Michael Dirda

  • Late Innings

    Roger Angell is now ninety-five and pretty much the last staffer at the New Yorker to have been part of its golden age. He literally grew up with the magazine, his mother, Katharine White, being its first fiction editor and his stepfather, E. B. White, one of its defining writers. As a result, when Angell recalls his childhood and youth, he remembers New Yorker galleys piled around the house, the sound of typing from White’s study, and parties where you might chat with James Thurber.

    Angell is probably best known for three reasons: First, as a longtime New Yorker fiction editor, he shepherded

  • The March of Folly

    BY TURNS EPIC, THRILLING, SUSPENSEFUL, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible. Yet William Dalrymple—author of From the Holy Mountain (1998) and The Last Mughal (2007)—has done more than write a brilliant work of history; in these pages he also holds up a distant mirror to the West’s more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions into Afghanistan. His book describes, among much else, the opening moves of the Great Game—the intelligence battle between colonizing powers for ideological

  • Believe It or Not

    Care to guess the name of “the most dangerous book that never existed”? It’s neither the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred nor The King in Yellow—see the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers for the eldritch details about these accursed volumes. How about the 1917 edition of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, the unsettling, otherworldly reference book of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”? Nope.

    All these are certainly dangerous books—within the fictional frameworks in which they appear. But De tribus impostoribus (On the Three Impostors) made its impact in the real world

  • culture October 25, 2012

    Raymond Chandler, Gritty Enchanter

    Born in Chicago in 1888 (the same year as T. S. Eliot), Raymond Chandler, an only child, was brought up by his divorced Irish mother, to whom, according to biographer Tom Williams, he was devoted to an “unhealthy” degree and with whom he lived into his thirties. As a boy, he moved from the American Midwest back to Ireland, before attending Dulwich College in London, where he wore a school uniform and studied the classics. After leaving Dulwich, he spent a year in Paris and Germany, perfecting his French and learning German well enough to pass as a native. Once back in London, he then tried to

  • Cyberpunk’d

    Back in 1980, I persuaded the Washington Post Book World, where I was then working as an assistant editor, to launch a monthly column devoted to science fiction and fantasy. For once my timing was just right. During the 1980s, Gene Wolfe produced the four original novels of The Book of the New Sun. John Crowley brought out Little, Big and the first volume of the Ægypt series. Writers with roots in science fiction—J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Ursula K. Le Guin—broke into mainstream consciousness, while mainstream literary figures such as Margaret Atwood and Russell Hoban produced

  • culture November 15, 2011

    The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

    Ambitious writers are often said to challenge their readers. That’s certainly true in the case of Umberto Eco and his latest novel, “The Prague Cemetery,” but not, perhaps, in quite the expected way.

  • Publishing’s Wrong Numbers

    TO START WITH, shouldn’t it be called the “better-seller list”? I suppose that doesn’t quite sing, but how can you have more than one best seller at a time?

    However you refer to it, the list is a disaster for literary and general culture. This isn’t to say that good books don’t become best sellers. John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a superb combination of memoir, journalism, crime reporting, and cultural history, as well as one of the most popular nonfiction works of the past twenty years. Stephen King is an astonishing storyteller, as are, in their differing ways, J.

  • Wanderer Fantasy

    Bruce Chatwin (1940–1989) may have been the last important writer in English to model his prose after Hemingway’s. When he wrote, he chiseled away everything except what he wanted the reader to see. Employing lean, declarative sentences and short paragraphs, Chatwin’s prose relied almost wholly on exact word choice and careful sentence rhythms. There’s no clutter, no mush, no padding, nothing overemphatic. Even the Shakers could learn from Chatwin’s simplicity and clarity. Take, for instance, this brief Buenos Aires vignette from an early chapter of his travel classic In Patagonia: “By day the

  • culture May 07, 2010

    Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

    Miguel Syjuco's wildly entertaining "Ilustrado" was the recipient of the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize. Such awards, as readers know, all too often go to earnest, high-minded, politically correct and rather dull books. In this case, I picture the judges, weary from perusing massive laser-printed works of heart-sinking merit, suddenly rejoicing at the discovery of a manuscript as engaging as this one, absolutely assured in its tone, literary sophistication and satirical humo

  • culture July 23, 2009

    The Complete Ripley Novels by Patricia Highsmith

    “The essential American soul,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in a celebrated description, “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Of course, he was talking about Natty Bumppo and similar rough-and-tumble frontier spirits. By contrast, the amoral Tom Ripley—novelist Patricia Highsmith's most famous character—is easygoing, devoted to his wife and friends, epicurean, and a killer only by necessity. By my count, necessity leads this polite aesthete to bludgeon or strangle eight people and watch with satisfaction while two others drown. He also sets in motion the successful suicides of three friends he