Michael Dirda Knows More About Books Than You

I consider myself to be fairly well read. Admittedly, I am only twenty-four but for the better part of the past decade, I have consistently read one hundred or so books each year. As I was reading through Michael Dirda’s new collection of his literary journalism, Browsings, I came to the conclusion that I am not well read at all, at least not compared to Mr. Dirda.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning book critic who has been writing for The Washington Post since 1978. In my opinion, there are three critics that represent the current pinnacle of literary journalism: Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic at The New York Times, James Wood, the prolific essayist, novelist and staff writer at The New Yorker, and Michael Dirda. However, Dirda is the most relatable of the three, and writes in a conversational style that makes his writing enjoyable for those who are not familiar with the works he is discussing.

His reviews are oftentimes contain personal anecdotes about his life, and he speaks in the first person at times which is not common for high brow literary critics, but in Dirda’s case, this is why he shines. Make no mistake, despite his relatively simple prose, Michael Dirda is extremely intelligent and has an abundance of knowledge about all things book related. His latest collection displays his range, and above all, his passionate love for the written word.

Browsings is comprised of fifty essays that he wrote during his year long stint as the Friday columnist for The American Scholar from February 2012 to February 2013. In its introduction, Dirda recommends to read just two or three of these pieces at a time, and while I understand the suggestion, good luck abiding by these guidelines. Each article is just several pages, but within those pages, he crams useful information into every sentence and before long, you will find yourself furiously scribbling down titles of books that he mentions.

As for Dirda being well read, that should not come as too much of a surprise. His job has essentially been reading and writing about books for the better part of the past four decades but while most book critics are focused on reading the heavy hitters that come out each year, Dirda’s reading tastes span across multiple centuries. He reviews new literary releases as well, but in his essays, he often talks about going to used book stores, and annual sales, scouring the shelves for hours on end, in search of interesting finds for his collection. Most of his purchases are novels that are closer to one hundred years old than fifty years old, and the titles are obscure enough that I found myself on Google searching for many of the books he mentioned. In total, I probably had heard of twenty percent of the books he mentions in Browsings and I have read maybe five percent of them, and I am probably being slightly generous to myself with those percentages.

He writes about his Fulbright Fellowship in Paris, about reading great french literature without translation such as the works of Marcel Proust. Dirda reflects on his time at the prestigious liberal arts school in Ohio, Oberlin College, and how that shaped him for a life revolving around literature. In one essay, he talks about Philip Roth’s retirement from fiction, and relates that to writer’s who had success in old age and others who somewhat fizzled out. His love of the words is highlighted in his essay about The New Oxford Thesaurus of English.

His literary interests range from nineteenth century adventure novels, early science fiction, “books on books” (as he refers to literary works about books), biographies, and all of the major literary classics of the past couple centuries. He probably is interested in more than just those genres, but he mentions those a lot in Browsings but for a man that obviously has an advanced knowledge of literature that is arguably unparalleled, his reading interests are, of course, vast in terms of style, genre, and time period.

Dirda is even a champion for out of print books to see a revival, and has written essays on books that are a part of the ill-fated group, for the purpose of trying to introduce readers to good books that for one reason or another, failed to garner the popularity needed for consistent printings. He is a vocal supporter of small presses that bring these types of books back into print, and is invested in the physical beauty of books. This investment is shown when he describes his latest book finds in various essays that will surely bring a smile to reader’s faces. There is something remarkable about finding a neglected and forgotten, yet beautiful book that will finally be appreciated.

He does not collect for resale, despite his collection featuring many titles that are worth in the thousands a piece, judging by his dialogue within Browsings. He, like many book lovers will relate to, is comforted by the presence of books and he has made it an integral part of his life, causing his collection to grow by the week. Not everything he owns is pristine like many collectors, instead he likes books that are just above “shabby” looking, probably because there is a unique beauty in the flaws of an aging book. He comments that sometimes he buys more than what he probably should, but even though his wallet is lighter, his heart, in turn, is lighter as well.

In some of the more overarching themes, Dirda comments on the sad decline of libraries, and their shift from being a place full of books, to a facility filled with computers, multimedia, and consequently, less books. He is fiercely opposed to digital books because they take away the pleasure of holding a physical book. Some may say that a man approaching sixty is likely to have these adverse feelings about technology, but speaking from a younger perspective, I agree with Mr. Dirda. Technology is everywhere, and why do we need to add what is already an abundance to places designated for books such as libraries? Even though, I am part of the digital age, books will forever be better in physical form, and I will continue to search second hand book stores for dusty books just like Michael Dirda and many other book lovers will continue to do even as technology progresses even further.

The question is, why should a casual reader pick up a collection by a book critic that knows more about literature than most readers will even be interested in? For starters, he will give you a long list of books to add to your reading list. In the final essay of Browsings, there are three points made by its writer in reflection of the past year of columns which say so much about why this book is important:

  1. “To my mind, reading should be a pleasure and, through these columns, I’ve tried to pass along some of the excitement and rewards of my own bookish life.”
  2. “I hope that the past 50 or so columns have reminded readers that the world of books is bigger than the current best-seller list.”
  3. “Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know.”

That last point is what stands out the most, as it gives life to books and makes them an extension of yourself and the possibilities of where you could go with more exploration. Michael Dirda demonstrates the massive scope of literature that is often clouded by popular titles stacked on front tables of chain bookstores and on the front of online retailers like Amazon. Browsings is a personal journey through a life of literature by Michael Dirda, and it once again shows that he is one of the most important book critics of our time. Browsings is available on August 15th in hardcover and digitally, but if you are interested in this type of book after reading this article, there really is only one format that you should purchase.


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