. Hours in his company is time well spent.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on February 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
So infectious is Dirda's delight in the passion for living that goes into a good book that I found myself eager to read all his recommendations - including those authors I have already read and disliked for one (obviously inadequate) reason or another.

Stunningly well read, Dirda appreciates a well-turned phrase, an individual style, a keen wit, or a powerful intellect. He illuminates his choices with quotes, artfully tantalizing plot summaries and biographical snippets. Story is key. "Nearly all the works covered tell great stories, whether these are fictional, historical or biographical."

What isn't here is The Canon. No Shakespeare, Homer, Dickens or Jane Austen. They can be found elsewhere, particularly in John S. Major's revised edition of Dirda's childhood inspiration, Clifton Fadiman's "The Lifetime Reading Plan." Dirda avoids the obvious masters to focus on "several key authors passed over by Fadiman and Major, many important writers of what one might call the popular imagination, and a few seemingly minor figures who deserve to be better known."

So, from Sappho to Agatha Christie, Thomas More to Jules Verne, "Beowulf" to "The Maltese Falcon," Dirda extols the insights and idiosyncrasies of a broad range of talents and niches. His essays are personal, witty and brief - he covers almost 90 books in little more than 300 pages and readers will almost always long for more.

He divides his book into 11 thematic sections, i.e., Words from the Wise; Traveler's Tales; Realms of Adventure, and chooses seven to 10 authors for each. Most are at least familiar, but a few are obscure (at least to me).
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Armchair Interviews on December 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda (Washington Post Book World) introduces readers to almost ninety of the world's books in Classics for Pleasure. And he does the introductions in a delightful manner. The book includes his favorites, in many of the genres we all read today. The book is broken up into eleven sections that cover a particular theme.

Dirda's aim is to encourage readers to delve into some of the wonderful, but lesser known books of the recent past and from what we might term, `the olden days.' And don't think that this book is a tired and worn volume of books that don't matter. There are marvelous works; some with which you may be familiar and others that will be new to you. I guarantee that you will find titles you wish to reread and new to you that you'll want to check out. Dirda's summaries and bits of biographical data add to the enjoyment of the book and may even be the encouragement needed to pick up a title.

Some of the offerings come from Jules Verne, Agatha Christie (a personal favorite), Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Lao-Tzu, Soren Kierkegaard, Frances Hodgson Burnett (oh, the Secret Garden!), M.R. James, C.P. Cavafy and more.

It's a reference book to keep on your shelf. Warning: If you loan it out, it will not be returned.

Armchair Interviews says: Classics for Pleasure is more than book or short story recommendations.
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