Classics for Pleasure

classicsI suppose there are some folks out there who would consider the title of this book an oxymoron. Who reads classics for pleasure? I’m guessing, however, that most readers of this blog are like me—fans of the classics. And I suspect that most readers of this blog would also find some irresistible reading options in Michael Dirda’s collection of essays on sometimes overlooked classic literature.

You won’t find a lot of the usual suspects written up in this book. People already know about Dickens, Hemingway, Austen, and the Brontes. They don’t need Dirda to point the way. Dirda believes that it’s “more useful—and fun—to point readers to new authors and less obvious classics.”

One of the best things about this book is Dirda’s broad approach. He doesn’t confine himself to one era, genre, or style. He also doesn’t expect every book to be profound and meaningful. His interest is in the pleasure we can get from reading, and sometimes we just want to be thrilled or amused, not “educated.” Many of the books he profiles have the potential to both entertain and illuminate (think Frankenstein and The Time Machine), but they don’t have to.

Dirda covers Lucian and Lovecraft, Spinoza and Stoker. There are poets and playwrights, essayists and novelists from a variety of nations and eras. There are some well-known authors whose work is sometimes dismissed as lightweight (Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, and Jules Verne); some authors whose names were only vaguely familiar to me (Denis Diderot, Prosper Merimee, and J. K. Huysmans); and some that I’d never heard of before (Jaroslav Hasek and Xavier de Maistre). And there were, of course, lots of ideas for future reading. Here are a few authors I’m planning to explore, based (at least in part) on Dirda’s recommendation:

  • Thomas Love Peacock
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Marie Madeleine de la Fayette
  • ETA Hoffman
  • MR James
  • Prosper Merimee
  • Italo Calvino
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Walter de le Mare
  • Jules Verne
  • Willa Cather
  • H Rider Haggard

Have you read any of these authors? What did you think? Who are some classic authors you think deserve more love than they seem to get?


This book is my fourth 2007 selection for the Countdown challenge.

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8 Responses to Classics for Pleasure

  1. Kristen M. says:

    I have a few books by Willa Cather and I like her writing. She’s actually one of the few American authors that I like. I’m about to read Georgette Heyer for the first time because I got some of her books from a publisher. I had heard the name but never looked into her books. They say she is very Austen-ish, so we will see! I have a book of Italo Calvino’s short stories that I really need to pick up again. I think I’ve only read one or two stories in there and I’ve had it for years.

    I like finding a book that gives good author references and lets you know why you should like them so that you can judge for yourself whether to try them out or not.

  2. Gaskella says:

    I devoured Heyer as a teenager – must read some again, ditto Haggard and Verne. There are now a couple of Frances Hodgson Burnetts in Persephone editions – so they’d be lovely to hold as well as read. Ivy Compton-Burnett I won’t rush to as that is the first book the Queen reads in Alan Bennett’s the Uncommon Reader and she finds it hard going!

    The one up there I’ve not read and really want to read is Calvino.
    Cheers
    Annabel

  3. Jenny says:

    I just love Michael Dirda. He’s led me to more wonderful books than any other reviewer. (Unlike Nancy Pearl and Book Lust — I have not had good luck with that, much as I like the premise.)

    I’ve read about half the authors you mention above, and I have my own list, part from this book and part from Bound to Please. And a classic author I wish we’d see more of is Kipling. Why don’t high school students read him instead of Conrad, for a taste of the colonial novel? Where’s the love? I’m also a huge fan of Colette, but I don’t know how she translates. Yay Michael Dirda!

  4. Melanie says:

    Walter de la Mare, Rider Haggard, MR James….they are all so fun to read. I like Dirda’s writing, despite his disregard of bloggers generally. As for classics I think should get more attention, hmmm. Will have to think about that one. Most of the ones I can think of right away are obscure Canadian authors!

  5. meena says:

    Heyer is one of those authors you tend to read reread and reread. this is a great list!..Kipling sounded great when I read it as a teenager but the imperialist and intolerant tone finally got to me.

  6. Teresa says:

    Kristen: This book definitely gave me a sense of what I would and wouldn’t like. There were several books that Dirda recommended, but I could tell from the descriptions that they weren’t my thing.

    Annabel: Thanks for the tips. I might just save the Burnett for when I’m in England next year and can treat myself to a Persephone edition without having to pay the shipping. What a lovely souveneir that would be!

    Jenny: I thought you must have this book, given that you’ve read several of his suggested authors recently!

    Melanie: I didn’t know Dirda has a disregard for bloggers. That’s too bad, because it’s clear that so many of us share his taste.

    Meena: I’ve heard that complaint about Kipling. I can sometimes put that sort of tone aside when I’m reading older authors, and sometimes I can’t. I hope to read Kim later this year, so we’ll see how it goes.

  7. Elaine says:

    This sounds a fascinating book and I must get hold of it. Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote a lot of excellent adult books. Two in print by Persephone are wonderful but do track down Through One Administration which I think is a very Whartonish book and excellent. Most of her out of print stuff is trckable through the internet

    Georgette Heyer – nothing more to say about hera s I love her always have and always will

    All the other names sound fascinating, have read some by some of them but even so could do with a bit more information. I am now nipping off to Amazon to track this down.

  8. estelle says:

    Dirda sounds like a good shepherd since I have read and like some of his recommendations. I would like to read this book, I think! I read my first Georgette Heyer book this year – fun, breathless, silly mystery/drama with costumes to match. Am also reading my first Calvino which I love (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller). Burnett was a stalwart of my childhood reading, so I recommend her wholeheartedly. I liked Willa Cather too, when I studied her, but that was 7 years ago.

    Some of those names, though: Thomas Love Peacock! Just miraculous.

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