In Classics for Pleasure, Dirda provides a followup to his earlier collection of book reviews, Bound to Please. In essays of three to four pages, Dirda introduces readers to some of his favorite classic authors and discusses some of their books. Dirda is obviously well-read, and his enthusiasism for the authors he discusses truly shines through the page. Readers of Bound to Please will be glad to note that much of the pedanticism found in that earlier volume is absent here; while Dirda occasionally slips into arrogance, for the most part he remains humble in the presence of such great authors. Those who pick up Classics for Pleasure should also be pleased that Dirda has ignored the most famous classic authors (such as Dickens and Austen), for the simple reason that they're already well-known. Instead, he's chosen eighty-eight authors who range from quite obscure (Jacob Burckhardt, anyone?) to those who have perhaps been looked down upon (Edith Nesbit or Georgette Heyer). He's also careful to provide a broad range, both chronologically (from Lao-tse to Edward Gorey) and genre-wise (both Agatha Christie and Sappho appear).
The book is divided into eleven broad 'themes,' or what Dirda considers the underlying apprach of each author: Playful Imaginations, Heroes of Their Time, Love's Mysteries, Words From the Wise, Everyday Magic, Lives of Consequence, The Dark Side, Traveler's Tales, The Way We Live Now, Realms of Adventure, and Encyclopedic Visions. Each theme, or chapter, begins with Dirda explaining it for a couple of paragraphs, then launches directly into the reviews for about twenty pages. This bite-size format makes it easy to space the book out; also, for readers who enjoy jumping around, it's easy to pick whatever theme sounds appealing. Reviews are headed by the author, the years in which he or she lived, and the title that the review focuses on. Many times, while Dirda is nominally just reviewing one book, he'll reference the rest of the author's canon. The book also includes an appendix listing the authors chronologically, which makes creating some kind of organized reading plan easier.
The reviews themselves feel quite conversational. It's rather like Dirda and the reader went out to coffee, and Dirda just has to gush about this great new author he'd discovered. Take the opening to his review of Rebecca:
"'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.' With these unforgettable words the reader is launched into one of the most powerful visions of...what? Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a far more complex work of art than is commonly believed, being one of the half-dozen greatest romance novels of the century and a subtle undercutting of the whole romance genre. It is, simultaneously, a devastating examination of the sexual politics of marriage, a haunting study of jealousy and psychological obsession, and a classic of suspense." At the same time, he always includes plot summaries, so he doesn't assume any familiarity with even relatively famous stories such as the Arthurian tales. Since he covers such a wide range and includes quite a bit of detailed information (although he's careful never to give away an ending), so that by reading Classics for Pleasure, a reader will automatically become more knowledgable about literature. In this case of foreign books, such as the Tao Te Ching, Dirda even provides helpful pronunciation guides.
This is the kind of book that book-readers love: the reviews are inspiring, and Dirda's mix of authors means that there's sure to be at least a few that appeal to every reader. Perhaps the only problem will be trying to decide which classic to begin with!