The Art of Keeping Busy
By Michael Dirda
Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to New York for the 2013 birthday weekend of The Baker Street Irregulars. The BSI, as many of this column’s readers probably know, is the 80-year-old literary and dining society devoted to honoring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Yes, a few people do dress up in Victorian garb or sport deerstalkers, but mainly the BSI meets for talks, presentations, and what churches call “fellowship.” In effect, this means three days of eating and drinking, followed by more drinking.
There is, technically speaking, a good deal of planned programming. I attended the Lunch of Steele—honoring Sherlockian illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele—held at The Players in Gramercy Park, a bibulous Special Meeting at The Coffee House Club (of which BSI founder Christopher Morley was a member), the Gillette Lunch at Moran’s Seafood Restaurant (a double homage, as William Gillette played the Great Detective on stage for 40 years and the name Moran recalls that of Professor Moriarty’s chief assassin, Colonel Sebastian Moran), the black-tie BSI banquet at the Yale Club, a late-night champagne party hosted by Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Bookshop, a private cocktail party on Central Park West on Saturday afternoon, and, finally, a gathering of the Pondicherry Lodgers for Indian food later that same evening, followed by nightcaps even later before the fireplace at the Yale Club.
Of course, those with real stamina could also attend several additional lunches, dinners, and alcoholic get-togethers. But, alas, I’m not the man I once was. During the few hours my dance card wasn’t penciled in, I sped woozily away—via subway—to visit the Strand Bookstore, the Housing Works Bookstore, James Cummins Bookseller, and The Grolier Club. I naturally acquired a few items in the Sherlockian dealers’ room, as well, including two T-shirts, Robert Veld’s immensely informative The Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas Utechin’s diverting “Occasionally to Embellish”: Some Writings on Sherlock Holmes, and the latest magisterial production of the BSI itself: The Wrong Passage: A Facsimile of the Original Manuscript of “The Golden Pince-Nez,” with Annotations and Commentary, edited by Robert Katz and Andrew Solberg. Needless to say, it was a heavy suitcase that your Browsings columnist rolled down 6th Avenue when he boarded the nine A.M. Bolt Bus for the trip back to Washington.
While the BSI blowout is always fun, especially for those who have trained for it or possess, by genetic gift, the capacity for drink of 1930s newspapermen, I was constantly being asked a question that bothered me. It’s one that any writer, journalist, or scholar will recognize: “What are you working on now?”
This actually means: What is your latest book project?
While I explained, with the becoming modesty for which I am widely celebrated, that I was writing every day and contributing regularly to a half dozen newspapers and periodicals, such journalism, no matter how exigent or ambitious, doesn’t really seem to count. People want to know about books. On Conan Doyle came out in 2011, and it’s now 2013—shouldn’t I be finishing up something new?
Well, yes, I should. Or at least starting on it. But what?
I’ve never found it easy to come up with publishing projects. Three of my books—Readings, Bound to Please, and Classics for Pleasure—are essentially collections of my columns and reviews. In some instances, the pieces have been amplified or reworked so that they read like essays. An Open Book is a memoir, focused on how comics, adventure stories, and classics shaped my early life. Book by Book is a little compendium of quotations drawn from my commonplace book, i.e., from the bound volume into which I’ve been copying favorite passages from my reading for the past 40 years; B3—as I sometimes call it—is organized by subject and supplemented by mini-essays and book lists. On Conan Doyle chronicles, from an autobiographical viewpoint, my lifelong involvement with the novels, stories, essays, and memoirs of A. Conan Doyle, starting with my discovery, in 5th grade, of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s only 200 pages long, part of a Princeton series called “Writers on Writing.”
Obviously all these titles fall, more or less, under the category of “books about books.” Stories and poems and works of history and humane letters are all I ever write about, albeit through a very personal lens whenever possible. As I’ve said more than once, I shy away from calling myself a critic—I don’t possess that kind of analytic mind, though I also hope that I’m more entertaining than most of the critics I read. (Sorry, no names.) In fact, I’m a bookman, an appreciator, a cheerleader for the old, the neglected, the marginalized, and the forgotten. On sunny days I may call myself a literary journalist.
What I enjoy about reviewing and writing for newspapers and periodicals is simply the chance to talk about all kinds of books and lots of them. Last week, for The Washington Post, I reviewed a reissue of Shepherd Mead’s humorous How to Live Like a Lord Without Really Trying; this week, I’m indulging a lifelong fascination with religion by writing about Trent: What Happened at the Council, and the week following that I’ll be discussing the noir fiction of Cornell Woolrich. Harper’s Magazine recently ran my overview of Thornton Wilder’s varied and undervalued work, while The Weekly Standard published my reflections on the nonfiction of A. J. A. Symons (author of the biographical classic, The Quest for Corvo) and Bookforum brought out a piece about George Minois’s The Atheist’s Bible, a historical study of a late-medieval polemic attacking “the three impostors” Moses, Christ, and Mohammed. In the next couple of months I’ll be taking on subjects as various as John Keats, the fantasies of M. P. Shiel, the short stories of Sherwood Anderson, some recent science fiction scholarship, and the fiction of James Salter, among much else, including those inexorable weekly reviews for The Post. Close friends, or those in my pay, sometimes call me a literary polymath, while others say that I’m just a shallow dilettante, superficial and breezy, with a faux-naif style. You be the judge (and for those who’d like to be in my pay—please send in your application).
Of course, all this work is merely journalism, and it’s hard to make it seem anywhere near as important as a book. Indeed, it isn’t. Books possess a shape and permanence that scattered pieces—disjecta membra—don’t.
When I talk to friends and editors about possible projects, especially about projects that might come with a significant cash advance, they usually suggest a biography. Sometimes I’m tempted, but the prospect of spending years researching and writing about someone else’s life offends my vanity. I don’t want to submerge myself in another man or woman’s existence, I want to write about me, about the books and writers that I like. And I want to be able to finish any commitment within a year at best, so that I can get on to something else. I have, it would seem, the temperament of a reporter—always intensely interested in a subject for a short while, but soon ready to move on to the next assignment.
For a while now I did have one big project in mind: “The Great Age of Storytelling.” I hoped to write about the amazing flowering of popular fiction in England and elsewhere from roughly 1860 to 1930. All the modern genres really start then, and during this period many of our iconic figures were born, from Peter Pan to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Alas, no trade publisher was willing to fork out enough cash to support my household for two years, the time I felt I’d need to do a good job. Sometimes I still think of approaching a university press with the idea, but I would still need a significant amount of money. That’s something in short supply at universities these days.
Of course, what I really should do is turn my energies to creating a reality TV show called Books. While I was in New York, I managed a couple of quick coffees with my son Mike, who works for a big public relations firm there. He told me that his classmate from Oberlin College, a young woman named Lena Dunham, was voted the coolest person in America by Time magazine. She is, I’ve since learned, the driving force behind an award-winning television series called Girls. I’ve never seen it. It would be kind of creepy if I had. Still, I just read that the fortunate Ms. Dunham has received a $3.5 million book contract. I suppose that whatever she writes will attract one or two more readers than something called “The Great Age of Storytelling.” Sigh. Cutting edge I’ll never be, unless, of course, old-fashioned suddenly becomes hip and cool. Which could happen, right? Right?
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.