Book Review//Bound To Please by Michael Dirda



In Bound To Please Dirda speaks of the "soul-satisfying pleasure of testing one's own literary connoisseurship." If, in reading his collection of literary reviews and essays, I am testing my own literary connoisseurship, then that is a test I have failed. I think, or thought, of myself as a reasonably well-read individual but I have realized that is not the case. There are so many books mentioned in Bound To Please that I have never heard of, much less read. However, that in no way detracted from my enjoyment of this book.

Dirda does an excellent job of making even the most unfamiliar books interesting and accessible. I didn't finish each essay convinced I had to read that book but I did finish each one knowing a bit more about why it is an important work. His enthusiasm and love for literature are palpable. How can you not warm to a man who says this?

Were you to turn over any of Jane Austen's six novels, and shake it hard, nothing would fall out. Such books--The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier are others--stay in our minds because of their calm and absolute rightness of design; they register less as transcriptions of sordid love affairs or hesitant courtships than as pieces of sustained verbal music, the melody of their witty or pitiless sentences supported by their closely harmonized plots. When a work of art seems without flaw, whether a lyric by A.E. Housman or a ballad like "The Way You Look Tonight," what we really mean is that every element contributes to the creation of aesthetic bliss within us, a readerly sense of  "luxe, calme et volupte."

I agree with Dirda when he says that "What I really enjoy in any kind of writing is simply a distinctive style, an idiosyncratic diction, the sound of a voice on the page." Dirda causes those voices on the page to come through clearly in his reviews; they come through so clearly that you are left wanting more. Now I need to read the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, biographies of Boswell and Vermeer, the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, the list goes on and on.

Throughout the book are those wonderful moments when Dirda discusses an author I already know and love. About P. G. Wodehouse he says:

Wodehouse intuitively realized that literature is simply a construct of language, there is naturally no relation between his books and any reality, historic or otherwise. For all the author's attention to plot and storyline, one hardly cares what happens to his young men in spats, whether newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle marries Madeline Bassett or whether the Empress of Blandings wins a silver medal in the Fat Pig division of the Shropshire Agricultural Show. What finally matters are those delicious sentences, with their zingy mix of slang and learned allusion: Lord Ickenham, on his way to take a bath, goes "armed with is great sponge Joyeuse." J. B. Priestley, of all people, was right: Wodehouse "has raised speech into a kind of wild poetry of the absurd."

How can I not appreciate a literary critic who includes Georgette Heyer in his list of the twelve writers who "seem to me the most influential and distinctive prose stylists of the century, the founders of schools of writing, if you will."  Of her he says:

"her historical novels, largely set in the Regency, represent an entire literary duchy: that of romantic escape fiction, told with wit, an eye for period detail, and the requisite pull on the heartstrings...Heyer is a superb historical novelist--Jane Aiken Hodge's excellent biography reminds us how hard she worked to get the slang and fashions in her characters just right. She represents the deliberated recovery of an archaic style--roughly that of Jane Austen--and all those fictive acts of literary ventriloquism,  from John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor to A. S. Byatt's Possession to innumerable Regency romances, owe something to her virtuosity. 

My copy of Bound To Please is full of sticky notes marking passages I enjoyed and books I want to read. I finished this collection of essays feeling a little less well-read but a little more educated. Dirda wrote several other books. I will be reading them if only for the joy of sitting down with a fellow book-lover.




6 comments

  1. This sounds wonderful. I read Browsings by Dirda towards the end of last year and loved it. It's a slightly more casual collection of his writings about books and grew my book list exponentially. And, having reading The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh on his recommendation, I can absolutely assure you they are worth reading!

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    1. Browsings is on my list. I have heard such good things about it. When I read his essay on the letters of Mitford and Waugh I remembered that you had recently written a post about them. I will have to read them soon.

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  2. Thanks, this one is going on my list as it seems he mentions lots of my favourite authors.

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    1. He also mentions many that I had never heard of. Maybe you are better read than me though! It was very satisfying when he liked an author I also like.

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  3. I read one of his books earlier this year, and enjoyed it. I will read this one just for his appreciation of Georgette Heyer!

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    1. That is definitely adequate reason to read the book!

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