CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE, by Michael Dirda, Harcourt, 341 pages, $25

Michael Dirda holds a Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism in The Washington Post, so his choices for classic writing carries weight. For those who suspect that classics are a little boring, he argues that works that are read by the masses have obvious importance.

Dirda says, "Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation."

Promising that the classics he introduces "are not your father's or your mother's," he writes intelligent, short essays about nearly 90 of what he believes are the world's most entertaining books. His selections cross genres — science fiction, fantasy, horror, adventure, biography, history, poetry, children's literature, romances, ghost stories, fairy tales —and anything falling into the category of arts and letters.

His selections could be remarkably useful for any book group to decide what to read next.

One of his selections is S.J. Perelman, a 20th century satirical writer. Dirda compares Perelman's "snappy, quip-filled style" to the trendy music of the same period by the incomparable Cole Porter, a master of lyrics.

Dirda reminds us that Perelman co-wrote a couple of the Marx Brothers films and is chiefly responsible for Groucho's "fast-talking delivery and leering innuendo." Perelman could parody anything, says Dirda, "with a brisk narrative pace."

Dirda believes "only Robert Benchly and James Thurber rival the dazzling Perelman," although his influence can be felt on Woody Allen, Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor.

Dirda also recommends the novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902). Dirda admires Zola in part because he's "a good reporter" who uses factual material found in government data and newspaper articles, then "imbues" it with "a pervasive sense of the mythic and timeless."

Arthurian romances (12th and 13th centuries) are recommended highly by Dirda, works "fundamentally concerned with matters of conduct. At their best they are never mere tales of derring-do, the metallic clash of arms, and the perfunctory rescue of fair damsels."

He singles out "The Knight With the Lion," by Chretien de Troyes, who transports the noble Yvain into the otherworldly forest of Broceliande. There "he seeks a magic well, fights and kills its guardian, and then falls in love at first sight with Laudine, the dead man's wife."

Daphne Du Maurier (1907-89) is also big on Dirda's list. "Rebecca," he says, is more complex than most people realize and is one of the six greatest romance novels of the century. It includes the sexual politics of marriage, jealousy, obsession and suspense.

Dirda recommends Lao-Tse (570 B.C.) who wrote "Tao Te Ching," which he calls "the most translated book in the world." It means "The Classic Way," and Dirda considers it "clear, mystic and practical." The qualities that shine through are modesty, stillness, spontaneity and a "trust in the natural rhythms of life."

This is just a small beginning. Some of the other authors mentioned are Plutarch, Frederick Douglass, Mary Shelley, Thomas More, Robert Byron, Petronius, Anton Chekhov, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Rudyard Kipling, Dashiell Hammett, Edward Gibbon and Ezra Pound.

Reading the essays Dirda has written about each classical author will surely whet the appetite for some of these, perhaps a great many. Keep it at the ready.


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