on October 29, 2011
Michael Dirda, in this enchanting short volume, takes the reader on a tour of all things Doylean. But no dry critique this but rather a springboard for digressions on adventure stories and their creators, Victorian and Edwardian fantasists now mostly forgotten such as Lord Dunsany and H. Rider Haggard, and many charming autobiographical asides of how Doyle and his writing kin influenced and enriched his life.
While the first half introduces the reader to the "Doyle nobody knows" -his biography and interests, his other writings both fictional and non such as memoir and lectures, essays and polemics - the second introduces us to Dirda's involvement with the Baker Street Irregulars, a fan society encircling the life and works of Doyle and particularly that famous fictional detective.
Anyone who has ever read Dirda knows what a fluent and ingratiating writer he is, and rather than a critic is best labeled a professional enthusiast. One rarely leaves his writings without groaning under the weight of a lengthy list of suggestions for future reading. All of this is done with wit, affection and a deep love for the written word.
But first you will need return to your Sherlock Omnibus and retrace those "footprints of a gigantic hound".
"On Conan Doyle" is another of Michael Dirda's volumes proselytizing for authors and books he admires. It is a delight from beginning to end. Most of us know Arthur Conan Doyle (he did not style himself "Sir" on his books) only as the author of four novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler, Dr. John Watson. But the subtitle of Dirda's book is "The Whole Art of Storytelling," and the reader soon discovers that Doyle was a prolific professional author who wrote adventure novels, historical novels, novels of everyday life, supernatural short stories, science fiction, a history of World War I, and, toward the end of his life, tracts about spiritualism. Dirda introduces us to all of them in a way that can easily have you hunting for them almost before you finish reading this compact volume.
Most of all, "On Conan Doyle" is a treat for Holmes fans because the main focus of the book is Sherlock Holmes. Dirda starts with an engaging memoir of his own first encounter with the Great Detective (not unlike the experience of many of us) before giving a succinct biography of Doyle and taking up his other writing. A bit more than halfway through the book Dirda turns to the Baker Street Irregulars, the band of Holmes devotees founded by Christopher Morley in 1934 and still splendidly active. Dirda's account of his personal BSI encounters and induction into membership is most enjoyable and includes an enticing excerpt from one of his own excursions into the game of Sherlockian "scholarship."
His penultimate chapter is an appreciation of Doyle's non-Holmes stories and novels, and he ends with "Good Night, Mister Sherlock Holmes." Both have generous quotations from other Doyle admirers. An appendix, "Education Never Ends, Watson," lists a judicious selection of books by and about Doyle, the Great Detective, and the world of 221B Baker Street.
I cannot recommend "On Conan Doyle; Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling" too highly.
(This is the third volume in a series -- Writers on Writers -- from the Princeton University Press. The others published so far are about Susan Sontag and Walt Whitman. We should hope the series develops exponentially.)
on November 23, 2011
Not to denigrate the Sherlockian content, but for me, the most pleasant thing about this delightful book are the many references to a very diverse group of other writers -Lord Dunsany, Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, etc.-who were Doyle's influences, colleagues, or contemporaries. What emerges is a sort of reminisence about a certain period of literature, as recounted by a man of a certain age who encountered many of these books in childhood. If you are at all familiar with the literature of the period, you will love this book.
on January 6, 2012
Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post critic Michael Dirda has a fair, infectious way of talking about books, any books. He has written a number of his own on the theme of reading, and this latest chronicles the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bibliography and a lifetime of his experience with it. He invites us to marvel with him at the consistent quality of language and storytelling, as well as Conan Doyle's high level of productivity.
Like most, Dirda came to the Sherlock Holmes tales in childhood and his curiosity and thirst for adventure stories led him to discover that the Conan Doyle canon is large and hardly confined to Holmes at all. The bibliography includes historical adventures, fantasy, science fiction, even domestic novels. Conan Doyle, a fast, prodigious writer, produced histories and commentaries, who was most proud of his Medieval adventure The White Company, a multivolume history of the Boer Wars and, alas, his writings on Spiritualism. Yes, the man who gave us Holmes was deeply invested in Spiritualism and fairies and in the end, not so much in his great detective.
Dirda was inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars in 2002, a distinguished international group dedicated to all things Holmes and Doylean, that consistently generates scholarship on its favorite writer and his works. Dirda provides glimpses into their activities in addition to providing a generous reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories and several novels representing various genres.
on December 4, 2011
I enjoyed this book immensely. A fan of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories since I was a teenager, I knew of some of his other works, and had read a few, but did not understand how vast was his output, nor how intriguing. Dirda does a great job of generating excitement for a writer he clearly admires; and he puts the later Spiritualism into perspective as the product of an endlessly curious mind for the strange and exotic.
on December 21, 2011
I began reading On Conan Doyle the day it was published and Prime UPSed onto my doorstep. It was so good it was gone through too fast. It brought back many youthful memories of my reading of Doyle, Sherlock was great, but so too was Professor Challenger. (The Lost World has a great early comic scene in which the Professor lets loose, during a lecture to skeptics, a prehistoric flying lizard and dramatically demonstrates the truth of there being a lost world) Dirda's book has sent me to my bookcase to pull out fifty-year-old John Murray collections of Doyle's other stories and to download ebooks and stories from from the Kindle list. I intend to dip into these as 2012's months pass. I highly recommend this enjoyable and entertainingly written book, just be prepared to find you are also hooked on more of Doyle's wonderful tales.
on December 14, 2011
Michael Dirda is a bookman in the tradition of Christopher Morley and Vincent Starrett: highly intelligent, well educated, widely read, and entirely unpretentious. All this is gratifyingly evident in his latest book "On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling", which concentrates largely on Sherlock Holmes but finds space in its 220-odd pages for perceptive discussion of Brigadier Gerard, Professor Challenger, Nigel Loring and pretty much all of Conan Doyle's important fiction - which is to say, most of it. As the subtitle indicates, Mr Dirda doesn't disagree with Greenhough Smith's claim in "The Strand Magazine" that Arthur Conan Doyle was `the greatest natural storyteller of his age', but he knows that there was far more to it than natural talent. He knows too, that the telling of tales is not to be despised, and that Conan Doyle was actually one of the most important observers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Mr Dirda is, enviably, able to tell you just why he loves Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, so that you realise, yes, that's why you love them too.
on January 25, 2012
I bought this book and read it within 24 hours -- its prose is so lucid and enchanting, its learning so brilliant and yet so accessible, that the only reason I put it down was that I had to go to sleep. This book is at once a concise life of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930); an examination of his most enduring creation, the saga of Sherlock Holmes; an exploration of the wide range of Doyle's other writings, which made him the most successful author of his time and one of the most successful authors of all time; a meditation on the themes that tie Doyle's amazing body of work together; a memoir of Michael Dirda's lifelong love of books and reading, and his growing immersion in literature and literary criticism; and a peep into the wonderful and wacky (in the best sense) world of the serious fans of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street Irregulars and their related societies and the sober but never solemn Sherlockian scholarship that they have produced for over eighty years and continue to produce with undiminished enthusiasm. It is a must read for all fans of Sherlock Holmes and all admirers of Arthur Conan Doyle and all who are curious about either or both.
Years ago while at work on a graduate degree in comparative literature at Yale, I developed a keen interest in the short stories of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) and was thus delighted when one of the professors provided me with a heavily annotated bibliography of resources about Chekhov, his works, and his world in Czarist Russia. Soon thereafter I returned home to Chicago for summer vacation. I read as many resources as I could obtain and re-read the short stories with much greater understanding and appreciation, grateful to that benevolent professor. I thought of him again as I worked my way through Michael Dirda's On Conan Doyle, one of the volumes in the new "Writers on Writers" series. He shares with me and his other readers a wealth of insights, not only about a specific author and age but also about the joys of reading, in general, and his own in particular.
As Dirda explains, "On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, is a book about the pleasures of reading, a celebration of plot and atmosphere, adventure and romance, and an invitation to go beyond the Sherlock Holmes stories to explore a remarkable body of writing...In general, I reveal as little as possible about the action or plots of Conan Doyle's various stories and novels. I tell enough to bolster an argument or illustrate some aspect of style, but no more."
These are among the dozens of observations that caught my eye, provided to suggest the thrust and flavor of Dirda's narrative:
o "Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wasn't knighted in 1902 for creating Sherlock Holmes, though many readers feel he should have been. The literary journalist, Christopher Morley, founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, declared that he should have been sainted." (Page 9)
o "In the course of our lives, we naturally read Watson's tales of Holmes's exploits for myriad reasons: When young, for the expertly paced and thrilling plots; when older, to return to the cozy, gaslit, 1895 when all seemed right with the world, or at least when the world itself still seemed rightable." (23)
o "From his earliest schooldays Arthur Conan Doyle possessed an almost preternatural gift for storytelling. He once called his talent as a youthful talespinner in his essay, 'Juvenilia.' On a 'wet half-holiday,' he would stand on a desk, with classmates squatting on the floor all around him, and talk himself 'husky over the misfortunes of my heroes,' sometimes pausing at the very height of the action until he was bribed to continue with pastries and apples." (74)
o Conan Doyle on Oscar Wilde: "He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour, and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning, which were peculiar to himself. The effect cannot be reproduced. but I remember how in discussing the wars of the future he said: 'A chemist on each side will approach the frontier with a bottle' -- his upraised hand and precise face conjuring up a vivid and grotesque picture." (93)
Note: Dirda includes several dozen of what I characterize as "snapshots" from Conan Doyle's works, strategically located throughout his own narrative. These brief excerpts sharpen the thrust and enrich the flavor of that narrative.
o "The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) was established in 1934 by literary journalist Christopher Morley as a sodality devoted to honoring the greatest of all consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. The group takes its name from the ragamuffin street urchins who occasionally assist the detective; as Holmes says, they can 'go everywhere, see everything, hear everyone.'" (126)
o "'Any studies in Sherlock Holmes,' Ronald Knox said, 'must be, first and foremost, studies in Dr. Watson.' Though he refers to himself as the whetstone against which Holmes sharpens his wits, Watson is hardly the bumbling idiot portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the 1940s movies with Basil Rathbone. He is a former soldier, a man of action, easy to get on with, manly, direct, and utterly dependable." (190-191)
The very best of creative writers master both the art and the craft of bringing to life characters and events that previously did not exist, possessing what Birda characterizes as an "almost preternatural gift for storytelling." In some respects a gift, yes, but it also requires highly-developed skills as well as natural talent to make a story compelling and memorable. Arthur Conan Doyle offers an excellent case in point.
When concluding this book, Michael Dirda observes, "As long as readers exist, young people will be discovering Sherlock Holmes and thrilling to the immortal promise: `Come Watson, come, the game is afoot!' As Vincent Starrett long ago declared, these two will always live `in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgia country of the mind, where it is always 1895.'" How grateful that I can visit that realm whenever I wish.
on January 5, 2012
I received this book as a Christmas gift from a friend of our youngest son. It is a wonderful read. Dirda shows passion and panache in writing about Doyle. Along the way, there are also some wonderful insights about writing and the love of learning.