When Kathleen mentioned a collection of essays by Michael Dirda, Classics for Pleasure, I immediately added it to my wishlist. I've never read Dirda, but I've heard many good things about his essays, so went in search of an older collection, Readings: Essays and Other Literary Entertainments, that I knew was somewhere on my shelves. Dirda won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his criticism and is a writer and editor for The Washington Post Book World. After a casual glance through the table of contents "Read at Whim!" caught my eye--something I enjoy doing whenever I can, though in this essay his thoughts are directed more towards high school students.
In 1995 Dirda's attention was caught by a news story about a local high school requiring students to read over the summer vacation from a list of suggested titles.
"Now, anyone who loves much, of necessity, feel ambivalent about 'required reading'. By and large, if you force a kid to open a particular book, he or she will do so grudgingly. Occasionally a good novel can win over even the recalcitrant, but most of the time an unwilling reader will merely slump down before the required text with a kind of deep-space weariness: Another book!"
Dirda writes that books should always be read with a passion or they're not worth reading at all. Some students will approach the book belligerently, others as though the book is a foreign object. Instead of required reading, Dirda feels a student should be encouraged to visit libraries or favorite bookstores.
"Let Hillary or Owen pick out some appealing titles. Then leave the kids alone. In general, summer oughtn't be an extension of school: It should be a time for idleness and part-time jobs and hanging out, for mowing grass or souping up cars, for rainy-day Monopoly games and Dr. Moreau-like experiments on hapless insects ("The House of Pain!"), for getting bored and exploring what used to be called one's inner resources. And for reading purely, solely, entirely for the fun of it."
Now I'm not sure I entirely agree with the whole hapless insect experiments (surely that's meant tongue in cheek?), but I do think kids should be able to spend their free time reading for pleasure and whatever book they choose. When I was in high school we never had required reading over the summer and I contentedly chose books on my own. For Dirda it wasn't just the idea of required reading, but the books the school had chosen for the students to select from (by authors like Russell Baker, William Styron, Lorene Cary, Mark Mathabane, Shakespeare, James Michener, Barbara Kingsolver, Beryl Markham, Michael Dorris, and Amy Tan.
"I also felt uneasy about the titles chosen. Except for the Shakespeare and Markham, all the books were published during the past twenty-five years. They also represent a transparently multicultural smorgasbord: If you are Asian, African, or Native American, Southern or Jewish or Anglo-Saxon, there is at least one title Just for You."
It's not that he doesn't feel these are worthy books to read, in general he considers them very good books. "Yet aren't such contemporary, not to say trendy, novels and autobiographies just the ones that young people ought to be reading on their own?" When it comes to books taught in schools Dirda prefers that "established masterpieces, the older the better" be part of the curriculum. It's not that these books necessarily are "the best or offer uplifting moral lessons".
"They are the wells to which later writers for examples and allusions, for inspiration, for deeper textures of their own lesser books."
These "lesser books" he notes may very well be impressive in their own rights. I think I agree with him by and large, though I do have a few reservations since the Canon is by and large European-centered and made up largely of male authors. Students should be reading some of these more multicultural, contemporary authors, but are they doing so on their own? Especially if they happen to be reluctant readers to begin with. My own reading in school was all Canon authors and it wasn't until college that I was exposed to more contemporary choices, but I love to read.
What I love about this essay, though, is he goes on to write about uncanonical but influential modern works that he could easily see a high school or college course being built around. He calls them early "'masterworks' that helped establish conventions, if not the archetypal patterns of current popular fiction." To narrow the field he only uses British authors/works as examples and I was happy to see that under romance he firmly placed Georgette Heyer and lists several titles as some of her best books (two of which I've read and one I consider a favorite--A Civil Contract). He also gives Dorothy Sayers as a good example for the msytery genre (though gives a nod towards Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, PD James, Patricia Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell!).
After reading this essay I think I'd like to flip back to the beginning and read all the rest. The essays seem very short and interesting. I suspect they may well have appeared in The Washington Post Book World. I'll be on the look out for his newer book as well.