“Like most people, I associated the Jazz Age with gaiety and decadence, but what I came to recognize was the underlying fear that, after World War I and the influenza epidemic, rather than heading toward a new enlightened era, the world was headed to a new Dark Age.”
There’s a reason I don’t do those “best books of the year” until the end of the year; you might come across a fantastic one in November or December! David Jaher‘s new nonfiction book, The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World (Crown), might be my absolute fave from 2015! It’s both a ridiculously entertaining page-turner about Houdini’s duel with a high-class medium in Boston in the 1920s, and a remarkable study of the Spiritualism craze and humanity’s deep-rooted need to hear word from beyond the grave. David and I have a great conversation about the book,the origins of ectoplasm, his history with Houdini, researching and writing the Jazz Age, the nature of fame, David’s career as an astrologer, and more! Give it a listen!
We talk about some books in this episode. Here’s a list of them:
- The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World – David Jaher
- Ragtime: A Novel – E.L. Doctorow
- A Collection of Essays – George Orwell
- U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel / 1919 / The Big Money (Library of America) – John Dos Passos
- “A Short Trip Home” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss : American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker – Kenneth Silverman
- Moby Dick – Herman Melville
About our Guest
David Jaher received a BA from Brandeis University and an MFA in Film Production from New York University. At NYU, he was the recipient of the WTC Johnson Fellowship for directing. Jaher has been a screenwriter and a professional astrologer. A New York native and resident, this is his first book.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at his home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Jaher uncredited.
“I enjoy going back to Lorain, Ohio because I’m reminded that the world of Washington and the East Coast literary establishment is a very narrow, special one that’s parochial in its own way. The rest of the world has other concerns: family, job and life in general. Whereas we get all up in arms about very minor things.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer Michael Dirda rejoins the show to talk about his new collection, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (Pegasus Books). We discuss the importance of reading for pleasure, the difference between book-collecting and shopping, the role of the book reviewer (and how it differs from that of the critic), a recent negative review he didn’t want to write, why he doesn’t read reviews of his work, what his mother said when he won the Pulitzer Prize, and more! Give it a listen!
“The books that you don’t grasp immediately, the ones that leave you off-kilter . . . those are often the books that really last, and matter.”
Our first three-time guest also talks about the democratization of book reviewing, the problems of storing books in his basement, what he wants an author to think upon reading his book review of a book, his affinity for Clive James’ work, whether his reviews have a coded autobiographical element to them, how the limitations of the book review form shaped his style, why he disagrees with John Clute’s philosophy on spoilers, and more!
We talk about a lot of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):
- Little Big Man – Thomas Berger
- Suspects – Thomas Berger
- The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination – Daniel Boorstin
- The Discoverers – Daniel Boorstin
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
- The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus – Cyril Connolly
- The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin
- Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Michael Dirda
- Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda
- On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling – Michael Dirda
- The Robe – Lloyd C. Douglas
- The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature, Revised and Expanded – Clifton Fadiman
- Party of One – Clifton Fadiman
- Enter Conversing – Clifton Fadiman
- The Recognitions – William Gaddis
- Muse: A novel – Jonathan Galassi
- The Green Carnation – Robert Hichens
- The Odyssey – Homer
- Appleby’s End – Michael Innes
- Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts – Clive James
- Kim – Rudyard Kipling
- Zorba the Greek – Nikos Kazantzakis
- Dazzle – Judith Krantz
- V R Lang: Poems & Plays with a Memoir – Alison Lurie
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds – Charles Mackay
- Bright Lights, Big City – Jay McInerney
- The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
- Burning the Days: Recollection – James Salter
- Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps
- Anathem – Neal Stephenson
- Walden – Thoreau
- Stoner – John Williams
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
About our Guest
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, and he received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir, An Open Book: Chapters fom a Reader’s Life, and of four previous collections of essays: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, Bound to Please, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, and Classics for Pleasure, in addition to his newest collection, Browsings. His previous book, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year. Michael Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, The American Spectator, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.
Credits: This episode’s music is Ah, Putrefaction by Jaristo, from Hans Zimmer’s film music for Sherlock Holmes. The conversation was recorded at the Boston Marriott Burlington on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Dirda by me.
“I see people walking their dogs and looking down at their phones. When you’re out walking your dog, you should be thinking great thoughts, or reviewing your life’s major blunders, or having some moments alone with yourself.”
It’s a bookman’s life for him! I interrupted Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda from plundering the book-dealer room at Readercon 2014 for a conversation about culling his books, the great age of storytelling, teaching adventure novels, what he dislikes about the tone of today’s book reviewers, his tendency to fall asleep while reading, and the time Neil Gaiman tried to explain Twitter to him. BONUS! I went back and remastered The Correction of Taste, the episode I recorded with Michael from October 2012! Go listen to that one, too!
“I never should have gone into book reviewing. I don’t have the right qualities for it. I read slow, I write slow: but I do love books and I’m dogged about it. I’d rather be involved with them than anything else.”
We also talk about his two early career goals (riverboat gambler or Captain Blood), what brings him back to Readercon each year, and why he’s never read Portrait of a Lady but fell in love with Lud-in-the-Mist, a fantasy novel in which the protagonists are middle-aged.
“My aim always has been to champion things that have been overlooked or neglected or otherwise not given the attention I think they deserve.”
About our Guest
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, and he received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir, An Open Book, and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, On Conan Doyle, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year. Mr. Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, The American Scholar, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.
Credits: This episode’s music is A Soldier’s Tale by The Good, The Bad & The Queen (see, because The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, is one of Dirda’s favorite novels, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at the Marriott in Burlington Mass on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Dirda by me.