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Dirda Unlocks Mysteries with Osher Class

Photo of Michael Dirda Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post. He recently gave a guest lecture to the Development of Detective Fiction class, offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Dirda spoke about detective writing and serial fiction, focusing on his fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Dirda, who continues to write book reviews for the Washington Post, has published several books of his own, including On Conan Doyle.Hopkins Happenings asked Dirda to discuss his career and his favorite – and least favorite – books.

Hopkins Happenings: How did you become interested in Arthur Conan Doyle?

Dirda: In fifth grade, I bought a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles from the TAB Book Club (later the Scholastic Book Club).  I describe what happened afterward in both On Conan Doyle and in my memoir, An Open Book. Essentially, I waited for a dark and stormy Saturday night in November when my parents and sisters were away, then read the opening chapters while huddled under a blanket in a darkened house. When Dr. Mortimer says “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I was hooked and hooked for life.

Hopkins Happenings: How did you start out writing book reviews?

Dirda: I was working as a technical writer for a computer company called Scientific Time Sharing Corporation, but knew this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life. So I wrote the Washington Post’s then-book editor Bill McPherson about doing some reviewing; eventually he sent me a book called In the Suicide Mountains, by John Gardner.

Hopkins Happenings: Arthur Conan Doyle aside, what’s your favorite book and why?

Dirda: Favorite book? Impossible to say.  But the one I pick up the most is the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus. I use that edition partly because I wrote some of its word notes, along with such notables as David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and Simon Winchester, but mainly because it’s an excellent thesaurus and I’m constantly trying to make my sentences lively and exact. 

Hopkins Happenings: Of all of the books you reviewed, which was your least favorite and why?

Dirda: I reviewed an awful novel called “Dazzle,” by the once very popular Judith Krantz, who specialized in books about glamorous people jetting around the world, making business deals, and having sex.  Nothing wrong with any of these things, but Krantz’s writing was just godawful. My review began, “I read Judith Krantz’s ‘Dazzle’ in one sitting. I had to. I was afraid I couldn’t face picking it up again.”

Hopkins Happenings: How many books do you estimate you reviewed over the course of your career?

Dirda: Hard to say, but somewhere between 800 and 1,000. I probably read carefully a hundred books a year, and dip into a lot more, if only to refresh my memory. As a literary journalist, I get a lot of pleasure from what I read but I don’t read for pleasure. Everything I read I will write about in some way.

Hopkins Happenings:  What’s on your nightstand right now?

Dirda: On my nightstand right now are lots of books about books, but at the moment I’m rereading the Sherlock Holmes novels so that I can write an introduction to them for a forthcoming Penguin Classics edition.

Hopkins Happenings: So you’ve published books. How does it feel to have the critics review your work?

Dirda: I don’t read the reviews of my books until I need to look for possible quotes for the back cover of the paperback.  Then I can look at them dispassionately; before then, the least little criticism will depress me.  Besides, by the time a book comes out, my mind is on other projects.

Hopkins Happenings: What do you hope the Osher members took away from your talk?

Dirda: I hope the Osher members enjoyed my presentation, learned a little more about detective fiction in general and Sherlock Holmes in particular, and will go on to try some of the books and authors I mentioned. 


CATEGORY: Academics