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Michael Dirda at Powell’s

November 28, 2011

There’s Nothing Elementary About Dirda

The affable and erudite Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda was at Powell’s the other night to promote his new book, On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling.  He was wearing his Baker Street Irregulars’ tie, which is kind of like owning a secret decoder ring, only cooler. He earned the right to wear it when he was inducted into the elite society in 2002 after establishing himself as a Sherlockian of special merit.
Dirda referred to his latest effort as a “cute little book that is part of a series that Princeton University Press has, called Writers on Writers.” In it, he reflects on Doyle’s role in his life and how he discovered The Hound of the Baskervilles in the fifth grade leading him to eventually devour all of the Sherlock Holmes novels. He points out, though, that he has not read all 21 novels and 150 short stories of Conan Doyle, so technically he is not a completist. And he explains that his book is not a work of scholarship, nor is it a biography. It is simply the story of “one writer reflecting on another writer’s importance in his life.”
He read for awhile and then proceeded to mesmerize the audience with his encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to Arthur Conan Doyle.  His thoughts were annotated with asides and segues that meandered down the most interesting paths and then, amazingly, eventually, made their way back to the original point. He doled out detail after detail about the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, describing Doyle as the “greatest natural-born storyteller of the ages.”
Dirda revealed juicy nuggets such as the fact that Doyle wanted to kill off Holmes almost as soon as he had invented him, but his mother begged him not to. Thankfully, he acquiesced. Apparently, Doyle felt that his historical novels were more intellectually worthy. Lucky for us, mom knew what was best for her son. He also talked about Doyle’s infatuation with spiritualism and his belief in the occult despite being mocked for it.
Dirda told a bittersweet, but mostly funny, story at the end of the reading about winning the Pulitzer Prize. He said that he came from a very working-class family and his father “thought he was a failure.” Apparently, his father was “greatly disappointed” that he was not a multi-millionaire.  Dirda says, “I worked hard and was nominated by the paper three years in a row before I won, and as the way these things go, my father died six months before, so I never got to impress him. My mother is a wonderful character – she’s still alive. She’s kind of a peasant in a lot of ways, in a good sense, she’s wonderful, she taught me to read when I was very little. But she believes that the universe is in balance… if something good happens to your family, then something bad is going to happen. So I call my mother. I say, ‘Mom, mom, I won the Pulitzer Prize!’ and there’s a long pause on the phone. Then she says, ‘Guess there’s no point in going to bingo tonight.’”

Michael Dirda pictured above with Renee James, Powell’s Event Coordinator, and flanked by Portland fans, Rob Nero and Jon Lauderbaugh.

My interview with Michael Dirda and a review of his book will soon be posted on the Portland Book Review site (

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