Episode 127 – The Meandering Reflections of a Literary Sybarite

Virtual Memories Show #127:
Michael Dirda – The Meandering Reflections of a Literary Sybarite

“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.”

browsingscoverPulitzer 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):

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guest

dirdaheadMichael 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.

7 Rooms of Bloom!

[UPDATE: In 2016, I recorded a conversation with Harold Bloom for The Virtual Memories Show! I also recorded episodes with his friends and colleagues John Crowley, Sandy McClatchy and Langdon Hammer.]

So, wait: I never told you about the time I called Harold Bloom? Geez! I’ve been blogging 6 years now; you’d think I’d have gone through all of these stories by now! My bad.

Back when I was failing at publishing books (c. 2002 in my 1998-2004 run of failure), one of my authors (Samuel Delany, if you must know) thought it would be wonderful if we’d bring Walter Pater’s Plato & Platonism back into print.

I figured there may be a specialized audience (read: academics and intellectual deviants) out there, and tried to suss out if I could get away with a short print run, even though it would push unit costs a bunch higher. I’d learned from previous failures that it would help to have some sort of hook for the book, instead of just running ads announcing,

“If you’ve couldn’t get enough of Marius the Epicurean,
you don’t dare miss the astonishing reissue of Plato & Platonism!”

or,

“If you thought you knew post-1893 aesthetics . . .
YOU DON’T KNOW PATER!

My author told me that a lot of his smartypants literary contemporaries were enamored of Pater and this book, so I thought I could try to get one of them to write an introduction to it. He mentioned Guy Davenport as a likely prospect, so I wrote him a line.

Mr. Davenport respectfully declined, but thought it was wonderful that someone was bringing the book back into print.

Next, I wrote to publishing innovator Jason Epstein, who made some comments in Book Business that marked him as a Pater devotee. He too shot me down, but wished me luck.

(I wasn’t aware of any curse laid upon Pater’s lectures, but Mr. Davenport died a few years after my request, while Mr. Epstein’s wife was victim of a hoax anthrax letter in 2001, later went to prison over the Valerie Plame scandal, and was vilified for her NYTimes reporting on WMDs in Iraq.)

I decided to try Harold Bloom. I’d read his praise for Pater in  numerous books and interviews and, since he wrote a bazillion books, guides and introductions, I thought I had a chance.

Having no idea how these things work, I called the department where he taught at NYU; they told me he was currently at Yale. So I called there and said, “I’m a publisher and I’d like to speak to Prof. Bloom about a Walter Pater book I’m planning to reissue.”

The secretary said, “He’s not teaching today. Would you like his home number?”

“. . . Uh, sure,” I told her. It was then that I realized “I’m a publisher” is a spell of great power.

Looking at the number scribbled on my pad, I thought of past literary figures I’ve called out of the blue: William Gaddis, David Gates, Grant Morrison, Marcus Greill, Ron Rosenbaum . . . none of them were quite as daunting as Harold Bloom. After all, he was The Guy Who Read (and Wrote About) More Books Than Anydarnbody.

Would he grill me on Pater, of whom I’d have to admit I hadn’t read more than 30 pages? Would he be as disappointed in me as Greill Marcus was when I admitted I hadn’t finished Lipstick Traces? Would he be as flat-out stunned as Mr. Gaddis was when he found out that his number was in the phone book? Would he call me “dear,” as he seemed to do with every interviewer, regardless of gender?

I had to fall back on my version of “they’re just like us.” In this case, I reflected on Bloom’s lifelong support of the New York Yankees. I told myself, “When you were drunk on Colt 45 in a Dallas hotel room, jumping up and down and cheering as Charlie Hayes caught the final out of the 1996 World Series, Harold Bloom was also cheering and . . . well, maybe not jumping up and down, drunk on Colt 45, but definitely celebrating.”

I dialed. He answered.

“Hi, my name is Gil Roth. Is this Prof. Bloom?” I asked. He confirmed that it was. I took a deep breath and launched into my pitch, making sure to let him know that I’d published several legit authors, even though “I’m a publisher” had changed into “I’m a small press publisher” (how could I lie to him?). He was pleasantly surprised to learn that someone would bring back Plato & Platonism and expressed some admiration for the author who’d suggested it to me.

“But,” he averred, “I’m so backed up with work for my new series of critical books, my dear, that I’m afraid I simply cannot write an introduction for you.”

“I understand.”

“Why, even if you were to offer me the opportunity to write an introduction to the illustrated history of Sophia Loren, I’m afraid I would have to turn you down.”

You don’t mess with a man of his era (b. 1930) when it comes to Sophia Loren.

I thanked him for his time and his subsequent offer to blurb the book, wished him well, gave him a “Go, Yankees!”, and hung up.

I never did publish that Pater, but you can download an e-version any old time.

[UPDATE: In 2016, I recorded a conversation with Harold Bloom for The Virtual Memories Show! I also recorded episodes with his friends and colleagues John Crowley, Sandy McClatchy and Langdon Hammer.]

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